England v Sri Lanka, NatWest Series June 7, 2006

Vaughan close to England return

Cricinfo staff

Michael Vaughan: could be called upon at end of NatWest Series © Getty Images
Andrew Flintoff's prospects of playing in the forthcoming NatWest Series against Sri Lanka may be in serious doubt, but England's selectors are increasingly optimistic that their regular captain, Michael Vaughan, may be back to action before the end of the five-match campaign.

Vaughan has not featured for England since returning home from Pakistan last December, but has been testing his wounded knee on the county circuit with Yorkshire. He made 99 in their latest championship match at Southgate, and Duncan Fletcher, England's coach, believes he'll be available within three weeks' time.

"He might not make it for the early part; he wants to make sure he is 100% fit," said Fletcher. "If he feels right we can pull him in at the back end of the series." Should neither be available for the early matches, Andrew Strauss is expected to be named as captain.

Vaughan admitted last weekend he is "some way off" full international fitness, but though England do not wish to rush him back and risk exacerbating the problem, his leadership qualities have been sorely missed in the intervening months.

Impressive though Flintoff proved to be in India, his tactical nous was found wanting at crucial moments against Sri Lanka. Since the Ashes, England have won just two Tests in nine, and have yet to win a series in three.

Flintoff is almost certain to be ruled out of the squad when a delayed announcement is made at 15.10GMT tomorrow afternoon. "If he plays it's a bonus," conceded Fletcher, who has mooted the possibility of using him as a batsman only. "It has got to be a concern because he is such a major player for us. He helps get the balance of the side right."

In Flintoff's likely absence, England may offer a recall to Surrey's Rikki Clarke, whose batting has improved markedly this season. He averages 59 in the championship with a highest score of 130, and his bowling is good for a tidy spell in the middle overs. And with Ian Blackwell missing through injury as well, Alex Loudon could be called upon to fill the spinning option, and offer some valuable runs in the middle order

Kevin Pietersen is a doubt after suffering a tear in his left hamstring during the latter stages of the Trent Bridge Test. However, Paul Collingwood, who went to hospital for X-rays on his bruised ribs, is expected to be fully fit and ready for action, while England will welcome back Steve Harmison with open arms, now that he has recovered from his shin problems.

England squad (possible) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss (capt), 3 Ian Bell, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Alastair Cook, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Liam Plunkett, 9 Sajid Mahmood, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Jon Lewis, 12 Rikki Clarke, 13 Alex Loudon, 14 Michael Vaughan, 15 Stuart Broad.