Compton's Ashes hopes face defining month
Nick Compton has up to 12 innings until early July to satisfy England that he should retain his opening place in the Ashes. Only last month he was acknowledging the applause in the Long Room at Lord's as he was named as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. Now he is faced by England cricket's version of the Dirty Dozen.
The suddenness with which the media has begun to question him must have taken him by surprise and contributed to his batting paralysis at Headingley. A rib injury also restricted him, but the negative vibes inhibited him even more as England's new batting sensation, Joe Root, was widely advocated as a replacement for Compton to make room for Kevin Pietersen's anticipated return from injury.
Compton has Championship matches for Somerset against Durham and Derbyshire, an assortment of limited-overs matches and, most strikingly, the potential of a four-day match against the Australians at Taunton on June 26. Somerset, who can barely make a run and who are threatened by relegation under their new coach Dave Nosworthy, will be grateful for his presence.
England have been supportive, but honest in their equivocation. Alastair Cook, the captain, whose opening stands with Compton average 57.93 - compare that with the 40.96 he averaged alongside Andrew Strauss - has agreed that dropping Compton and reshuffling the batting order would be "a risk" but the team director, Andy Flower, has said that Compton "has got to go away and get back into form, score some heavy runs for Somerset".
Flower meets up with the selectors on Thursday and although the meeting is primarily a lead-in to the Champions Trophy, as Flower hands over day-to-day running of England's team to the one-day coach Ashley Giles, discussions about Cook's opening partner in the Ashes will be on the agenda.
"When I meet with the selectors we'll discuss what make-up of the side will give us the best chance of winning the first Test against Australia," he said. "Nick's had a tough series against New Zealand. I think they've bowled really well at him; they've bowled really skilfully and they should be given credit for the pressure that they've applied on the England batsmen. They've enjoyed using the Dukes ball which has swung constantly for them.
"They were testing constantly the front foot techniques of all our batsmen and it was nice to see our batsmen come through that. Nick's had a hard time in this series but he's got the opportunity to go away and play some cricket for Somerset. Hopefully he goes away and can get back in the runs as quickly as possible."
Four uncomfortable innings, bringing only 39 runs, have removed much of the good impression made by Compton with secure, if occasionally painstaking innings, in Test series in India and New Zealand. He is now averaging 31.93 and his hundreds in Dunedin and Wellington seem further away than the calendar will tell you.
The batsman who forced his way into the England side through weight of runs in county cricket - a rarity these days - now has to reopen his county cricket production line to keep it. He will be aware that many feel there is too much tension in his game, that his desire to succeed for England is weighing too heavily upon him.
Michael Atherton, a former England captain, in the Times has compared him to the most overstrung England batsman of recent times, Mark Ramprakash, and urged him to use Somerset to rediscover his pleasure in the game.
The debate is sparked by Pietersen's anticipated return, with Jonny Bairstow the likely omission if England keep faith with Compton.
The England side with Compton at opener looks secure but may not carry the fight; the England side with Bairstow will be bolder but arguably more vulnerable. It is a decision not just about form but about the style of cricket England wish to play. Compton, if he scores big runs for Somerset, remains the favoured choice.
England are making increasingly encouraging noises about Pietersen's recovery from deep knee bruising, with Surrey - who like Somerset have relegation fears - anxiously awaiting the injection of some England batting talent into a flimsy line-up. Pietersen tweeted a picture of himself back in the nets for the first time as England closed in on victory in the second Test against New Zealand at Headingley.
"I'll also be seeing Kevin on Thursday and our medical staff are constantly monitoring how he's getting on," Flower said. "We'll be making those types of decisions closer to the time. We can't give a date or a timeline. He'll be practising from now on."
Pietersen's practice will be divorced from England's Champions Trophy squad as they seek to become the first England side to win a global 50-over competition.
"We are thinking optimistically about his injury improving and it's nice that he's pain free," Flower said. "It is great news for him and for us. Kevin's a really special player and we want him back as soon as he's fit enough to be back. Hopefully his improvement graph will carry on in the same way."
Flower, who stood down as one-day coach late last year to achieve a better work-life balance, admits that he will miss the excitement of being centrally involved in a major one-day tournament.
"I think I will. But you can't have everything in life, you win some and you lose some. I really want to support Ashley properly, I think he's an excellent coach and a good man and I want to be there to support him. But hopefully this is a really efficient use of our coaching resources and England cricket is better for it.
"I think the Champions Trophy will generate its own excitement and I don't think it will get lost in the weeks leading up to the Ashes. I obviously hope that England are playing some excellent cricket and the nation gets excited about their progress."
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo