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

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