Vaughan's long road back gets narrower

When Michael Vaughan tearfully resigned the England captaincy at the beginning of August he made it clear he didn't think it was the end. His plan was to return to Yorkshire, churn out the runs, earn a winter tour place and have another crack at Australia in 2009. So much for the best-laid plans, there was no late Christmas present for Vaughan from the selectors.
At the end of the summer his mind had gone and after a few failures in county cricket he pulled out of the last match of the season. That was shortly followed by Geoff Miller's announcement that he wouldn't be considered for the India series even though he had been handed a central contract two weeks previously. Vaughan's next hope was a productive time with the Academy in Bangalore with a couple of matches to press his claims, but the Mumbai terror attacks ended those hopes.

Now he has been left out of the squad to tour West Indies and hasn't even been included in the Lions team to tour New Zealand, seemingly an ideal route for some reasonably competitive cricket in unpressurised surroundings. Instead, he has been told to begin pre-season with Yorkshire, which includes a one-day tournament in the Middle East, before the County Championship season starts in April.

For all Vaughan's desire to rekindle his spark against Australia time is now running desperately short. His last chance appears to be that England's batting slumps in the Caribbean and he starts the season with a bang before the two Tests against West Indies in May.

Four Ashes centuries and an average against Australia of 47.95 can't be overlooked and if neither Ian Bell or Owais Shah convince in West Indies the door will be ajar that little bit further. Kevin Pietersen, too, could still have a major say as he has huge respect for Vaughan and what he could add to the team. Eventually, though, time moves on too far and going back can stop a side moving forward. And if England's hopes against a troubled Australia side rest so heavily on a 34-year-old with dodgy knees it doesn't say much about what is coming through.

The selectors couldn't have justified selecting him for the four-Test tour of West Indies, regardless of his pedigree, past performances, experience and the fact he now appears an expensive luxury with an ECB contract. It would have sent out a depressing message to the batsmen waiting for the chance, notably Shah, if Vaughan had walked back in without picking up a run.

His season looks likely to start in the humble surroundings of Fenner's where Yorkshire play Cambridge University on April 11, then there are two Championship matches before the first Test against West Indies. The first of those is against Durham, a potentially tasty encounter with Steve Harmison depending on how much he is rested after the Caribbean.

The way the fixture list has worked for next season, May is then dominated by one-day cricket - both 50-over and Twenty20 - except for the Tests against West Indies, so to have a realistic chance of playing the first Ashes Test at Cardiff he would have to play at Lord's and Chester-le-Street.

However, the fact that England stuck largely with the squad on duty in India doesn't mean the final XI will be the same. In fact, if there aren't changes, the calls of it being a closed shop will intensify. The No. 3 spot is still up for grabs after Bell's poor tour and Shah is waiting for a chance to add to his two Test caps. He was unlucky not get an opportunity in Mohali, but England's loyalty to Bell - and Miller's view that "you don't become a bad player overnight" when Bell's lean run has been much longer - is weighing the top-order down.

Bell can count himself lucky to be touring at all after making 182 runs in his last 10 Test innings, but he is especially fortunate to retain his one-day place after being dropped in India. The limited-overs selection is as uncertain as ever and a recall for Dimitri Mascarenhas plus a first chance for Steven Davies, Worcestershire's hard-hitting left-handed wicketkeeper-batsman, are the latest parts of the merry-go-round.

Although the next World Cup is just two years away England's main priority in 2009 will be their Test form with the Ashes contest looming. The two warm-up matches in St Kitts at the end of January are shaping to be vitally important for Bell and Shah, along with the fight for the spinner's spot between Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. Swann was comfortably the better spinner in India - and Caribbean conditions rarely require two, although don't rule it out in Antigua which is a batsman's paradise - so Panesar's place has never looked more insecure, especially with Adil Rashid also retained in the squad. Both Swann and Rashid offer an all-round package and if Panesar isn't taking wickets he isn't offering much.

But while those battles will be played out on the sun-kissed islands of the Caribbean, Vaughan's own fight will be far less exotic. Unless he finds himself some club cricket in South Africa or Australia he faces indoor nets at the Headingley and Loughborough before Yorkshire head to Abu Dhabi for the Pro-Arch tournament. Last March, that event provided Andrew Flintoff with his first competitive action after ankle surgery as he began is path back to international cricket. Vaughan can take inspiration from that, but the chances of him enjoying another Ashes adventure with Flintoff are fading.