It was, without question, the most low-key Ashes squad announcement for more than a decade. No gimmicks, no graphics, not even the sense that such a story - in any ordinary circumstances - would have dared lay a claim to being the most important event in the week's sporting calendar.

Instead of the hype we got two men in a basement: England's national selector, James Whitaker, and director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, holed up in the Oval's indoor school, perched at first on incongruously comfy armchairs as if for a companionable fireside chat, before decamping to the table on a nearby plinth when it became clear there was no space available for the accompanying blizzard of Dictaphones.

There could be no legislating for the Ben Stokes revelations of course. But no matter what you think of the modern-day penchant for grandstanding set-piece events, the apologetic vibe around The Oval was inescapable, as the combatants for the world's most storied international rivalry were smuggled into the public domain like a dirty secret.

Perhaps it had always been intended that way - the 2017-18 Ashes will, after all, be the first overseas England Test series since the tour of the Caribbean in 1990 to be broadcast in this country by anyone other than Sky Sports, and thus it would be entirely understandable if the ECB's most important broadcast partner balked at permitting BT Sports to park their tanks any more ostentatiously on their lawn.

But it was fitting, in the sorry circumstances, that what the selectors served up was an apology of a squad - a deeply uninspiring blend of the tried, tested and discarded, brought back to the boil with a sprinkling of fresh ingredients like the manky carcass of an ancient Sunday roast. Ben Foakes, Mason Crane and Craig Overton might as well have been a pair of carrots and an onion for all the difference they are going to make to England's Ashes prospects, if the meat in the broth has already crawled out of the back of the fridge.

One slightly rancid selection might have been okay. Maybe two at a pinch, given that Stokes - at that stage at least - was still more likely to travel to Australia than not. But the selections in England's troublesome middle order of Dawid Malan, Gary Ballance and James Vince amounted to a collective admission of failure from the selectors - a hands-up moment of recognition that five years of arrested development in the Test arena has left them with no other ingredients to source.

And the stats bear out this gruesome truth. Since the retirement of Strauss at the end of the 2012 international summer - a moment that drew a line under an era in which England won the Ashes in Australia and rose to become the No.1 Test nation - a total of 13 specialist batsmen (sidebar) have made their Test debut, and almost without exception they have been a collective and barely mitigated failure.

The exception, of course, is truly exceptional. Joe Root, who debuted in Nagpur on England's 2012-13 tour of India and made 73 to shore up a series-winning lead, has established himself in in the interim not only as England's captain but as one of the very best batsmen in the world today. With a current Test batting average of 53.76 in 60 Tests, he is - in the estimation of men such as Michael Vaughan and Graeme Swann - among the best that England has ever produced.

But scan the rest of that list and you begin to feel a pang of sympathy for Whitaker, Angus Fraser and Mick Newell, a selection panel who might as well have convened their meeting around a ouija board and summoned the spirits of Edward Kelley and John Dee to assist them in their findings.

With the exception of the hugely promising Haseeb Hameed (43.80), who a) is injured, and b) has played just three Tests, which is probably too few to form any definitive judgements, the best of a bad bunch is, in fact - and by a distance - Ballance, whose average of 37.45 does, at the very least, actually qualify as "average". And yet, even that figure does not take into account the collapse of nearly half of Ballance's value - like the pound after Brexit - from a high point of 67.93 in the wake of his fourth (and to date most recent) Test century in April 2015. In his last 12 Tests, up until the hand injury that spared him the official axe against South Africa earlier this summer, he has scratched along at 19.04.

"We all know Gary's record, which is brilliant at domestic cricket and at the start of his international career," said Whitaker. "He's aware of vulnerabilities - but like everyone else, no one's perfect, no one has a perfect technique, but we believe Gary's got a toughness of character that can thrive in those conditions and support the captain."

Ultimately, though, Ballance is Root's mate from Yorkshire - and Lord knows, he's going to need his friends around him as the flak begins to fly this winter. So maybe, in light of everything else, the skipper is entitled to a captain's pick for what is rapidly building up to be the biggest challenge that he will ever face in his international career. The Wayne Larkins to Root's Graham Gooch, perhaps (although the less said about how that Ashes tour ended up, the better).

