And then there were three. The number of contenders for the key position in England's batting order was reduced yesterday: Ian Bell was the man seemingly deleted from the possibles and Michael Vaughan might have been pushed up to the probables. There was nothing official, no indication from the selectors that they had ruled anybody in or anybody out, but the runes were there to be read in the announcement of the England Lions team to play the West Indies next week.
This is effectively England's second string, the men who are in the selectors' thoughts but not usually in their first team. There at No 3 was Bell, until a matter of weeks ago the man who was in pole position to play in the blue-riband batting position in the Ashes series this summer. But he stumbled badly on the recent tour of the Caribbean when an abject dismissal in the second innings of the first Test provoked England's collapse and subsequent defeat.
It was the culmination of a lean run for the batsman who is England's most gifted craftsman and he was dropped. The feeling was that he had sold his wicket too cheaply too often and needed to refresh his mental approach. By picking him in the Lions squad yesterday, England have virtually excluded him from consideration for the first Test against the West Indies at Lord's which begins on 6 May. The squad for that match is being announced the day before the Lions game begins.
That also means that England are of a mind to begin the Ashes without him. Of course, if Bell's rich vein of early season form continues and his replacements fail he could still receive the call. The three men still left standing are Vaughan, Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah. While Shah took over from Bell in the Caribbean, he rapidly lost ground after a half-century in his first innings and by the end looked not only out of form but out of his class.
It would be a risk to retain faith in Shah now but equally Bopara, who made a hundred batting at six in his only Test in the West Indies, has no experience of batting at three in Test matches. That England are so close to playing Australia without being sure of the identity of the man who may very well dictate the course of many innings is extremely worrying. They have all but run out of time to bring stability and Vaughan's experience must begin to look more attractive to them by the day. But they need him to make runs quickly. With Shah and Bopara playing in the Indian Premier League he has the field to himself.
The rest of the Lions team consists largely of those who went to New Zealand two months ago. They will again be led by Robert Key, who may yet contend for a Test place himself.
England Lions (v West Indies, Derby, starting 30 Apr): R Key (Kent, capt), T Ambrose (Warwicks, wkt), I Bell (Warwicks), S Mahmood (Lancs), S Moore (Worcs), S Patel (Notts), L Plunkett (Durham), A Rashid (Yorkshire), J Trott (Warwickshire), C Woakes (Warwickshire), L Wright (Sussex).