"When you are away from the game it probably rejuvenates your love for it." That assessment came from Daniel Vettori as he contemplated his lengthy absence from the fray. Against Sri Lanka, in New Zealand's first game in the Champions Trophy, Vettori finally made his return. One wonders how rejuvenated his love feels now.

Vettori still loves the game, but he is uncertain whether the game still loves him. These days it gives him so much hardship. Back on the field, in his first ODI for 27 months, he gazed into its eyes, hoping his love would not go unrequited, but the game gave him mixed messages, flattering him for all it was worth, without ever suggesting that things were how they used to be.

"Tell me you need me, tell me we'll grow old together, tell me I'm still the one," Vettori said to the game. And, in his first over, the game assured him he was still a superhero. "I've made you a used, dry pitch, your favourite," said the game. But as he ran in to bowl, his body thicker these days, his movements more cumbersome, he still feared the game was looking elsewhere.

He came on for the eighth over, his appetite whetted by the presence of Mahela Jayawardene, who he had picked off regularly over the years. They had first come up against each other in an ODI in Napier in 2001 and Vettori got him lbw. The habit was still ingrained in what had been his 273rd and last ODI - the World Cup semi-final in Colombo - when Jayawardene was lbw to his third ball. "Memories like that can help get you through," said the game.

New Zealand lost that match, another near miss in a major tournament, and immediately afterwards Vettori announced that he would take a prolonged rest from ODIs to prolong his Test career. He has been resting, or retiring or recuperating ever since: different words, but all signifying that the years were passing by and he was no longer on the field.

This time, in Cardiff, his third ball turned and skimmed past Jayawardene's outside edge. The next ball, tossed up higher, slid through Jayawardene's defences and struck him on the back pad. Vettori begged the umpire, Bruce Oxenford, for the lbw decision and when it came Jayawardene knew, in his heart, that there was little point in a review.

At the end of the over, Vettori was withdrawn from the attack, his immediate job done. He returned later and, in all, conceded only 16 runs in six overs, conceding boundaries to Angelo Mathews, a full toss bashed through midwicket, and to Lahiru Thirimanne, a slog sweep in the same direction. After such a lengthy lay-off, he could not have asked for much more.

His spectacles glinted and tongue lolled from his mouth, with the intense concentration of a student sitting finals, just as it had always done. He demanded respect; he might have lost his litheness, but he will never lose his game sense. He took a catch too, back-pedalling five yards to clutch a routine skier from Thisara Perera at mid-on.

"I'm still the one, tell me you'll never let me go," Vettori told the game. But the game could not be entirely oblivious to the heavy strapping on his right arm, a more ungainly approach to the crease and his limping gait at mid-on. It had heard too, about the mesh implanted into his groin earlier this year to address another injury concern. Then there was the hand pressed into the thigh whenever he bent down to field, a legacy of years of back trouble, once an endearing idiosyncracy, now a reminder of his growing vulnerability.

His ambitions once stretched no further than becoming a pharmacist, after taking a degree in health sciences, but it is likely that no amounts of pills or potions will spare him now.

There was a time when the game almost loved him without limits. Back in 2009, he dominated for New Zealand with bat and ball, but even then the side he led was poor and, as much as people spoke about his nous and praised him for holding New Zealand cricket together, he was landed with one of the worst captaincy records in New Zealand's history. They even lost 4-0 in a one-day series in Bangladesh.

It was good to see him back, but he did not look fit. New Zealand will give serious thought to resting him against Australia in Birmingham and keeping him for what could be more spin-friendly conditions back in Cardiff against England on Friday. But his return did not give much credence to his wish to stick around long enough for the 2015 World Cup, to be held in Australia and New Zealand. This tournament might yet become his farewell.

Most disturbing was his response when Mitchell McCleneghan bowled Mathews round his legs. He clapped his hands in delight, but hobbled in to join the celebratory huddle so slowly that by the time he arrived, the wisecracks had already ended. The achilles injury that has prevented two earlier attempts at a comeback in England this summer still seems with him.

Neither will there be many times when New Zealand will wish to field two spinners, as they did today. One of Vettori's great achievements has been to build such a record in a country with a climate not conducive to spin bowling. Nathan McCullum, who has advanced his one-day career in Vettori's absence, has a worse bowling average, but he is a stronger batsman, and busy and purposeful in the field.

But at least Vettori was spinning a cricket ball again. It was better than spinning apples. In IPL this year, about the only time he came to anybody's attention was when he joined Sir Richard Hadlee to appear in a promotional video for New Zealand apples, complete with a powerful rock music soundtrack. Vettori tried to look tough and mean, as if spinning apples was the challenge he had been seeking all his life, but it was his head that must have been spinning.

In between times, he grew a bushy brown beard, which is the sort of thing you do to pass the time in India hotel rooms when there is no cricket to be had. He was clean-shaven for his comeback, 34-years-old yet strangely full of excitement and trepidation.

He came in to bat with New Zealand rocking at 70 for 5, but was unable to turn the game. He made five in an uncomfortable 15-ball stay and then fell lbw to Lasith Malinga. Replays showed that he had got an inside edge, and he knew it, but New Zealand had already used up their review.

"That's not fair," Vettori told the game. But the game was looking away.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo