They have thought many times about throwing away the key, but yesterday the cell door creaked open once again for Philip Tufnell.
England have one more mission behind enemy lines, and the excommunicated Middlesex spinner has been restored to England's 13-man squad - a dirty baker's dozen - for the final Test showdown against the West Indies.
On the not altogether concrete assumption that Tufnell makes the final XI on Thursday morning, he will be invited to use one of his skills (the other being to get up his own side's nose) to eliminate the opposition. And if he does not come back, so much the better as far as his generals are concerned. Keen though they are to pin a VC to his chest, they would much prefer it to be posthumous.
When Michael Atherton penned his end of campaign report in Australia last winter it is not very likely that the words "just the chap we need when the troops' morale needs a lift" appeared after Tufnell's name. However, while Tufnell's name - period - is unlikely to be written on this winter's tour sheet, England are too close to an unexpected prize to seriously consider cutting off their own nose.
In the absence of the injured Richard Illingworth, the player once described by one of his own team-mates as "hugely talented... and a complete dickhead" is comfortably the most obvious alternative. If The Oval pitch is likely to take spin Tufnell will play, and even if it is not he will merit serious consideration.
The West Indies do not, by nature, respond particularly calmly to a cricket ball floating gently above the eye-line. Their instinctive reaction is to despatch this sort of stuff straight over one of the gasometers, and four years ago - when Tufnell was once again released on parole - it proved memorably fatal.
Tufnell took 6 for 25 in the first innings to help England square the series 2-2, and as the most spectacular case of mass suicide in recent West Indian cricket history it ranked second only to Allan Border taking 11 wickets at Sydney three years earlier with an assortment of long hops and full tosses.
When the tourists batted properly in their second innings four years ago, Tufnell took 1 for 150, but England still believe - with some justification - that these particular opponents can resist everything other than temptation, which is why another bowler liable to induce a rash of optical organ- stops against stroke playing batsmen, Devon Malcolm, has also been recalled after spending most of the summer in a detention centre.
Malcolm was shown the door of the dressing-room after the first Test at Headingley for reasons not unconnected to being unable to hit the door of a barn with any reasonable certainty. Malcolm took 2 for 48 in the first innings from 7.3 overs, and was not trusted with the new ball - for the first time in his in and out Test career - in the second innings.
However, the Oval's reputation for extra pace and bounce (although preliminary reports suggest that the Test pitch is slower than usual this summer) always made it probable that Malcolm would be recalled for this game. And if, as is thought, he is upset at having been talked about in fairly unflattering terms by the chairman of selectors this summer so much the better.
Malcolm is not easily roused, and when away from home is more often than not to be found immersed in a book or plugged into a Walkman. However, when Fanie de Villiers hit Malcolm on the head in last summer's Oval Test, it turned out to be one of the most ill-advised bouncers in cricket history.
"You guys," Malcolm muttered as he sifted through an assortment of replacement helmets, "are history." His 9 for 57 was arguably the most lethal spell of fast bowling (Larwood, Tyson and Truman included) ever purveyed by an Englishman.
England, though, will find it virtually impossible to play six batsmen and both Malcolm and Tufnell . It is even possible that neither of them will play, and by no means the least interesting aspect of a potentially breathless climax is whether England are prepared to risk losing this series in order to win it.
M A Atherton (Lancashire, capt) 27 50
N V Knight (Warwickshire) 25 2
J P Crawley (Lancashire) 23 8
G P Thorpe (Surrey) 26 20
G A Hick (Worcestershire) 29 36
A P Wells (Sussex) 33 0
R C Russell (Gloucestershire, wkt) 32 38
M Watkinson (Lancashire) 34 2
D G Cork (Derbyshire) 24 4
A R C Fraser (Middlesex) 30 28
M C Illott (Essex) 24 3
D E Malcolm (Derbyshire) 32 33
P C R Tufnell (Middlesex) 29 22Reuse content