So, the selectors have spoken. And what a dreary story they have to tell. The selection of Jonathan Trott (and the retention of Ian Bell) for the final test of the summer is depressingly timid. Worse than that, it is recklessly timid, since it presumes that England have been more competitive in this series than is actually the case and that modest tinkering with the side is all that is required to produce a final victory.
This is not an analysis that is endorsed by the facts: England were comprehensively outplayed at Cardiff and Leeds, while their victory at Lords rested upon: a) a sloppy Australian batting performance, b) an unusually incisive spell from Flintoff and c) at least three dubious umpiring decisions that went England's way. At Edgbaston, it is true, England established a proper beachhead, but they were unable to capitalise on this and, in the end, Australia escaped comfortably. Yes, the series is tied 1-1, but Australia have been the better side for most of the summer. If England think otherwise they are kidding themselves.
Alas, this selection demonstrates that they remain in denial. There is a place for continuity but there are also times when selectors need to use their imagination. This was one of those times. Which is why I favoured replacing Bell and Bopara with Key and Ramprakash. Instead the selectors have decided to stick with the time-honoured principle of Buggin's Turn.
Because that's what Trott's selection means. Does anyone really think he's a better batsman than Mark Ramprakash? Yes, he has been in good nick this summer. But, at 28 and with a record of making a century just every 12 innings, it is unlikely (not impossible but unlikely) that he will have a successful test career. True, neither Michael Vaughan or Marcus Trescothick scored frequently or heavily in county cricket before they were chosen for England. But they were identified aged 24, not when they were nearing 30.
Trott has not been chosen because the selectors consider him the long-term answer, rather because they had decided that he was in good enough form to be considered next in line. But his record is pretty much the same as Stephen Moore's (career average a bit above 40, a century every 11.8 innings) or even Michael Carberry (career average of 41 and a century every 9.9 innings). You wouldn't think Carberry or Moore long-term test cricketers, so why would you think Trott could be the answer? And if you're not interested in Trott as a long-term option once Pietersen comes back, then why are you choosing him ahead of Ramprakash for a one-off test when you know and I know and everyone knows that Ramps is the better batsman?
I bang on about the rate at which players make centuries because, with, as always, some exceptions, it tends to be a pretty useful predictor of future performance. That is, it is unusual for someone to score centuries more frequently at test level than in county cricket. Trott may prove an exception to this, but the odds are against this being the case.
Equally, despite my admiration for Ian Bell, he is exceedingly fortunate to remain in the side, not least since England seem determined to bat him at number three - a position where he has enjoyed very little success. Will the Australians fear a 3,4,5 of Bell, Trott and Collingwood? Would you? Like Trott, Bell can consider himself fortunate that Ashley Giles is one of the selectors. Talk about a conflict of interest! Would either Trott or Bell be playing if their county's Director of Cricket weren't a selector? I doubt it. (And why is Giles a selector anyway? Since he has to be with Warwickshire all the time, he only sees half the counties.)
Paralysed by the idea that there's no point in having people yo-yoing in and out of the side, England prefer to hand out new caps in the hope that, this time, they'll get lucky and the player will stick. But sometimes a player benefits from being left out for a while. Simon Katich, for instance, made his debut as far back as 2001, but he only became a real regular last year and played no test cricket at all between 2005 and 2008. That spell in the wilderness did him no harm.
Similarly, is Rob Key a better batsman armed with a better temperament now than when he was in the England side? I think most people would say yes on both fronts. There's no doubt - none at all since everyone recognises it - that Ramprakash is tougher mentally and better technically than he was when he last played test cricket seven whole years ago. But, no, the selectors play it safe and take the next cab available since, as Atherton says, showing a little imagination would have embarrassed them if Key and Ramps actually made some runs.
True, Key and Ramprakash might have failed, but there is, as best I can see, absolutely no reason to suppose that they'd be less likely to score runs than Bell and Trott and plenty of grounds for supposing that they might make more. So, by playing safe the selectors have actually increased the risk that, far from winning the match, England will actually lose it. In other words, this is a selection that achieves the exact opposite of what it is intended to. That's woeful, even by England's standards.
The selection is also oddly inconsistent: form was considered key to Trott being selected, yet Mony Panesar is also in the squad despite taking just 10 wickets this summer at 71 each. You can select the best players or you can select the guys in the best nick, but it's very odd to mix and match like this.
This is a one-off test that demanded bold thinking from the selectors. Instead they have been drearily, predictably timid. This is, as I say, reckless.
Still, it don't matter how many runs you score if you can't take 20 wickets. But that's a matter for another day.