Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick
The possibility of Jonathan Trott resuming his international career looks to have increased with his inclusion in the England Lions squad to tour South Africa. Trott has not played for England since returning from the Ashes in Australia last year, when he suffered a stress-related breakdown, but finished the county season in fine form for Warwickshire.
The touring party also features the leading candidates to open the batting alongside Alastair Cook in the Test side. Sam Robson, Cook's partner during the summer series against India and Sri Lanka, faces competition from Yorkshire pair Adam Lyth and Alex Lees for a place in the Test XI in the Caribbean and, beyond that, the 2015 Ashes.
Trott, Robson and Kent offspinner Adam Riley have only been named in the squad for two first-class matches against South Africa A; they will be replaced by Samit Patel, Jason Roy and Stephen Parry for the five one-day matches to follow.
There are seven Yorkshire players among the 17, reflecting their dominance in the County Championship. Alongside Lyth and Lees are Gary Ballance, who has taken up Trott's heavy-scoring mantle as England's Test No. 3, and full internationals Jonny Bairstow, Liam Plunkett and Adil Rashid. Ballance was left out of the ODI party for Sri Lanka but remains in contention, with both Lions squads dependent on England selection for the tri-series in Australia that precedes the World Cup.
The return of Trott to England colours is a heartening postscript to his troubles last winter. Following his departure from Australia, he suffered a relapse at the start of the domestic season that led to another enforced break from the game; but he returned to great success in the second half of the season, finishing the Royal London Cup as the leading English run-scorer to go alongside three Championship centuries for Warwickshire.
In recent days Trott has appeared on the BBC's A Question of Sport - where he correctly identified fellow England batsman Ravi Bopara during the "Guess the Sportsman" round - and Channel 4's coverage of the NFL, having gone to Wembley as a fan. He was recently passed fit by the ECB's medical staff and his relaxed demeanour suggested a rediscovered sense of contentment.
The inclusion of Lyth and Lees to provide competition for Robson was more predictable, with England yet to be convinced by the Australia-born Middlesex opener. Lyth finished the season as the leading first-class run-scorer in England, and winner of the Professional Cricketers' Association and Cricket Writers' Club player awards, while Lees matched his team-mate with twin accolades in the young player category.
England do not play Test cricket again until April, their diet stuffed with ODIs ahead of the World Cup, giving the Lions tour extra significance. Three Tests are scheduled against the West Indies, although the current players dispute could potentially affect that series, followed by two more at home against New Zealand, then the Ashes - by which time Cook will hope to be certain of his opening partner.
Sam Billings, Kent's explosive wicketkeeper, will provide competition for Bairstow behind the stumps, while Somerset allrounder Craig Overton has overtaken his twin brother, Jamie, who was an unused member of England's ODI squad in 2013. James Vince, one of the most highly regarded young batsmen on the circuit and the leading Championship run-scorer last season, is another fresh face but the selectors have not focused solely on youth, with Boyd Rankin, another casualty of England's disastrous Ashes, also included.
James Whitaker, the national selector, said: "We believe that the 17 players provisionally included across the two Lions squads for the tour to South Africa in the New Year incorporates an excellent mix of international experience alongside fresh young talent. For the likes of Sam Billings, Craig Overton and Adam Riley to be playing alongside Sam Robson, Gary Ballance and Jonny Bairstow in a Lions tour is an exciting prospect for the future of English cricket, and I am certain that all of the players will learn a great deal from the experience.
"Jonathan Trott's exceptional form and run scoring exploits for Warwickshire at the end of the summer has resulted in his selection for the first-class fixtures at the beginning of the tour. Congratulations to him and to all of the players selected."
The team will be coached by Sussex's Mark Robinson, with former England team director Andy Flower, now the ECB's elite performance director, likely to be involved. The Lions will play the first-class matches at the start of the month-long tour, in mid-January, before switching to 50-over cricket.
Separately, the ECB have also facilitated a return to coaching for Ottis Gibson, who left his job in charge of the West Indies in August. Gibson, who previously worked with England under Flower, will assist the England Performance Programme fast-bowling camp in South Africa before Christmas. Robert Croft, the former Glamorgan and England offspinner, is expected to work with young spin bowlers on scholarships in Sri Lanka.
England Lions first-class squad: Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance (both Yorkshire), Sam Billings (Kent), Jack Brooks, Alex Lees, Adam Lyth (all Yorkshire), Craig Overton (Somerset), Liam Plunkett (Yorkshire), Boyd Rankin (Warwickshire), Adil Rashid (Yorkshire), Adam Riley (Kent), Sam Robson (Middlesex), Jonathan Trott (Warwickshire), James Vince (Hampshire)
England Lions one-day squad: Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance, Sam Billings, Jack Brooks, Alex Lees, Adam Lyth, Craig Overton, Stephen Parry (Lancashire), Samit Patel (Nottinghamshire), Liam Plunkett, Boyd Rankin, Adil Rashid, Jason Roy (Surrey), James Vince