Vaughan keeps his cards close
England's team selection remains a closely guarded secret ahead of the first Test at Kandy, as Michael Vaughan weighs up his options on a wicket that, with 24 hours to go until the start of the match, already looks barer and drier than either of the captains had envisaged. Although Vaughan said that he was pretty clear in his own mind as to what the final composition would be, he refused to rule out any options, not even the inclusion of a second spinner in Graeme Swann.
"It's been a difficult decision," said Vaughan. "We came to the ground yesterday to see a wicket that's very green, and we've come to the ground today and found it's changed a fair bit. We've had a couple of long meetings about the final eleven, which proves we've got players in the squad who are pushing for places. It's been a hard decision but we're clearer about it now."
Kandy has long been earmarked as England's best opportunity for a victory in this series, given the cooler hilly conditions and the propensity for swing and seam, and Vaughan insisted that England were committed to selecting a side that would give them the best chance of taking 20 wickets in the match. On the subject of Swann's inclusion, he offered an enigmatic "maybe", and made light of the fact that he barely featured in England's two warm-ups.
"I think you can make too much of the warm-ups," said Vaughan. "A lot of the guys have just been on the one-day [tour], and so we all feel mentally ready and in good touch. It's just a matter of trying to groove those skills and make sure our mentality is right for Test match cricket. We need to work on our plans and strategies against all their unorthodox players."
The one man who does seem likely to sit out, despite another whole-hearted net session, is Steve Harmison, whose prospects have been in jeopardy ever since he suffered a back spasm during England's warm-up in Colombo last week. "He's available, and he bowled a hell of a lot yesterday," said Vaughan. "But it would be a slight risk as we saw him walk off having bowled ten or eleven overs in the last game.
"I think the pitch offered a bit more for the quicks yesterday," said Vaughan, as he added a further reason for Harmison's probable omission. "If you bowl well on any wicket, as a good seam bowler you can get something out of it. But I think looking at that pitch you're going to have to have all your skills available, and be very controlled. I guess that's one of the reasons why we've come to the eleven we have."
James Anderson, who was again lively in practice, has pushed his way up the pecking order since recovering from a bruised left ankle, and is the favourite to join Matthew Hoggard, Ryan Sidebottom and Monty Panesar in a four-man attack. There is a chance of a fifth bowling option if Ravi Bopara is handed a chance to make his debut at No. 6, but England seem wary of his inexperience in a top-order that - given the weakness of the lower order - simply has to fire first-time.
"It could go right to the wire, so we have to bat well and the top six need some big scores," said Vaughan. "[Bopara and Shah] are both very skilled players, and in these conditions they are very suited to this style of play. They both play spin very well, they like the reversing tailing ball into the pads and they play it well. It's a real hard decision as to which gets the No. 6 spot."
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a tail that seems inordinately long for the challenge that awaits, particularly from Muralitharan. Though their chances were limited to one innings, Nos. 8 to 11 didn't manage a single run between them in the warm-ups, and Vaughan admitted it was a concern. "We'd love to have guys who can get fifties and hundreds, and who's to say they can't. But I just want 20 wickets. We have to try to pick the right bowlers to get 20 wickets, which is a positive step to try and win. If we miss out by a few runs in the batting, so be it, I'd rather go for the wickets."
The tail-enders have been working hard in the nets since England's arrival, but the onus is undoubtedly on England's specialist batsmen to give the team the necessary platform. But they'll achieve nothing if they cannot neuter the threat posed by Muralitharan. "He doesn't totally dominate our thoughts, as that would be disrespectful to the other players in their team," said Vaughan. "But we'd be silly not to put him at the forefront of our minds.
"The likes of [Lasith] Malinga, [Chaminda] Vaas and [Dilhara] Fernando are unorthodox in their own way, but the teams that come over and are successful in Sri Lanka all play Murali well," said Vaughan. "Everyone will play him in their own individual fashion - some will try to grind him out, others will try to attack him. That's all I ever say, as long as you have a plan, go and do it."
England (probable) 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Michael Vaughan (capt), 3 Ian Bell, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ravi Bopara, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Ryan Sidebottom, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 James Anderson, 11 Monty Panesar
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo