Getting themselves out of jail has become a hallmark of this England team during the past six months, and if they are not quite under the fence yet, neither are they in as bad a position after the first day of the second Test as they probably deserve to be.

For that they can thank pace bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Andrew Flintoff, who reduced South Africa to 101 for 3 in reply to England’s undistinguished 203.

That fightback, in which Neil McKenzie (15), Graeme Smith (44) and an out-of-sorts Jacques Kallis (4) went in the space of 25 runs, may help deflect criticism from England, but they should not avoid it.

The selection of Nottinghamshire seamer Darren Pattinson after just 11 first-class games will draw the majority of the flak, but at least as damaging was the balance of the side after it had been decided that Flintoff, having spent 18 months away from international cricket, was fit to return.

That England should want to restore a player capable of generating such pace and bounce is understandable, but his batting has deteriorated to the point that it is a huge gamble to have him coming in at six. Putting him at seven, as England did on Friday, is almost certainly the right option, but it makes little sense to accommodate him there by elevating the wicketkeeper Tim Ambrose, who has lately been struggling to justify batting as high as seven.

Weak batting is weak batting in whatever order it is arrayed. That, as much as the loss of early wickets in difficult conditions in which the ball moved around, was England’s downfall.

When Kevin Pietersen, after an attempt to hit England out of trouble, was caught for 45 flashing at Dale Steyn to leave England at 106 for 4, the tail was exposed. Sure enough, Ambrose made just 12 before he nibbled at Makaya Ntini. Flintoff then made a streaky 17 before slashing horribly at a wide lifter from Steyn to be caught behind for 17, precipitating a collapse that saw the last four wickets go down for 26.

Mornie Morkel, with 4-52, was the pick of the bowlers.

Enter Pattinson with the new ball. It would be unfair to judge him on the three overs he was allotted by captain Michael Vaughan – hardly a great sign of confidence – but equally there was little to dispel the bewilderment that has hung over his selection.

It is not simply that he will be 30 next week, nor that he played only club cricket in Victoria, Australia, where he worked as a roofer before returning to the land of his birth. Nor even that he made his first-class debut after Flintoff last played in a Test match.

It is that, for once, England have some serious depth to their options in the fast-bowling department.

Flintoff aside, the other three members of the four-man pace attack that won the Ashes in 2005 are all in good form. Steve Harmison has taken 34 wickets at 23 this season, Simon Jones 29 at 14 and Matthew Hoggard 22 at 24. Hoggard, in particular, has reason to be aggrieved having lost his place in New Zealand on the basis of one bad Test match.

The dismissiveness with which England’s batsmen treated Ntini shows the danger of persevering with a bowler after he has lost his nip, but it is far from certain that age has yet diminished Hoggard.

Poor Chris Tremlett, meanwhile, seems to have been cast in the role of perpetual 12th man.

England may yet get away with this strange selection, but whatever happens there must be a rethink before the third Test at Edgbaston.

They had gone a record six matches with an unchanged side; on this showing it is probably just as well that the selectors did not have any decisions to make.

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