x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Key to England's fortunes

The post-mortem started long before Mitchell Johnson claimed the final England wicket to condemn the hosts to a humiliating defeat.

LEEDS // The post-mortem had started long before Mitchell Johnson claimed the final England wicket to condemn the hosts to a humiliating defeat. The inexplicable weak capitulation of England's batting line up in the first session at Headingley left captain Andrew Strauss in a near impossible situation. Now, with just one opportunity left to repeat the triumph of 2005 and snatch the Ashes away from Australia, Strauss faces more questions than answers.

While the tourists now head to Canterbury for a two-day practice game against the England Lions next weekend, Strauss may look to the same part of the country for inspiration. That inspiration will be at Edgbaston, leading Kent out in their third successive Twenty20 Cup Finals day and Strauss is now hoping some of that magic can rub off on his England side. When Robert Key starred in the all-conquering England Under-19 team in 1998, the Kent batsman was marked down for greatness.

Despite his indulging in one or too many cakes during afternoon tea, he was seen as a future England star and leader in the making. His 221 against the West Indies at Lord's in July 2004 proved to be his moment of fame but his inability to shine on the 2005 tour to South Africa ultimately cost him his opportunity. Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe returned to the team following their respective lay-offs and Key bowed out after making 153 runs in six innings four years ago.

Much has changed since then and Key - slimmer, hungrier and fitter than ever before - is set to be called upon to solve England's chronic batting problems. His captaincy is admired by many of those in the game and he was close to being named as England's captain for the recent Twenty20 World Cup until Paul Collingwood was eventually appointed. Key, a natural No 3 in comparison to the out-of-form Ravi Bopara, will provide more balance and experience and crucially more runs as England go in search of victory at the Oval.

Quite simply, England cannot afford to shirk the judgement calls any longer and the ruthlessness which Australia showed in dropping Phillip Hughes must now be replicated. Bell portrayed a meek presence at the crease and was easy prey for an Australian bowling attack which feeds off fear. Key, who is likely to be joined by Warwickshire's Jonathan Trott, will at least add some much-needed presence to a middle-order whose soft centre was blatantly exposed.

Trott was unfortunate to miss out at Headingley and his county form surely merits the opportunity to take a step up to Test match level. With Kevin Pietersen ruled out of the series with an Achilles injury and Andrew Flintoff still fighting to be fit for the Oval, England need to bolster their batting options and regain their balance. The suggestions that there could be a shock return for Mark Ramprakash only serve to illustrate the growing panic within the England camp.

A move to persuade Marcus Trescothick out of international retirement has already been discarded with the former opener still suffering with a stress-related illness. The problem for Strauss is that he is trying to heal a gaping wound when all he has at his disposal is a small and seemingly insufficient plaster. Options are limited and his decision not to make any "wholesale changes" could be out of compulsion and not entirely on merit.

Therefore, he will, with the exception of dropping Bell and Bopara, will largely be forced to rely on the team who performed so abjectly at Headingley. One slot is reserved for Flintoff if he is fit enough to play. This game must be treated like a cup final, one where anything can happen and players who previously may not have featured can arrive and write their names into Ashes history. While the stage is set for Flintoff to bow out of international cricket in the greatest possible way, Strauss must also look towards the likes of Key and Trott to revitalise his ailing side.

Only Strauss can make those changes but, for England's sake, he must hurry. sports@thenational.ae