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August 11, 2009
England's humiliating innings defeat at Headingley has thrown the Ashes wide open and turned this weekend's squad announcement into the hottest topic of the summer. With Kevin Pietersen missing from a flat-lining middle-order, changes are sure to be considered, particularly at Nos. 3 and 4. But which players will front up at The Oval? Cricinfo casts its eye over the leading contenders
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Players/Officials: Ian Bell | Ravi Bopara | Rob Key | Mark Ramprakash | Owais Shah | Marcus Trescothick | Jonathan Trott
Matches: England v Australia at The Oval
Pros: Currently in the form of his life, and it's a run of form that has extended, almost without a break, for the past three years. Age does not weary him, quite the opposite in fact, as he piles on the first-class hundreds (108 and counting) with a zeal that is entirely at odds with the often maligned reputation of county cricket. He's no stranger to The Oval either - he's racked up 29 centuries in 64 matches there, including his last in Test cricket ... against Australia in 2001. If you want a horse for a course, it's hard to deny he belongs in the running.
Cons: Ramprakash's failings at international level (two hundreds in 52 matches at 27.32) were nothing to do with ability but everything to do with temperament. The higher profile the occasion, the more likely he was to tense up, as was briefly witnessed last year during his struggle to bring up his 100th hundred. Age has brought a measure of serenity to his cricket, however, and he turns 40 next month. If England can somehow convince him that the feverish atmosphere of an Oval Ashes decider is nothing more dramatic than Division Two dead-rubber against Derbyshire, then get him in there.
Likelihood of call-up: He's the romantic's choice, and that of every housewife in the land, after his star turns on Strictly Come Dancing. But surely he's become a reality TV star for a reason?
Pros: The one thing that England lacked above all else at Headingley was a presence (an aura, even, to use that fateful Edgbaston buzzword). With Kevin Pietersen laid low and Andrew Flintoff out of the picture, their unconvincing middle order was ripe for the plucking, and so it proved. Trescothick's return would demand Australia's respect. His uncompromising aggression was the platform for England's success in 2005, not least at Edgbaston, when he led the first-day charge with a momentum-seizing 90. In the opinion of most experts, no player in the past four years has been more missed - not even Vaughan or Simon Jones - because his uncomplicated style invariably set England's agenda.
Cons: The reasons for Trescothick's sad withdrawal from England selection have been widely documented and barely need repetition here. He laid out the facts of his stress-related illness in his 2008 autobiography, and for the good of his health, he does not need the angst of such a high-profile contest. Besides, as his Somerset captain, Justin Langer, told Cricinfo, his call-up would open a vast can of worms for England's selectors. Would they have to sanction the routine absence of senior players from overseas tours, and what message would it send to the younger players in the England reckoning?
Likelihood of call-up: In England's dreams, he's a shoo-in. And he's probably a dead-cert to receive an exploratory phone-call from Geoff Miller. But he's already written his chances off in a Bristol newspaper. It'll never happen.
Pros: He has the backing of England's former coach, Duncan Fletcher, and while that hardly amounts to a rubber-stamped approval, Fletcher is nevertheless a keen judge of batting talent, and knows what Key is made of, having observed him in and around the England reckoning almost throughout his seven-year tenure. In recent seasons he has made regular appearances as captain of England Lions, and he even made a fleeting appearance in the World Twenty20 in June. As a rookie Down Under in 2002-03, he impressed with his combative attitude under fire, even though his dismissal by Damien Martyn at Perth was the stand-out memory of his performances.
Cons: In his previous incarnation at international level, his reputation for cliqueyness counted against him - the "darts team" he formed with Flintoff and Harmison riled Fletcher more than any on-field misdemeanours. Furthermore, his call-up for the recent World Twenty20 coincided with a total tailing-off of his county form, and there were also reports of a falling-out with the management after his solitary appearance in that tournament resulted in a humiliating defeat against the Netherlands. Mind you, he has since recovered his poise with three hundreds, including a career-best 270 not out against Glamorgan, so that really ought not to be held against him.
Likelihood of call-up: At the age of 30, he is more than seven years into his international career, and he hasn't featured for England since the tour of South Africa in 2004-05, but as he enters his batting prime he's a svelte shadow of his former self, and besides, time on the sidelines proved to be the making of many of Australia's finest - from his nemesis Martyn to Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. Expect him to feature strongly in the reckoning.
Pros: England are sticklers for continuity (as the stagnation of their middle-order options amply demonstrates) and so having featured in their plans for Headingley, and having come within a whisker of a debut when Matt Prior's back gave way before the toss, Trott ought to expect at the very least to be involved in the plans for The Oval. Aside from the old-stagers Trescothick and Ramprakash (and Hampshire's opener, Michael Carberry), he is England's form batsman in county cricket with 910 runs at 82.72, and even if most of those have been compiled on Edgbaston's featherbeds, then at least he won't find the lethargy of the modern-day Oval wickets too daunting.
Cons: Trott managed only 20 in his one previous first-class innings at The Oval, and the ground hasn't been too kind to him at international level either. He played there in back-to-back Twenty20s against West Indies in 2007, but slunk away with scores of 9 and 2, and the whole England experience was one that reportedly left him underwhelmed. If he has any residual nerves to overcome, and he surely would as a Test debutant, then England's biggest occasion since Oval 2005 would hardly be the place to shake them off.
Likelihood of call-up: To omit him from the squad altogether would show a cruel lack of faith, but expect an alternative to join him in the reckoning, and ultimately leapfrog him as well.
Pros: He's a familiar face, having been an ODI regular for several months, as well as a fringe member of the Test squad who had a go at No. 3 for three Tests in the Caribbean this spring. He's been in decent first-class form for his county Middlesex this season, with 552 runs at 50.18, including a brilliant 129 not out against Derbyshire in which the next highest score was 18.
Cons: That Caribbean experience was undermined by crass run-outs and unfulfilled promise, and he's fallen off the radar since Andy Flower took over as full-time coach. Prone to ultra-intensity in a manner similar to Ramprakash, and he was a notable failure on the last occasion he was drafted in for a one-off fixture, against West Indies at Lord's in May 2007.
Likelihood of call-up: Given how involved he was in the great No. 3 debate at the start of the summer, it's puzzling why he's being so overlooked now. But regardless of his haphazard opportunities, a Test average of 26.90 from six matches is not encouraging.
Pros: In an otherwise pretty damning dossier on England's players, Justin Langer conceded that Bopara was "a good player", and his natural confidence remains as undented as one could hope in the circumstances, after a torrid series so far. He scored three hundreds in consecutive innings against West Indies in the first half of the year, so he's got the game to bounce back. Plus, his retention would be a strong declaration that England are refusing to panic ...
Cons: Unfortunately, it's high time that England did panic, at least where this particular batsman is concerned. Bopara's return of 105 runs at 15 reached its nadir with an unlucky first-baller at Headingley, although his selected stroke - a neither forward-nor-back defensive prod - was indicative of a muddled mindset. Sometimes a break from the front line is essential.
Likelihood of call-up: Minimal
Pros: He's only just been recalled to the side, as Kevin Pietersen's replacement, and he did score a decent 53 (albeit a touch fortuitous) at Edgbaston last week. And if there's any single memory that Bell would want to obliterate, it would be his performance against Australia at The Oval in 2005, when he bagged a pair, including a last-day first-baller when the series was totally in the balance. Whatever he produces next week, it can't get worse than that ... can it?
Cons: Bell's predictable returns of 8 and 3 at Headingley, when the heat was really on after two early dismissals, proved once again how poor he is at setting the agenda of an innings. His best performances have come when he's had a more imposing colleague to slipstream, and at present that is exactly what England's middle-order lacks. He is one of nature's followers, and with all to play for at The Oval, leaders is what England are crying out for.
Likelihood of call-up: He'll be there in the squad. But only through a lack of alternatives.
Michael Lumb - in the Champions Trophy 30, so the selectors must rate him
Ed Joyce - scored an ODI century at Sydney, and has found form with Sussex
Michael Carberry - third among English-qualified run-scorers, with 1095 in 11 matches for Hampshire
Joe Denly - he's destined for an England future, but maybe not just now
Mark Butcher - so what if he retired this week? He was one of England's most successful No. 3s
Nasser Hussain - England need grit, determination and a never-say-die spirit
Corporal Jones - The mantra has been 'don't panic' so Jonesy has to be the man
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