England must balance immediate and long-term necessities as they try to find a solution to their batting frailties against West Indies.
Head coach Trevor Bayliss insisted, even in the glow of a 3-1 victory over South Africa, that he and his colleagues cannot afford to “paper over cracks” which have long been evident and widened this summer.
When the selectors announce their squad on Thursday evening to face the Windies in the first of three matches – an inaugural day-night Test, to add an extra twist to the complex bigger picture – the first checks will be on the absence or otherwise of Keaton Jennings as Alastair Cook’s opening partner and Dawid Malan at number five.
Neither has furthered his case of late, yet the various alternatives come with all too evident caveats and risk factors.
Top of the list for the chop with most pundits is Jennings. After his paltry 127 runs in eight innings against South Africa, and a stiff technique which has pepped up the inevitable broadcast chatter too, few see him as an opener England can expect to succeed in the Ashes.
In the middle order, Malan’s return after two Tests is 35 runs at an average of 8.75.
As England plot victory over opponents ranked down at eighth in the world, however, there are further significant complications.
Bayliss and captain Joe Root have a responsibility to arrive in Australia with the right squad to vie for the urn again, and for a majority of English cricket followers the Ashes are all that matter.
They doubtless dominate the ambitions of players and coaches too, and cast a shadow over a series against the Windies which no longer captures the imagination in its own right.
For those reasons, England must by mighty careful who they choose – not just in case they fail, but in case they succeed too.
If Jennings, for example, is granted another chance against an inferior attack he may well take it. But will that mean he is the right man after all to partner Cook in Brisbane?
It may well not, yet England will be stuck with him – hardly able to leave out a batsman who has proved himself against international opposition.
At the risk of discourtesy to the West Indies, hundreds – and wickets for that matter – may be easier to attain against them than South Africa, or Australia.
That then is the conundrum attached to whatever decisions England make over their problem positions. If they ditch Jennings and Malan, the potential replacements have been well-touted for weeks.
Haseeb Hameed is England’s favoured long-term pick as Cook’s latest partner after he, like Jennings, impressed in India last winter.
He has returned from injury, however, a different and temporarily inferior model – and his unbeaten 77 in Lancashire’s rain-wrecked Specsavers County Championship match against Hampshire this week is by some way his highest first-class score in the intervening eight months.
If England pick the 20-year-old anyway, they are taking a substantial gamble that his confidence is suddenly restored – and could easily set him back even further on the career trajectory most are convinced will be his eventually.
Mark Stoneman is the most obvious alternative, after a fine first season for Surrey following his move from Durham, yet there is a worrying vibe that the selectors are curiously cool on his Test suitability.
Further down the list, Malan’s continued presence is hard to figure after his torrid but mercifully brief second innings at Old Trafford last week.
Should England make the call on him after just two Tests, one name back in the hat is Alex Hales’ – whose middle-order reinvention after his previous incarnation as an opener brought a run-a-ball double-century for Nottinghamshire this week.
Gary Ballance’s recovery from a broken finger at Trent Bridge is likely to keep him out of contention, while Tom Westley will surely retain his place at number three on the grounds that others around him have fared significantly worse.
Chris Woakes has just one first-class match under his belt, meanwhile, following the side strain which ruled him out of all four Tests against South Africa.
With the bowling stocks at England’s disposal thanks to champion all-rounders Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali, however, Woakes’ record of nine first-class hundreds means he could be used sparingly with the ball and – rather than papering cracks – take a sticking-plaster role with the bat.
He is therefore another possible in a squad England may well again be tempted to extend to 13, perhaps without second spinner Liam Dawson this time, as they try to cover all bases and keep an eye on the all important winter too.
Possible squad: JE Root (Captain), AN Cook, KK Jennings, T Westley, JM Bairstow (wkt), BA Stokes, MM Ali, CR Woakes, TS Roland-Jones, SCJ Broad, JM Anderson, MD Stoneman, ST Finn.