England are at the crossroads of their summer. Behind them lies a pleasing but not altogether convincingly won series against India; ahead, a three- match Test series against Pakistan, one of the most talented teams in the world.
However, both are stepping stones - albeit of increasing slipperiness - towards the Ashes next summer. As such self-belief and battle hardening are just two of the side-products likely to come from a closely fought series against Pakistan which starts at Lord's on Thursday.
It will not be easy despite England's success, and far fewer positives than expected have come out of the summer so far. If they had, Raymond Illingworth and his panel would not be selecting the squad from as many as 18 names when they sit down and meet tonight.
Being spoilt for choice is not an enviable position to be in after victory, and it is further evidence that the selectors are as confused as ever over who gets into their best side. But if next summer is currently being considered, then ruthless decisions are going to have to be made.
The first is that Alec Stewart, must be replaced by Nick Knight, whose unbeaten 90 yesterday steered Warwickshire to victory against Pakistan. Knight, who broke a finger during the first Test against India, is clearly the man Illingworth wants to open, and although he is currently protecting his finger by refusing to field at slip, he ought to be selected. If not then Jason Gallian, whose monumental 312 for Lancashire yesterday could not have failed to catch the selectors' eye.
Such a move does not necessarily spell the end for Stewart, who may be retained pending a late assessment on Nasser Hussain's right index finger, broken in the last Test. A more positive move however, would be to include John Crawley, now over his hamstring injury and back in the runs for Lancashire.
England's best batsman in the last series, Hussain has spent the last fortnight receiving special oxygen treatment, and reckons he has a 50 per cent chance of being fit enough to play against Nottinghamshire tomorrow.
Apart from injuries to batsmen, England's other main problem has been an utter lack of form on the part of Graeme Hick, which if not unusual in his fluctuating Test career, has rarely if ever affected his county performances as it has this season.
A controversial rest from county duties before the last Test had little affect and it remains to be seen whether yesterday's century against bottom of the table Durham can galvanise Hick into believing he can retrieve a poor season.
But if the batting awaits changes, enforced or otherwise, the make-up of the bowling attack is even less clear, with only Chris Lewis and Dominic Cork as certain of their roles as they are of their places. But Lewis suffered a worrying thigh injury in the Championship match against Sussex at Guildford yesterday. After his good work at Trent Bridge Mark Ealham will probably keep his place at the expense of Ronnie Irani, although Alan Mullally could find himself increasingly under pressure from an in- form Darren Gough.
However, as summer wears on and moisture levels drop, pitches tend to become less "English" in character, raising the perennial problem of which spinner to pick, Min Patel having been found wanting during his long bowl at Trent Bridge.
It also raises the question of whether it is better to back the attritional qualities of a finger spinner such as Phil Tufnell or Peter Such, or the all-out attack of a leg-spinner like Ian Salisbury.
With Pakistan perhaps playing as many as four left-handers in their top six, Such would be the tempting short-term pick, Salisbury the better long-term investment.
POSSIBLE ENGLAND SQUAD (v Pakistan, Lord's, Thursday): M A Atherton, N V Knight, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, M A Ealham, R C Russell, C C Lewis, D G Cork, A D Mullally, I D K Salisbury, D Gough.Reuse content