This Australia campaign is all about the batsmen - because it is hard to recall a less inspiring triumvirate than Malan, Ballance and Vince in any Ashes tour party of the last 25 years

And Malan (av 23.62)? He's the man just about in possession - aside from Mark Stoneman at the very top of the order, that is, who just about gets a bye in this discussion for not yet revealing a killer weakness in the course of three Tests (av 30.00). Malan has at least managed two 60s in his last three innings, but it's still hard to pinpoint what exactly earned him the gig in the first place - a solitary century at 32.47 is the sum of his first-class returns for Middlesex and England this season. Oh, and a knock of 78 from 44 balls in a one-off T20 against South Africa that seemed more than adequate for convincing Trevor Bayliss that he's the right sort.

But it is the recall of Vince that really leaves you gasping at how desperate England's resources have become - and he sounded as astonished as anyone, having averaged 19.27 across a full English summer of seven Tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan last year. In that extended run, he never once made it past 42, despite reaching double figures in all but four attempts - the sort of conversion that brings Geoffrey Boycott out in hives. Time and time again, Vince found a means to nick off when seemingly well set, the essential prettiness of his technique shown, beyond much reasonable doubt, to lack the grit that sets the true Test performers apart from the rest.

"Under review, over the last few months [and] considering what we're going to face in Australia, the type of cricket we'll need to play, we felt - evaluating his performances in all forms of cricket over the last couple of years - and taking into consideration obviously the last Test series he was involved in - we just feel he's got the type of game, attacking game, back-foot game, to give Joe and Trevor the option of that type of player at the top of the order," said Whitaker in the most circumloquacious moment of an intensely perambulatory 15 minutes.

But what, in all honesty, were the selectors expected to do? Give that benefit of the doubt to Tom Westley (24.12), or Keaton Jennings (24.50) or Sam Robson (30.54), all of whom would have invited similar groans of derision. Or toss another shrimp onto the barbie by taking a punt on Liam Livingstone or Joe Clarke, and risk perpetuating that cycle of failure by expecting them to act as magic bullets?

No, that's the route they've taken with the back-up bowling stocks, following the injury to Toby Roland-Jones and the doubts about Mark Wood's durability (and Adil Rashid's Test ticker) that have earned Overton and Crane their air fares.

"In the ideal world, everyone has already debuted and is performing well - and they've played 25 times for England when they step on the plane to take on the toughest opposition," said Whitaker. "But we're not always living in an ideal world. The guys we have selected who aren't capped, we feel, have got the right characteristics and right potential and right skill levels to do really well in Australia."

But this Australia campaign is all about the batsmen - because it is hard to recall a less inspiring triumvirate in any Ashes tour party of the last 25 years. It's not that England have lacked marginal selections on their past trips down under (Whitaker himself would have to count as one of those in 1986-87). But even throughout the years that England were regularly tenderised by Australia's Border-Taylor-Waugh-led teams, there were rarely any doubts that the best available batsmen were packing out the top five.

The old firm of Mike Gatting, David Gower and Allan Lamb provided the ballast to Chris Broad's top-order trailblazing on that 1986-87 tour; while even at England's lowest ebb in 1994-95, when Gatting and Gooch embarked on their tour too far, they did so with records that demanded respect, as well as team-mates of the calibre of Mike Atherton, Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart (until his injury) alongside them.

But as the balance of England's team currently stands, the class of 2017 resides in precisely two specialist batsmen, Root and Alastair Cook, and a trio of hopefuls to make up the numbers. Many might have advocated a recall for Alex Hales (his Mbargo involvement notwithstanding) for he can at least boast some notable white-ball achievements on his England CV. However, his Test average remains 27.28, albeit he was playing out of his preferred position at the top of the order.

No, the one player who surely should not have been overlooked in such straitened circumstances is also the one England debutant of the past five years who everyone knows has underachieved. Regardless of how little red-ball cricket he has played in recent months, the ceiling for Jos Buttler's talent is nigh on limitless. Despite being encumbered with the gloves for 15 of his 18 Tests to date, he still averages more than the bulk of the players who've followed him into the side. And with Stokes' Ashes absence becoming an ever more grim probability, the need for a bit of X-factor could yet prove to be irresistible.

Strauss warned that there might yet be changes to England's squad before they fly to Australia at the end of next month. Here is one that they should factor in straightaway.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket