England's hopes of successfully defending the Ashes this winter received a severe and possibly fatal blow yesterday, when it was announced Michael Vaughan will be unable to play cricket for between four and six months. Vaughan, England's inspirational captain, has spent the entire summer battling to overcome the chronic knee injury he sustained in November during the winter tour of Pakistan and, in an effort to return to the level of fitness required to play international cricket, he will undergo surgery on Tuesday.
Though slim, Vaughan's participation in the Ashes cannot yet be totally ruled out. The first Test in Brisbane starts in just under five months' time, on 23 November, and if his rehabilitation were to go swimmingly he still has an outside chance of playing. But England, and Vaughan's medical team, are reluctant to put any time scale in place, because by doing so they would put unwelcome pressure on the player to rush his recovery.
The prospect of missing the Ashes will hurt Vaughan deeply but the most important thing for him is that he plays cricket without pain. The medics have not said it but, realistically, this is a make-or-break operation. If the surgery and rehabilitation are successful the 31 year-old could return to play at the highest level for another three or four years. But should Vaughan suffer a further setback, it would probably signify the end of his career.
"I really feel for Michael," said Duncan Fletcher, the England coach. "He is so keen and passionate about playing for England and really wants to get out there and score runs for us again. I feel really frustrated for him because he worked very hard to get playing again. There was no messing around for him, he did everything properly and it's desperately bad luck that he now has to have an operation.
"He just loves batting and scoring runs and to have that taken away must be very hard. He is desperate to get back playing again and we are all hoping the operation is successful and he can return for England."
The operation will be the second Vaughan has had on his degenerative right knee in seven months and the fourth of his career. Once inside the joint, the surgeon will attempt to repair damaged articular cartilage. Many may ask why Vaughan did not have this operation in March after returning home early from England's winter tour of India. It would have given him plenty of time to get fit for the Ashes. But having had an operation in December 2005, specialists would have been reluctant to go in again and, instead, recommended rest and an intensive course of physiotherapy.
The plan appeared to be working when Vaughan made a successful return with Yorkshire but the problem resurfaced as his workload increased.
"Our priority now is to safeguard Michael's long-term interests and ensure that he can resume his playing career," said Dr Peter Gregory, the chief medical officer of the England and Wales Cricket Board. "He will have our full support and we will be closely monitoring his progress in conjunction with the staff at Yorkshire who will supervise his day-to-day rehabilitation programme."
Vaughan's probable absence from Australia means England now have to find a permanent captain, and the man who leads the side in the coming four-Test series against Pakistan should be the man who fronts England's Ashes campaign.
Since Vaughan's injury, Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss have stood in with mixed results.
Neither player yet has the presence or authority of Vaughan but Flintoff is expected to be offered the job, despite fears it will have a detrimental effect on his cricket. But naming Flintoff is far from straightforward. He is currently resting with an ankle injury, and he looks set to miss the first Test against Pakistan.
From Ashes to ashes: Vaughan's losing battle with injury
Vaughan leads England to historic Ashes series win with a rain-affected draw in the fifth Test at the Oval, thanks to centuries from South African-born duo Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen.
7th Injures knee and retires hurt on day two of the second tour match against Pakistan A, which England lose by six wickets.
11th Ruled out of first Test against Pakistan in Multan with Marcus Trescothick taking over as captain.
20 Returns for second Test in Faisalabad which England draw. Also plays in third Test in Lahore, which England lose to suffer a 2-0 series defeat.
6th Announces he is to undergo exploratory knee surgery and will miss the five-match one-day series in Pakistan.
27th Cleared to lead England on tour to India, but is ruled out of first Test and returns home from Nagpur after a recurrence of his knee injury.
2nd Ruled out of the entire series against India following a visit to his specialist.
29th Returns to action in Yorkshire's C&G Trophy game against Scotland, scoring 67. Comeback too late to feature in either Test or one-day series against Sri Lanka.
22th Unable to field during Yorkshire's County Championship match against Sussex at Arundel.
29th Told he needs a fourth operation on his knee, ruling him out for four to six months.Reuse content