England's series with South Africa is an enticing prospect. The clash is undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated on these shores since the 2005 Ashes, even if it is a great shame it has been reduced to four Tests. And, for several members of the home side - not just Kevin Pietersen, who will be relishing his first Tests against the land of his birth - it promises to be a career-defining series. By the end of this summer England must know the side they want to take the field for the 2009 Ashes.
Two series victories over New Zealand, during which England showed impressive resolve to extract themselves from positions of difficulty they should never really have encountered, raised more questions than answers. Of the batsmen, only Andrew Strauss enhanced his reputation. Even he is still yet to prove his return to form is durable, whilst the positions in the side of Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood appeared desperately grim after ending the home New Zealand series with a duck apiece. All the signs suggest Bell should be ditched temporarily and Collingwood for good, yet, with depressing predictability, England will play an unchanged side for the sixth consecutive Test (for sure, Chris Tremlett is only in the squad to make up the numbers). If England's selectors are trying to create a sense of calm confidence in the side, they are fooling no one.
The wicket-keeper debate, after the briefest of hiatuses following Tim Ambrose's hundred in his second Test, is again reaching vitriolic levels. Matt Prior is the only one of the keepers whose batting is good enough to bat in the top six of the Test side, as shown both by his impressive record over 10 Tests - averaging in excess of 40 - and an astounding run of batting form this season. He averages 62 in Division One, with the highlight of three centuries being a simply astounding 133* out of 212 against Durham. Yet England would probably be wise to be very careful his keeping has improved sufficiently before recalling him to the side. The only other credible alternative to Ambrose is Chris Read, a terrific keeper and averaging 49 in Division One this season. People will question whether he will ever be an adequate number seven, but he has had only four Tests in the last four years. Only in the last two did he struggle - and that against Australia after being very publicly dumped by his coach Duncan Fletcher.
Ambrose, it should not be forgotten, scored a vital 67 in the last Test. But in the one-dayers his performance was embarrassing with bat and gloves alike. Above all, there are huge questions over whether he can score runs against a side with a battery of outstanding quicks who will be sure not to feed his favourite cut shot. England's selectors must be proactive and ditch Ambrose if he looks out of his depth in the first Test.
With the ball, there is no pressing case, based on the last two series, to drop anyone. But few would suggest the seam attack of Sidebottom, Broad and Anderson is truly the best England can muster. Anderson may be the right selection for Lord's, where he has a good record, but ultimately he is virtually certain to be profligate, given his enduring inconsistency. England cannot afford a bowler who is so often a liability.
This is also a big test for Broad, who has impressed more with his classy number eight batting than bowling in his six Tests to date. South Africa would sooner face those two bowlers than any of Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Simon Jones, even if one can understand why all three have been omitted. But a pace attack of Sidebottom, Jones and either Flintoff or Harmison would have real venom. Jones, with 26 wickets at 11 in first-class cricket this season, should have been unleashed for the First Test. Harmison, with 29 Division One scalps at 23, is displaying welcome signs of a return to form and, for all his inconsistency, he is a bowler the tourists would not relish facing.
So there is much for England's side to prove as they prepare to face an imposing South African team who, whilst not invincible, rightly start as favourites. If, as on their last three tours, South Africa triumph at Lord's, then it will be time the selectors earned their corn. Because, if England fall 1-0 behind, the bewildering faith in a side who have been so unimpressive of late will look very suspect indeed.
Here is what an ‘SOS’ side picked with England trailing in the series could look like:
Food for selectorial thought, certainly.