England stand-ins take the final stand
Vaughan's returns for Yorkshire this week have been mixed - 67 in a one-day outing; 1 from 13 balls in the Championship. But the mere fact that he has been seen on a cricket pitch at all is the big news, after an anxious six-month recuperation from his knee injury. "Hopefully he'll be back sooner rather than later," said Andrew Flintoff, who has stood in admirably as captain since the tour to India in March. "I'm enjoying doing the job, but for how much longer I'm not sure."
Under Flintoff's stewardship, England have broadened their base without necessarily carrying their cricket to another level. New players such as Alastair Cook, Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett have stated their case for long-term retention, but with Steve Harmison cranking up the pace in the nets, and even Ashley Giles joining the squad for his first jog round the pitch since his hernia operation, the prospect of England's first-choice XI reuniting before the summer is out is growing all the time.
And so, with a six-week gap to follow between this match and England's next Test encounter, against Pakistan in July, the Trent Bridge match is sizing up as a high-profile audition. Of all the protagonists on show, the middle-order pair of Cook and Paul Collingwood are the men most in need of runs as Vaughan prepares for his return. It's the sort of healthy competition that all teams long for, and it should ensure that England's batsmen are sufficiently motivated to prevent an embarrassing series-levelling upset.
Cook, for one, is unfazed by the challenge that awaits him, and seeing as he has been averaging over 60 since scoring a century on debut in Nagpur, he is understandably confident about his career prospects. "''Everyone knows runs are what England selection has been based on," he said. "If you are in the shirt, and scoring, it just makes selection [of others] very tough. If I keep scoring runs, and big runs at that, I should hopefully keep my place."
Collingwood, so often the bridesmaid of England's line-up, seems the more likely to be squeezed out by Vaughan's return, not least because he is currently being squeezed between England's two biggest drawcards; Flintoff at No. 6 and Kevin Pietersen at No. 4, who has hit upon the richest vein of form of his already stellar career. With big hundreds in each of the first two Tests, not to mention that 158 against the Aussies last summer, he is demonstrating just how at home he feels in his adopted country.
His performances, in fact, have drawn praise from one of the alltime greats, Sir Viv Richards, who admires the fact that Pietersen doesn't "muck about". "Batsmanship is all about scoring runs and going past fielders," enthused the Master Blaster. "The idea of playing the ball in a correct way is rubbish - and I don't believe it works."
The sight of Pietersen reverse-sweeping Muttiah Muralitharan for six will stick in the minds of everyone who witnessed it - not least the Sri Lankan fielders, who must feel the same sense of shock and awe that Richards instilled each time he walked to the crease in the 1980s. If England win the toss on a dry pitch that is expected once again to be good for batting, Pietersen is in the sort of form to put the series out of reach by the end of the first day.
And yet, the dryness of the wicket could still play into Sri Lanka's hands. Had Muralitharan had a decent total to defend in the fourth innings at Edgbaston, he could have made life extremely tricky for England. Instead, he made do with his 15th ten-wicket haul in 105 Tests, and given that this could prove to be his final Test in England, his incentive could hardly be greater for another command performance.
Any ideas of playing the specialist legspinner, Malinga Bandara, were scotched when he limped out of training yesterday, but that misfortune could yet pave the way for a return of Sanath Jayasuriya. Since he emerged from retirement, he has been steadfastly overlooked by the tour management, but now - with a series to salvage and last-ditchism taking hold - they seem set to thrust him back into the fray for the 103rd time.
"There is a very good chance he will play," confirmed Sri Lanka's captain, Mahela Jayawardene. "It won't be easy for him coming back after having so little recent cricket, but he is an experienced guy, and that is where experience counts. If we have Sanath it gives us a little bit more depth in our batting, a bit more experience, as well as a different variation to our attack."
Jayasuriya's under-rated left-arm spin has earned him 92 wickets at 33.18 in his career to date, and if he is included in the middle-order at the expense of Thilan Samaraweera, it will be for this facet of the game as much as any other. "We feel there might be some spin in the latter part of the Test match," explained Jayawardene, "so he gives us a different option."
Whether it is sufficient to derail England's progress depends largely on the stickability of Sri Lanka's top-order which, but for that freakish rearguard at Lord's, has been all too susceptible to the extra pace, bounce and movement of England's seam attack, not least Matthew Hoggard, who has 208 Test wickets and climbing, and could be closing in on his former senior partners, Darren Gough (229) and Andrew Caddick (234), before the summer is out.
Even so, caution is England's watchword at moments like this. "We are not going to take it lightly," confirmed Flintoff. "The one thing we can't be is complacent. We've got to look after our game and be professional." As the extras flitting around the England camp would confirm, there are plenty of candidates queuing up to take over, should the current incumbents get too far ahead of themselves.
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Alastair Cook, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff (capt), 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Liam Plunkett, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Sajid Mahmood, 11 Monty Panesar.
Sri Lanka (from) 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Michael Vandort, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 6 Chamara Kapugedera, 7 Farvez Maharoof, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Muttiah Muralitharan, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Nuwan Zoysa, 12 Sanath Jayasuriya.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo