England v Australia, 4th Test, Headingley, 3rd day August 9, 2009

Desperate times, desperate measures?

Change for change's sake is something that the England management rarely sees fit to sanction, even when the cosiness on display becomes so self-serving that it is ridiculed in pre-series dossiers by high-profile former opponents

In the desperate summer of 1989, England's selectors churned their way through 29 players, only two of whom - the captain, David Gower, and the wicketkeeper, Jack Russell - featured in all six Tests. Graham Gooch asked to be dropped at Trent Bridge after his form fell through the floor, while Mike Gatting got so disillusioned with the whole national set-up, he cut a deal with Ali Bacher and recruited half the team for a rebel tour of South Africa.

Twenty years on, and things haven't quite got that bad for England just yet. For starters, they are all-square in the Ashes with one Test to play, a position of considerable strength compared to their travails in every previous series of the past two decades, barring of course the anomaly of 2005. The situation is far from panic stations, as Andrew Strauss made predictably clear, as he called for "calm reflection" in the aftermath of another remarkable English humiliation.

And yet, there really is a case for, if not a herd-instinct stampede, then at least an injection of adrenalin ahead of England's most significant Test since they last faced Australia at The Oval, four years ago. As recently as Friday, England had hoped that their showdown in SE11 would be a dead-rubber at best, and an Australian must-win at worst. Instead, all the onus is on England to force the pace and reclaim the series lead they had held since Lord's, and it's hard to see how that is possible with a flat-lining middle-order that has contributed 16 runs for six dismissals in 17 overs.

So far in the series, England have used a mere 14 players - and two of their call-ups, Steve Harmison for Andrew Flintoff and Ian Bell for Kevin Pietersen - have come about as a consequence of injury. But as of the end of the Headingley debacle, not a single one of the chosen few averages either 50 with the bat, or below 30 with the ball. A few come close, most notably Strauss, but the overall impression is that England are all too content to wallow in mediocrity.

Since crashing three centuries in consecutive innings against West Indies, Ravi Bopara has barely scraped into three figures in his next seven innings, with a tally of 105 runs at 15 so far in the series. Since starting strongly with back-to-back fifties at Cardiff, Paul Collingwood has mustered 87 runs in his next five visits to the crease, with his technique against the outswinger sorely undermined. And as for Bell, he was stunningly fortunate to reach a half-century at Edgbaston, when he might have been pinned lbw at least twice, but this week's returns of 8 and 3 are a fairer reflection of his timidity under fire.

"We need to look at what's happened in this game, and the last four games to be honest, before coming together with the selectors to talk about what route we need to go down," said Strauss. "Obviously that middle-order display was below what we need and the guys know that. They need to learn a lesson from that. But I don't think you should get carried away. Everyone's capable of getting out and making mistakes. That's the game of cricket for you."

That may be so, but it's also a predictable response. Change for change's sake is something that the England management rarely sees fit to sanction, even when the cosiness on display becomes so self-serving that it is ridiculed in pre-series dossiers by high-profile former opponents. Justin Langer's leaked document, in which he asserts that English players are "flat and lazy" and liable to crumble when put under pressure, has been shown to be spot on, just as it happened to be when England last lost a Test match, again in humiliating circumstances, at Sabina Park in February.

"All I'd say is it's time for calm reflection and selections should be based on a calm reflective manner," said Strauss. "If you're thinking about wholesale changes I'd be very resistant to that, but whatever decision we come to, hopefully we've thought through it properly. And we pick the right XI to win that Test match."

In 1989, England went into the Oval Test (with rather less at stake) with two debutants, John Stephenson and Alan Igglesden - one never played again, the other had to wait five years for two further opportunities. Such a strategy would hardly be advised this time around, but there is a case for giving the flick to continuity, which has done nothing but expose Bopara's limitations and offer Bell innumerable opportunities to prove his lack of cojones, and appeal to a pair of county veterans to answer the call one last time. What's the worst that could happen? It would be hard to undercut a return of 16 for 6.

On Saturday at Edgbaston, Marcus Trescothick scored his sixth first-class century of the season to move clear on 1330 runs as the leading run-scorer in the County Championship. Tucked in just behind him, on 1209 but with an average that is now in excess of 100, is none other than Mark Ramprakash. For contrasting reasons, neither man has featured in the England reckoning for more than three years, and in Ramprakash's case, the best part of a decade, but in that time he has become the 25th player, and surely the last, to score 100 first-class hundreds.

According to sources close to Trescothick, the chances of him coming out of retirement, even for a one-off valedictory performance, are next to nil, although Justin Langer, his county captain at Somerset and adversary in two Ashes campaigns, told Cricinfo that his character and ability would be just what England need to re-establish their presence after such a humbling Test match.

"It would be a massive call [to select Trescothick]," said Langer, "but he is a great player and you can't believe how well he's batting at the moment. I would not be surprised at all if he got a call asking whether he would play [at The Oval], but that would open up a big can of worms.

"Would it just be a one-off?" he asked. "Would he just play Tests that weren't overseas? Then you might get a situation where other players ask to not go on overseas tours. You've also got to think about the message you're sending to the younger players out there. Tres and Ramps are sensational players, though. I can't talk highly enough of them."

Given the stress-related illness that led to Trescothick's retirement, the likelihood of him agreeing to a recall would be remote in the extreme, but in Ramprakash's case, it cannot be entirely ruled out, given that he was mentioned in England dispatches as recently as 2007.

"We've got to make a judgment call about the best 11 players to win that last Test," said Strauss. "It's 1-1 in the series and the winner takes all. You need 11 guys to stand up to want it enough and be desperate enough to win it. If you get that situation you've got a good chance to win it."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mikeboz on August 14, 2009, 14:27 GMT

    Hey guys, bowlers win matches and this is a game England must win. Second spinner? Adil Rashid - he is actually in the squad. 5-41 and 117*, at least he's in form which cannot be said as far as 'Mony' is concerned.

  • Nutcutlet on August 12, 2009, 18:18 GMT

    The main reason Ramprakash has not been selected over the last few years, when his form has been phenomenal, is because the selectors do not want to be embarrassed. If he is selected and succeeds - what a monstrous cricketing injustice will be exposed! I wonder whether selectors, like most people in authority, can stomach the eating of humble pie? Ramps is a far more mature player and person now than he was when he was last being messed around with by some weird and inconsistent selectorial decisions - had he been Australian the selectors would have stuck by him, as they recognise class and back it every time. He has only the county stage to prove himself upon and this he has done emphatically and consistently. Finally,an average of 42 against Oz in its modern golden era is hardly an argument against his non-selection, is it? Does England want to win regain the Ashes? Pick the best batsman in England currently available then! Small spoons are available for the eating of the pie!

  • Gazzypops on August 11, 2009, 11:55 GMT

    To tling and others, Ramps has a poor overall Test record, certainly, but - paradoxically - has a very good record against Australia. Averaging over 42 against them. He's also scored a century against them at The Oval in 2001 (when no other England player, Tresco, Vaughan, Butcher, Hussain, and Stewart included, got past 55) . Horse for a course, but we should look to win this series, first and foremost. Supplement him with Trott or Key (who also has a moderate Test record, and a woeful one against the Aussies - averaging a smidgeon over 17 against them) and ditch Bell and Bopara. Our bowling has been similarly dreadful and needs a leader. Flintoff certainly fills that role but went awol at Edgbaston when we should have been pressing for victory. Sidebottom must play. Heck, Harmison might suit The Oval pitch too. Broad needs to prove himself, though, as he was greatly flattered at Headingley (he didn't remotely change the game in England's favour). Swann OR Broad, I'd say.

  • karthikrg on August 11, 2009, 11:55 GMT

    What happene to Kent opening batsman Joe Denly?????

  • hawkesy on August 11, 2009, 8:59 GMT

    The next Test is massive for the whole country, remember how in 2005 the nation was gripped by Ashes fever. We need to forget the future for now and pick the strongest team available. I believe that if Trescothick can be persuaded to play for this one match then he must be picked, along with Ramprakash and Key. Therefore, my batting order would be: 1. Trescothick 2. Strauss. 3. Ramprakash. 4. Key 5. Collingwood. 6. Prior 7. Flintoff . 8. Swann. 9. Anderson. 10. Harmison. 11. Panesar. This is a well balanced side, one I believe is well equipped for the Oval, (pace and bounce) . Lets win the Ashes and celebrate, then bring back Bopara/Cook for extended spells in the side, then hopefully they will be ready for the Ashes in Oz next time round.

