Predicting the England XI for the 1st Test of the Summer
Following the most disastrous Ashes tour imaginable, it's almost certain that we'll see changes made to the current England side for the first Test of the next English summer against Sri Lanka.
Yet, what will undoubtedly trouble the team's selectors most is determining the extent of change that is required to rekindle the fire in a suddenly forlorn looking line-up.
Do they opt for wide-sweeping changes, bringing a definitive end to one of the country's most successful eras? Or do team management re-instil their faith in the side's experienced core, trusting that the team's humiliation in Australia will provide the necessary impetus for future success?
In what is set to be the most fascinating selection period in recent memory for English cricket, we predict the make-up of England's XI for the first Test against Sri Lanka in June.
But remember, this is what we believe England will do, rather than what we believe they should do.
1. Alastair Cook
It's a certainty that Alastair Cook will remain at the helm of this England team, despite his poor showing in Australia.
There are, of course, areas in which Cook needs to show vast improvement—most notably his tactical approach in the field—but that doesn't mean he's at any degree of risk in the England set-up.
At just 29 years of age, Cook is the only established leader in the side capable of captaining England for the better part of the next decade, while he remains the nation's finest opener.
When the first Test against Sri Lanka begins, Cook will certainly be at the toss.
2. Joe Root
As a new era dawns on England, it's highly likely that the ageing Michael Carberry will be pushed out of the current side, as the 33-year-old left-hander simply doesn't represent a prosperous future for England.
The situation may have been different if Carberry had been a relentless source of runs in Australia, but his consistent failure to convert starts into meaningful scores will likely see Joe Root re-installed at the top of the order with Cook.
Undoubtedly, Root's form against Australia's world-class attack has been a cause for concern, but selectors will see the likes of Sri Lanka and India as an opportunity to re-establish Root as an opener, while facing attacks that contain less quality than Australia's.
That all bodes well for Root who, at 23 years of age, is the type of player England need to invest in.
3. Ian Bell
Expect Ian Bell to make the permanent jump to No. 3 in England's line-up, following his promotion in the order for the final Ashes Test in Sydney.
With Jonathan Trott's return uncertain, it's easy to see England opt to deploy their most technically sound operator at the critical first-drop position.
Although it will be tempting to use Bell at No. 5—the position he occupied to compile three sublime hundreds in the 2013 Ashes series—the need to reinforce a struggling top order will see the elegant right-hander make the move to No. 3.
While it might not be England's preferred use of Bell, it's a position they'll likely be forced into.
4. Kevin Pietersen
It's unfathomable that England could dispose of their most influential batsman after one sub-standard series.
While reports of a rift between Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower continue to circulate, it seems inevitable that England will quickly acknowledge that Pietersen's axing is not the solution to the team's current predicament.
It's hard to argue that the flamboyant right-hander's dismissals in the Ashes weren't disappointing—they most certainly were—but players of Pietersen's quality simply can't be replaced overnight.
Given that KP's "re-integration" into this England side was regarded as a master stroke by Cook and Flower just six months ago, it's absurd to think Pietersen won't be in the side that faces Sri Lanka in June.
5. Gary Ballance
Like Root, Gary Ballance is the sort of talent that England will view as a long-term occupant in the team's Test line-up.
Consequently, expect to see Ballance take his place against Sri Lanka, given his calm showings against Australia's lethal attack in Sydney.
Despite failing to score heavily at the SCG, Ballance will be helped by the team's selectors wanting to save face; an immediate disposal after just one match is likely to heap further scrutiny on a panel that has been ridiculed for its selection of the Ashes squad.
Of course, the left-hander's position is far from secure against other contenders, but he'll be given the first chance to impress when the next English summer arrives.
6. Ben Stokes
Possibly the most obvious inclusion in the team behind Cook, Ben Stokes is a certainty to be picked to face Sri Lanka in June.
While most of his team-mates sadly lacked the verve needed to compete with a rampant Australian side, Stokes was England's shining light, capturing a six-wicket haul in Sydney after thumping a spectacular hundred in Perth.
Like countless other Test careers, Stokes found himself in the line-up through a degree of good fortune.
To his credit, he didn't let the chance escape his grasp, becoming the most impressive England player on a miserable tour overall.
Suddenly, England have a player somewhat capable of filling the void left by Andrew Flintoff.
7. Matt Prior
Matt Prior will likely earn a recall to England's side when the summer arrives, but it will be the consequence of the failure of others rather than the merit of his own form.
With Jonny Bairstow unlikely to see the gloves again, and Jos Buttler's first-class form still needing work, Prior appears to be England's logical option when looking for a gloveman.
Although he was dropped for the final two Tests in Melbourne and Sydney, it's possible that England's selectors simply wanted to let Prior escape the cauldron which had been crippling his form.
Certainly, the 31-year-old will need to impress with runs during the opening of the county season, but the team will be left with few other options if Prior's name is removed from the teamsheet.
8. Stuart Broad
Stuart Broad was the leading Test wicket-taker in 2013 and won't be disappearing from this England line-up anytime soon.
In fact, it could be argued that Broad has taken the mantle of the team's spearhead away from James Anderson.
The aggressive right-armer was undoubtedly England's most threatening bowler during the Ashes, claiming 21 wickets at 27.52 at a time when he received little in the way of support.
The biggest concern for England will be managing Broad's workload. At present, no nation plays more Test cricket than England, and with important limited-overs tournaments being held in the coming 12 months (World T20 and 2015 World Cup), the fitness of Broad will be a key issue for team management in 2014.
9. Graham Onions
There will be those who view the failures of Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin in Australia as Steven Finn's ticket back into this England team.
Yet it's hard to see team management opting for a bowler down on form and confidence when searching for players who can exert a positive impact on this team.
That's where Graham Onions is likely to come in.
The forgotten aspect of Graeme Swann's departure is that Broad and Anderson are required to contain the opposition as well as attack, reducing their overall threat.
Onions, who bowls tightly in a stump-to-stump manner, can offer England control and consistency, enhancing the threat of the team's opening combination.
Also helping Onions is the team's insistence that county form will count heavily towards selection. On that front, few others can rival Onions.
10. James Anderson
While his returns since that match-defining 10-wicket haul at Trent Bridge have been disappointing, James Anderson will certainly feature in England's Test line-up against Sri Lanka.
When at his best, no other bowler in English cricket compares; a return to seam-friendly conditions in England likely to boost Anderson's confidence and morale.
That, however, is not to say that Anderson has nothing to prove.
On the back of underwhelming performances in his last nine appearances, the right-armer must show that he's capable of leading the side's attack back to the level it had reached a little more than 12 months ago.
11. Monty Panesar
When Graeme Swann departed, it suddenly became clear how few spinning options England have at Test level.
Thus, Monty Panesar will now be given the chance to make the England spinner's position his own.
Really, what other options do England have?
Scott Borthwick can't hold down a position in Test cricket with his bowling alone, Simon Kerrigan endured a catastrophic debut at the Oval in August, James Tredwell isn't seen as a Test spinner given his first-class record, while Danny Briggs is currently viewed as a limited-overs operator.
That leaves Panesar with his 167 Test wickets as the only plausible option for England.