Trott likely to replace Bopara
England's selectors are ready to put faith in the men they put forward for the fateful fourth Test at Headingley, and are believed to have overlooked the claims of Mark Ramprakash and Robert Key in favour of Warwickshire's Jonathan Trott, who just missed out on his Test debut in Leeds last week. Trott is expected to slot into the middle order, with his county team-mate, Ian Bell, promoted to No. 3 in place of Ravi Bopara, the only anticipated batting casualty after a humiliating innings-and-80-run debacle.
England's four-man selection panel - Geoff Miller, James Whitaker, Ashley Giles and Andy Flower, plus the captain, Andrew Strauss - met for five hours at Trent Bridge on Friday, where they witnessed Bell comprise a timely 126 to secure a draw for Warwickshire against Nottinghamshire. Coming off the back of Trott's 121 in the same innings on the previous day, it was enough to convince them that wholesale changes will not be required ahead of Thursday's Oval showdown, where England will seek the comeback victory they need to reclaim the Ashes.
If the reports are confirmed at 9.30am on Sunday, when the squad is officially announced, then the selectors will have shown an admirable determination not to be hustled into "panic" measures after a week of intense media speculation. Strauss and Flower were understood to be particularly keen not to jettison their entire Ashes strategy after one poor game. Nevertheless, the decision to pitch a Test debutant into England's most eagerly anticipated fixture for four years, alongside Bell, who bagged a pair in the corresponding match in 2005 and whose temperament in pressure situations has often been shown to be suspect, will undoubtedly leave them open to further scrutiny.
Bell's average at No. 3 is a lowly 31.00, set against an overall figure of 39.84, suggesting he is a player who prefers to react to events on the pitch rather than set the agenda. Trott, meanwhile, has been withdrawn from the England Lions team to face the Australians in a two-day match at Canterbury starting today, a sign that the selectors don't want to give the tourists an early look at him. Either way, both men undoubtedly benefited from the presence on the selection panel of Giles, who serves a duel role as Warwickshire's director of cricket.
The Headingley fall guy is expected to be Bopara, who has managed 105 runs in seven innings so far this series, having recorded three Test centuries in succession against West Indies earlier in the year. The selectors took soundings from within the Essex dressing-room to assess Bopara's frame of mind, and a morale-boosting 52 not out for Essex at Lord's on Friday is unlikely to earn him a reprieve.
"Every batsman has been through a run of low scores and he hasn't managed to really get in and show what he is made of in this series," said Flower, Bopara's former Essex team-mate, after the Headingley defeat. "It's a tough situation for him but he is a pretty calm bloke, so he's keeping it in perspective." There is no question that he will be an integral part of the Test and ODI parties to South Africa this winter, which were also discussed at Trent Bridge.
England's other change for The Oval will be the welcome return of Andrew Flintoff, whose damaged right knee was given a positive verdict by his specialist, Andy Williams, last week, and who can be guaranteed to bowl until he drops in what will be his final Test before retirement. He is likely to come in for Graham Onions, who has performed impressively since joining the side in the second Test, but who lacks the outright swinging skills of James Anderson, or the presence that Flintoff and an in-form Steve Harmison bring to the line-up.
Monty Panesar is likely to rejoin a 14-man squad as back-up for Graeme Swann, although he is not expected to play as part of a two-spin attack. Surrey's former captain, Mark Butcher, who knows the conditions well, told Cricinfo that while the surface was likely to be responsive to spin, it made more sense for England to stick to what they know best. "If you've got two world-class spinners, you play them both," he said. "But we don't really have them, and the England are much more comfortable with a four-pace and one-spin attack."
The Oval wicket has been the subject of much scrutiny this week, in the wake of comments from the Surrey CEO, Paul Sheldon, saying that they would not be "cooking the books" to create a surface to suit England's requirements. Butcher, however, came to his club's defence. "The pitch will be as they always are at The Oval," he said. "It'll have decent bounce, decent carry and it'll turn as the game goes on. That's what they are like, and that's what they are always like.
"They can't change the character of the pitch, it's not that they won't or they refuse to, it's because they can't," he added. "They are what they are. The Test match pitch always goes through quicker than the county pitches, and England have bowled there well in the past. Harmison and Flintoff bowled South Africa out twice last year."
Probable squad: 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Jonathan Trott, 6 Matt Prior (wk), 7 Andrew Flintoff, 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steve Harmison, 12 Monty Panesar, 13 Graeme Onions, 14 Ryan Sidebottom.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo