England sending out confused messages

Dobell: Was a mistake to play Wood at Trent Bridge (2:50)

Melinda Farrell and George Dobell discuss the changes England will make to their line up ahead of the third Investec Test with South Africa. (2:50)

Little more than a week ago, England's coach, Trevor Bayliss, stated that playing eight batsmen was "almost a waste" and amounted to "papering over the cracks" and "saying we're not confident with our batting line-up."

Yet on Wednesday Joe Root, the England captain, admitted England were considering playing eight batsmen. Dawid Malan, Root said, may come into the side, shunting Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali back to No. 7 and No. 8 respectively and provide more batting depth. A final decision will only be made having inspected the pitch on Thursday morning and ascertained how much value could be gained from playing two spinners.

Little more than a week ago, Bayliss talked of Liam Dawson as England's "first choice spinner," described Moeen Ali as "a batter who bowls a little" and suggested the balance of England's side "you could pretty much pick on any type of wicket."

Yet on Wednesday it became plain that Dawson's place was on the line, that Moeen was still first choice spinner and that the balance of the side could easily change.

On Tuesday, England's assistant coach, Paul Farbrace stated that Mark Wood would "have to be managed carefully" and that there may be times when he is considered for "only two games in a four or five match series."

Yet the week before, England picked him for back-to-back Tests despite his injury record - he has undergone three ankle operations in the recent past - and his going into the second Test with a sore heel. "He went into that last game with a sore heel," Farbrace said on Tuesday. "He could have easily pulled out and said he wasn't fit."

All of which raises the questions about the consistency, vision and progress of the England management. It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that, in red-ball cricket at least, they have made no progress at all. Not with finding a balanced side, not with helping new players settle and not with preventing a recurrence of familiar mistakes.

For here we are, going into the third match of a series, with the possibility that the England side will contain three debutants.

To some extent that is down to injuries.

But only to some extent.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that Gary Ballance - or Keaton Jennings, for that matter - had made his position in the top three safe. And it would be disingenuous to pretend that Wood or Dawson have made their places their own, either. More than two years since Bayliss took over as coach, nearly every hole that existed in the England line-up then remains now. They are still a talented, exciting, flawed team in development. And the mixed messages coming from the management can be doing nothing to aid clarity.

For all that, it is possible England might stumble across a balanced line-up on Thursday morning. If Malan is given a cap - and it still seems slightly more likely that Dawson will retain his spot on an Oval surface that has provided some assistance for spinners this season - England will lengthen their batting line-up and add just a bit of solidity to a team that has been rather stronger on style than substance.

While they will lose a left-arm spin option it might be compensated, in part, by the addition of two more part-time spinners in Malan and Tom Westley.

The one consistent message that has come out of the England camp this week is the sense that they let themselves down a bit at Trent Bridge. They feel, as Root put it, that they are "a better side than we showed last week." They are smarting from the defeat and itching to make amends.

But for all they claim, as Ben Stokes did on Tuesday, that it was something of an aberration - "We have had one poor performance," he said. "We have a good performance we are the best team; we have a bad performance we are the worst team. It's quite hard to win with you guys sometimes" - it's not entirely true. England have actually won only one (and lost six) of their most recent eight Tests. And if they lose at The Oval, they will have won none of their four most recent series. It is a record that suggests they are what they were in early 2015: a talented side, yes, but one in development and one with holes to fill.

As they go into this Test, the sense is growing that it is not just a couple of the players - notably Jennings and Dawson - who are fighting for their future. If England continue to suffer from batting frailty - and this South African attack looks well-capable of exposing any weakness - the questions about Bayliss might start to mount, too. He is all but certain to lead England into the Ashes but he will do so with more confidence and credibility if one of these major series can be won ahead of them. All of a sudden, this Oval Test is looking like a pivotal game for England in particular.