Clues point to Vaughan but Bell may be answer

England selectors keen to pick former captain at No 3 in short-term gamble
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For the England selectors it is Laurel and Hardy time again. On this occasion it is difficult to know who may be Oliver and who may be Stan, but at some point in the next few days somebody will think as he discusses the pressing issues of the day with a colleague: "That's another fine mess you've me got into."

And mess of Sons of the Desert proportions it is. An oasis may be hard to find. There are 73 days to go to the Ashes, and counting, and England at present have no No 3 batsman, no all-rounder and must be desperately worried about their fifth bowler, if indeed they decide they need a fifth bowler.

Before the Ashes begin they have two Test matches against West Indies, both of which should be won if hopes are to be entertained of reclaiming the Ashes urn in August; three one-day internationals, which are largely insignificant; and the World Twenty20, for which they look hopelessly ill-equipped.

The selection of the squad for the opening two Tests of the summer, to be announced on Wednesday, will indicate their policy for the Ashes. Any tinkering that is needed by then will merely confirm England's haplessness.

In the short term they must decide how best to cope without Andrew Flintoff, who will have surgery on a torn meniscus in his right knee this week. But they must also determine whether to recall their former captain Michael Vaughan or Ian Bell, the mercurial Warwickshire batsman who should now be at the height of his powers.

Yet also under consideration will be Ravi Bopara, completely untried at No 3, or Owais Shah, the man nominally in possession. Both of them are rather unhelpfully strutting their stuff in the Indian Premier League in South Africa, although in Shah's case he is largely carrying drinks, a task with which he has become familiar over the years.

Flintoff has returned home from the IPL, where he suffered the latest injury to his increasingly vulnerable body. He remains integral to England's strategy for the Ashes, and although there was much righteous carping about his participation in the IPL – and what it might lead to – he has those 10 precious weeks to recover. Forget everything else; the date on everybody's minds has to be 8 July at Cardiff.

It is highly improbable that England will enter the arena with six batsmen and four bowlers in Flintoff's renewed absence. To have any chance of winning the Tests they need to regain the Ashes, England will need five bowlers, as they did in 2005 – and indeed as they did in 1985, though not in 1981, the previous two occasions they won the Ashes at home.

There is also Lord's to consider. The last six Tests there, since Australia had a crushing victory four years ago, have been drawn. Although both England's probable new-ball bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, have begun the season in superb fettle (with 11 and seven wickets respectively in the opening Championship matches), Lord's has become a bowling graveyard.

Despite protestations to the contrary, candidates for the fifth bowler are hardly auspicious, especially as Ryan Sidebottom is still recuperating after Achilles surgery. Two spinners, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, may be an option down the line, but Sajid Mahmood could merit a recall now.

The No 3 batting position is full of intrigue. Vaughan may well be the favoured option of the new men in charge of England. There have been little clues. He is batting at No 3 for Yorkshire, something he has done in only eight innings in his entire county career. And the manner in which he went about his work yesterday suggested not only that he knew he needed time at the crease but that he also may have been told that time at the crease would do the trick.

Vaughan looks lean, fit and hungry but he has flattered to deceive in too many of his Test innings since returning from a knee injury, while giving up the captaincy last summer may also have removed his raison d'etre. Bell may be the preferred option for the rest of the dressing room, and he is seven years younger than Vaughan.

He too has squandered opportunities without shaking off the suspicion that he is psychologically brittle. Shah utterly failed to nail down the spot when given his chance on flat pitches in the Caribbean, while Bopara should have declared his intent by not going to the IPL, despite his innings of 84 in Durban on Friday.

It depends on your view: whether Vaughan's days of wine and roses are in the past and whether Bell's are still to come.