Michael Vaughan will return to lead England in the Austral-ian one-day tournament. He was officially announced last night as the captain for the Commercial Bank Series after it was decreed that his injured right knee is now fully recovered after surgery.
The news should be greeted with a mixture of relief and apprehension. The first reaction comes because he has been so obviously missed this winter. As the Ashes series grew steadily worse for the tourists against a formidable foe whom they had not the foggiest idea how to repel, so the yearning for Vaughan grew in direct proportion.
He would not have been the difference between victory and defeat but he would have made England tougher. Yet there is a second response, born of concern about his knee. It has been constantly fiddled with. He has had precious little cricket to prepare for an intense international competition, and the match he had for MCC at Bowral last week was strictly of the social variety.
If Vaughan's joint can withstand the rigours of the impending competition - which involves England, Australia and New Zealand - and the World Cup in the West Indies to follow, England will be a stronger team. He will not (and even more so) be the difference between victory and defeat. England's wretched one-day record (seven wins in 26 matches) provides no reason for expectation against either of the opponents, and Vaughan's own record matches that of the team. He has never made a century in 74 one-dayers and has a moderate strike rate of 68.
But he will still lift the team, and he should do so as opener, where he fits naturally, like marmalade on toast, with Ian Bell at three. Vaughan's major challenge will be to raise Andrew Flintoff's game once more. Perhaps, who knows, shedding the captaincy will have a similar effect on this all-rounder as it did on a predecessor, Ian Botham, a generation ago.
On paper, and probably on the pitch, England's squad are paper- thin. Starting with the one-off Twenty20 match in Sydney on Tuesday, England must play Australia five times in the next month. It would be no surprise if they lost the lot, and they will also have their work cut out against New Zealand.
The series is less frenetic than some but it will still involve 10 matches in 28 days and possibly three more in five days if they reach the finals. It may sound like just another one-day tournament and it is - except that England do not play enough one-day cricket to give them the required experience, and this is their last chance to find some cohesion before the World Cup.
Vaughan's first task will be to discuss what the best team looks like. It is shrouded in mystery, and there is still an element of panic. The selection of 36-year-old Leicestershire wicketkeeper Paul Nixon may or may not prove to be inspired, but it seems peculiar to bring in at such a stage a veteran who has never played international cricket.
The likelihood is that Nixon will start ahead of the luckless Chris Read. Indeed England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, said yesterday that he had spoken to Nixon, along with Vaughan and the one-day physio, Dean Conway, and said that they were expected to infuse the squad with enthusiasm and intensity. Appar-ently Nixon has been chosen both for his excitable wicketkeeping - he talks a lot to the opposition - and his ability to finish one-day games. But this is a reckless gamble based on scant evidence of international class.
Presumably the selectors had a fairly good idea about Nixon at the time of the last World Cup, when he was a mere 32. But wicketkeepers tend not to win matches (though they can lose them). England will need runs and therefore they need Kevin Pietersen and Flintoff to succeed almost by rotation. Pietersen is probably due a bad trot, but he never seems to have one.
There is reason to expect a fresh look to the bowling line-up. Chris Tremlett played three one-day matches in 2005 (when he was also 12th man in the first four Ashes Tests) but has spent much time since injured.
He was decidedly impressive during the National Academy's spell in Perth before Christmas and his bounce is a reliable source of worry for opposition batsmen. It is whispered that he may have to be prepared to bowl through the pain more than hitherto.
Jonathan Lewis, perhaps the most accurate bowler in England, probably deserves a run. The old mantra that he is not quick enough or bouncy enough may have merit, but they are not the only virtues. Jamie Dalrymple, at least, seems to have been the closest thing to a find. Monty Panesar will have several games.
There is not much to suggest that the next five weeks will be any more cheerful for England than the preceding eight, but the return of Vaughan, who will not be weighed down by expectation, is a very good thing indeed.
12 Jan: Australia v England (Melbourne). 14 Jan: Australia v New Zealand (Hobart). 16 Jan: England v New Zealand (Hobart). 19 Jan: Australia v England (Brisbane). 21 Jan: Australia v New Zealand (Sydney). 23 Jan: England v New Zealand (Adelaide). 26 Jan: Australia v England (Adelaide). 28 Jan: Australia v New Zealand (Perth). 30 Jan: England v New Zealand (Perth). 2 Feb: Australia v England (Sydney). 4 Feb: Australia v New Zealand (Melbourne). 6 Feb: England v New Zealand (Brisbane). 9 Feb: First final (Melbourne). 11 Feb: Second final (Sydney). 13 Feb: Third final (Brisbane).
M P Vaughan (capt, Yorks), J M Anderson (Lancs), I R Bell (Warks), P D Collingwood (Durham), J W M Dalrymple (Middx), A Flintoff (Lancs), E C Joyce (Middx), J Lewis (Gloucs), S I Mahmood (Lancs), P A Nixon (Leics), M S Panesar (Northants), K P Pietersen (Hants), L E Plunkett (Durham), C M W Read (Notts), A J Strauss (Middx), C T Tremlett (Hants).