Skipper Strauss seeks smoother blend
"Dear Santa," you can imagine Andrew Strauss writing, "please bring me one Test opener, a number six, one all-rounder and - since I've been a very good skipper this year - a rapid pace bowler too."
England may have escaped from the first Test at Centurion with the series still level, but it is flaws more than draws which will occupy their captain's thoughts over the Christmas period.
While South Africa have been the best Test side in the world for the last two years, England remain a work in progress - capable of matching the best in some sessions and plumbing the dreadful depths in others. And the troubles begin at the very top of the order.
After a wonderful start to his international career - a hundred in his first match, the youngest Englishman to 2,000 Test runs - Alastair Cook is mired in the middle of a horrible slump.
Six centuries in his first 16 months with England have been followed by just two in the last two years; while his average over the past 12 months is a respectable 42, that figure is inflated by his runs against a weak West Indies side.
In the past two Test series, against Australia and South Africa, that average is down to 20.75. In his last eight innings, he has scored just 138 runs at an average of 17.
At Centurion Cook had the unfortunate look of a walking wicket. He has been tweaking his technique with his Essex mentor Graham Gooch, trying to stand taller at the crease and get his feet moving earlier, but the vulnerability to a right-arm bowler's delivery angled across him, first exposed by Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee during the 2006-07 Ashes, still remains after a half-century of Test caps.
It's a similar story for Ian Bell at six - 50 Tests, the same problems as evident last week as they were 40 Tests ago. While his overall average is ok - 3151 runs at 39 - in his last five matches he has scored just 179 at an average of just under 20.
Bell's record against South Africa is better than that of some of his more celebrated team-mates: an average of 38, including that 199 at Lord's last year. At the same time, wherever there is an England collapse, Bell is an inevitable part of it, from Sabina Park to Centurion.
With recent records like that, both men would ordinarily expect to be under severe pressure for their slots. In this England set-up, they're not.
There are no more specialist batsmen in the touring party. If Strauss and coach Andy Flower want to go into the next Test in Durban with six batsmen again, Cook and Bell will keep their places.
It's not entirely the fault of the selectors. There simply aren't that many young batsmen knocking on the door. The two specialists in England's performance squad in South Africa are both 29 years old - Stephen Moore, and Michael Carberry. Both average less than Bell and Cook in county cricket. The other man mentioned in dispatches, Kent's Joe Denly, averages only 36 for his county. They are not the most convincing of cases.
In English conditions, Strauss has a bowling attack that can take 20 wickets. Overseas, when the ball isn't swinging, it's a different story. It doesn't help that the Kookaburra ball used everywhere except England and India loses all shape and shine after 25 overs, but there is a lack of variety in the attack which is exposed when conditions are placid.
In South Africa's first innings at Centurion, with bowling conditions at their best, England struggled to capitalise.
James Anderson was accurate without threatening, Stuart Broad too short too often. Graham Onions bowled an excellent wicket-to-wicket line and Graeme Swann continued his wonderful year, but in comparison to the bowling options Graeme Smith will have at his disposal on Boxing Day (Dale Steyn for Makhaya Ntini if fit, impressive debutant Friedel de Wet, fit-again Jacques Kallis plus the bounce of Morne Morkel and strange hold of Paul Harris) Strauss looks relatively impoverished.
What of the option of switching to a five-man attack and dropping a batsman - probably Bell?
Under this scenario, Matt Prior would move up six; although his performance with the bat last week might suggest that's a place too high, his Test average there is more than 10 runs higher than his average lower down the order. Broad might seem exposed at seven but has the same Test batting average as Mark Boucher does in the same slot for the opposition, while Swann's average of 36 is more than adequate for a Test number eight.
The issue is whether any of the bowlers available to Strauss and Flower will make a significant difference.
If they think the ball will swing at Kingsmead like it did four years ago (exemplified by the in-dipper from Matthew Hoggard that left Smith sprawling and plumb lbw) then Ryan Sidebottom would be the man to come in, but recent Tests in Durban, have been notable for the absence of those conditions. And if Sidebottom isn't swinging it, his lack of pace can leave him horribly exposed.
Of the others, Liam Plunkett has barely played on tour. His Durham team-mate Mark Davies has been called up from the performance squad, but his 19 championship wickets last season were taken in seam-friendly conditions. James Tredwell is only in the Test squad as back-up for Swann.
All of which means that, in the absence of The Fred Who Must Not Be Named, Luke Wright - first-class batting average of 35, first-class bowling average of 42 - is suddenly being touted as the solution to England's woes. Stick him in at seven, goes the thinking, and utilise his busy bowling to fill the gaps left elsewhere.
At best, Wright's selection would represent a gamble. At worst, it would leave England neither strengthened in the batting department nor richer in bowling resources.
The result? Strauss and Flower, despite the clear problems with the current line-up, are likely to stick with it, for the next Test at least.
In their brief time working together, their partnership has been marked by consistency in selection and a refusal to make dramatic changes. On Wednesday, Flower made a show of giving his public backing to the under-fire Bell. "He's a high-quality player," he said. "I think he'll be fine."
It's worked before, most noticeably after the debacles last summer in Cardiff and Leeds. On both occasions England were thrashed, kept their faith in virtually the same line-up and were rewarded with wins in the next two Tests.
When a change was made, it was the logical, next-man-in-line decision to bring in Jonathan Trott, rather than the romantic and deluded options of Ramprakash and Trescothick - and look how well that worked out.
To emerge from the carnage of that last session at Centurion still level with South Africa will give England significant confidence, just as the last-gasp heroics in south Wales did at the start of the Ashes.
The difference this time is that they are away from home, far from the familiar surroundings that suit their style. More importantly still, the opposition are the finest in the world, a side mixing grizzled veterans with young dashers rather than a workmanlike collection of honest pros.
Expect frowns and furrowed brows to exceed fun and festivities in Camp England this Christmas.