England v South Africa, 5th Test, The Oval August 27, 2003

Expediency is the order of the day

Marcus Trescothick: time to reassess his opener's role?

Team England does not go in for wholesale changes these days. In ordinary circumstances, this would count as A Good Thing. The modern regime enables English players and fans to relax between Tests, knowing that continuity is the key to success. A hint of job security here, and a little TLC there, and today's turkeys will be transformed into next week's nighthawks. Or so the theory goes, at least.

But continuity can sometimes breed contempt, and as next Thursday's all-important fifth Test looms large, England's prospects are getting niffier by the day. For one night only, they need to forget the long-term future. Forget the "We'll Be Taking The Challenge Very Seriously" tour of Bangladesh in October. And preferably, forget everything that has gone before in this most flawed of summers. When England square up to South Africa in that decisive one-off tussle at The Oval next week, nothing less than a victory will do - and the selectors must do whatever it takes to secure it.

The teams have been here before, of course. In 1994, South Africa's rampant start to the series was first halted by Michael Atherton's obduracy under pressure at Headingley, then utterly vaporised by Devon Malcolm's never-to-be-forgotten nine-wicket haul ... at The Oval. And four years later at Trent Bridge, Atherton was once again instrumental in turning the tide, with Darren Gough applying the coup de grace in the fifth Test at Headingley.

But the difference between then and now is all too apparent. On any given day (except, of course, when it mattered at Headingley), England have the batsmen to drive home the slimmest of advantages. But quite where they hope to find a strike bowler of the requisite quality is anyone's guess. Perhaps they could follow the example of the Qatari Athletics Association, and borrow an African to boost their medal prospects - in this case Worcestershire's Nantie Hayward, who is surplus to South Africa's requirements, but is bowling as fast as anyone on the county circuit.

The sad truth is that England selected five right-arm seamers for the most conducive of conditions in Headingley, and they blew it. Martin Bicknell performed creditably at first, but tired visibly towards the end; James Anderson (strangely rested from the latest round of County Championship matches) continued to blow cold and colder; Kabir Ali and James Kirtley were energetic but ineffective. Only Andrew Flintoff - plagued as ever by bad luck and no-balls - emerged with credit, but his stillborn strike-rate suggests he lacks the guile to find the edge against top-class batsmen.

What is needed, almost as urgently as a 90mph yorker through Graeme Smith's defences, is a change of attitude from England's attack. To a man, the incumbents are too nice, too demure. They have perhaps been shocked by the ferocity of South Africa's ambitions, but once their pre-series swagger was whipped away, they lost all right to reply. England's alleged strike bowler, for example, has been Steve Harmison. He was injured for Headingley but is likely to return at The Oval, despite managing just five wickets in 83 overs this series. He continues to bowl as he did on the Ashes tour, with plenty of hope but little expectation, and Smith and Co. have cashed in accordingly.

In years gone by, a spitting-and-snarling Dominic Cork would have been rustled up for this sort of make-or-break encounter. He would probably have been handed the new ball as well, ordered to send down a volley of bouncers and invective, and an infuriated opposition would self-destruct. Even Corky is probably beyond a comeback this year, but instead England could do worse than send for Yorkshire's firebrand, Steve Kirby, who is loose, limber, and pretty damn quick as well. In the absence of Bicknell and Kirtley, Richard Johnson must be recalled as the straight man of the attack.

In the absence of that great Oval-ophile Phil Tufnell, England hardly possess a spinner worthy of the name. But that isn't to say that Ashley Giles is worth nothing but abuse either. In seven Test innings this summer, Giles has cobbled together 216 runs at 30.85, with just a solitary score below 21. He is every bit as important for those 20-odd overs he hangs around with the bat, and at least at The Oval he might get a hint of assistance off the track. With Alec Stewart facing the final curtain on his home ground, Giles's role is especially delicate. Stewart remains head-and-shoulders above his young rivals for the wicketkeeper's gloves, but of late even he has been batting as if with misty eyes. Expect either a furious century or an emotional zero from the Gaffer - not a lot in between.

On the whole, the batting is less problematic than the bowling, but it still far from a bed of roses. Bicknell's selection at Headingley has already set the precedent for thirtysomething recalls, so there can be no further excuses for ignoring Graham Thorpe, especially with Nasser Hussain ruled out with a broken toe. But even if Hussain had been fit, Thorpe needed to be recalled anyway, at the expense of the unfortunate Ed Smith, whose two matches to date have been on duff pitches. Then, with Mark Butcher and Andrew Flintoff in the batting form of their lives, England's middle order would have a reassuringly solid look to it (although looks can and have been deceptive).

If only the same solidity could be applied to the opening partnership. Vaughan is too classy a batsman to let the pressures of captaincy unsettle him for long, but Marcus Trescothick continues to be a worry. In the NatWest Series, Trescothick fooled everyone into thinking he was back to his best, but since then he has made only 199 runs in eight Test innings, and is considering taking out a copyright on that flat-footed prod to slip.

Trescothick, like his old mirror-image Graham Gooch, is too good for England to drop. But perhaps it is time for a drop down the order, just as Gooch, at a similar stage of his career, took a step up. Trescothick remains among the most swashbuckling of one-day opening batsmen, but he seems to lack the discipline to ride out the rough times in Test cricket.

It is a hard transition from buccaneer to blocker, and very few of the great one-day openers have been required to do both jobs simultaneously. Mark Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar, even Adam Gilchrist, have all made their Test names in the middle order. Maybe it is time for Trescothick to do likewise. Given that England cannot afford another batting debacle at The Oval, there is no time like the present.

Possible squad 1 Michael Vaughan (capt), 2 Robert Key, 3 Mark Butcher, 4 Marcus Trescothick, 5 Graham Thorpe, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Alec Stewart (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Richard Johnson, 10 Kabir Ali, 11 Steve Kirby, 12 James Anderson, 13 Steve Harmison