  • whits106 on August 11, 2009, 7:54 GMT

    To be honest, Strauss is right. You don't want to go in and tear the side to shreads, you just need to be thoughtful in the selection process. It's funny how one loss puts you right in the spotlight. What about for Australia? Mike Hussey's efforts over his last 25 or so dig's have been average at best and hasn't scored a hundred for over a year! Yet he get's selected every time. It's been yet again another over-reaction and knock up by the media. Or Mitchell Johnson - He was absolutely TERRIBLE for three tests, and wasn't even up to the standard of a First Class match, let alone Test cricket, yet he still played and look what happened. The only changes I would make is: Flintoff is fit - in for Anderson. Move Bell to 3, Collingwood to 4 and Bopara to 5. It's obvious Bopara has talent, just not the temprement for number 3, and is more suited down the order. Geeze, England lose one test and suddenly they're the worst team in cricket history, the series is 1-1 remember? Not 4 - 0.

  • BoundryWarrior on August 11, 2009, 0:51 GMT

    If England are considering Ramprakash, the perhaps they should exercise an open mind on selection. Bring back Brian Close! He would not leet England down as Collingwood, Bopara and Bell have done repeatedly. Is there no young player in England to starting through? Gatting might be an option as there will be no Warne. Even Botham's an option. Or see who in South Africa has a British passport and ask them to come over..! If this is the state of English cricket, clean out the ECCB and start again. This is a sad day for the father's of the game. Perhaps the urn should be filled with the ashes of English cricket...!

  • srtedulkar on August 11, 2009, 0:16 GMT

    Bopara has to go. He is not fit to be a number 3 against good bowling attacks unless he improves his temperament. I would ideally want a man in form to replace him and Ramprakash might not be the worst choice ever, I would still have Bell in my team. Obviously Flintoff is going to play so I expect it to be a closely fought game and hope england can pull it off for Freddie thereby adding to his ashes legacy.

  • cloudmess on August 10, 2009, 21:57 GMT

    I still think we can win the Ashes, & with the same players. Holding the no1 side to 1-1 after 4 tests is hardly the mark of a poor team: Bopara - less words. Get down to the nets and sort out your defensive technique. Don't be scared of the Aussies! Collingwood - OK, a couple of poor matches, but don't forget he single-handedly saved the Cardiff test. The Ashes would have been gone by now. Bell - pretend nos 1 - 3 have already scored centuries before you go into bat. Media - stop writing all this negative stuff that England only bowl well in "helpful" conditions. Very English. Would you prefer them to waste the conditions then? Batting line-up - in the previous 3 tests, England were not bowled out for less than 376. One poor match ( & partly being caught on a drying wicket on first day) does not justify all these calls to sack half the team & re-instate unsuccessful relics from the 1990s. Finally... have a proper inspection of the wicket next time.

  • phoenixsteve on August 10, 2009, 19:40 GMT

    To change or not to change? Not really a serious question IF you want to beat a class side like Australia! The soft underbelly of English cricket has yet again been exposed and some changes MUST be made if we want to win at the Oval. For years and years now, the 'public schoolboy professiona'l has demonstrated that they are too soft for World cricket.Out would go Bell, Cook, Bopara and Harmison (hopefully he will take the hint and retire) and in should come players with form and ambition. I would include Ramps - he surely deserves a chance based on form and consistency; what a ftitting tribute to a wonderful career this would be? We should do what ever we can to implore Marcus Trescothick to heed the Nation's call. In an ideal world my 12 would include Trescothick, Ramprakash, Sidebottom, Panesar, Broad, Collingwood, Swann, Strauss, Anderson, Prior, Flintoff, Trott. Radical changes perhaps, but the current 'formula' is not going to win us anything! C'mon England - well played Aussies!

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