Vaughan enters proving ground

Three Tests in hostile territory in 21 days will be defining moments for the captain
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The Independent Online

Nothing that England achieve in the next three weeks can make cricket the new rugby. The opportunity for that - and indeed to get in first - was blown in considerable style earlier this year when the World Cup followed the Ashes down the plughole.

It was a losing double of significant proportions, and last weekend's escapades in Sydney merely stirred unfortunate memories. If those two competitions are not all that matter in England's cricket - witness the thousands of visiting fans who will watch the three Test matches about to be played in Sri Lanka - they tend to define its true state.

What Michael Vaughan's team must strive for in the series that begins in Galle on Tuesday is a reprise of spring 2001, when England came from behind to win a thrilling, frequently ill-tempered series in searing heat. Do that and Vaughan and his men will be on course for greater things. Dreams of future glories will be restored. Defeat will be a bigger blow because of its timing. England have pummelled Bangladesh already this winter in matches of no moment whatever. But there is a perception abroad that England need a substantial victory - and that means one against decent opposition.

The season of 2003 ended on a wonderful note at The Oval. The summer sun was high and the England and Wales Cricket Board have been all but carting Browning around with them ever since. "God's in his heaven, All's right with the world!" But that stirring win in late September allowed England only to share a series they could easily have lost by then.

England are third in the Test championship table - behind Australia and South Africa - but they have still won only three of their past nine series, the recent one against Bangladesh and two others in the early part of the English season in conditions bound to favour the home side.

Progress is palpable in the past three years under Duncan Fletcher's painstaking, observant stewardship as coach. But England are some distance from being all-conquering. It has been impossible not to dwell on Fletcher's contribution in this past week in view of the rugby triumph and its architect, Clive Woodward. The ECB have invested great faith, money and resources in Fletcher, although not as many of the latter as he would have liked and should have had. In large part, he has undoubtedly delivered, but he is a long way from supplying the kind of prize Woodward has just delivered.

Woodward's fastidious planning has obviously been integral to England's rugby advance, but his oddball charisma and candour have been equally affecting on the public. Fletcher plans well, too, and spots opposition defects, but most of the public, including some of the cricketing public, are probably unaware of his existence. He is paid to coach, not to sing and dance, so maybe that matters not. But the contrast has been unavoidable. Woodward has become a national icon, Fletcher will never be that,but watch him perform his rare, intermittent, wary public performances. He invariably leaves behind the inspirational, warm part of his nature in the dressing room and brings with him a lorry-load of cold fish.

If England are to win, Fletcher will once more have to instil into England's batsmen the secret of repelling Muttiah Muralitharan. If they did not nullify him in the last series between the sides in Sri Lanka, they countered him. Sometimes batsmen swept but mostly they used a method called the press, using their front pads with patience and accuracy and often going low into the ball. Fletcher is not always uncomfortable with the press.

Muralitharan claims to have some new tricks, though he barely needs them. He has taken 459 Test wickets in 82 matches and he is a great bowler. Unfortunately, his action has deteriorated: look at the bowler who took 16 wickets at The Oval in 1998 and look at the bowler of today. There is no room for either complaint or censure. It is an open secret that almost every Test side has a bowler or two whose delivery does not quite meet the demands of Law 24 (2). There is going to be a terrible stench one day when the can of worms is opened by some brave soul in the International Cricket Council.

Murali is easily Sri Lanka's most potent weapon. Of the other bowlers, only the overworked Chaminda Vaas poses a palpable threat. Sri Lanka's batsmen will feel at home, but England have mastered them before. Both Matthew Hoggard and Ashley Giles, who came good at the last in 2001, will have to provide plenty of incisions. England would like to have James Anderson back for the Second Test, but his ankle is not responding as quickly as hoped, and a decision on whether to send him home and call up Martin Saggers as a replacement will be made on Tuesday.

Sri Lanka have not won much lately - just twice in their last 11 matches - but equally at home they have lost only one of 14. The home side will fancy themselves at Galle, where it is likely to be dry and dusty and where they have won six of the eight matches. Kandy, venue for the Second Test, represents England's best chance, as Sri Lanka have won there only four times in 14 matches.

It may come down to the survival of the fittest. The sides are playing three Tests at different venues in 21 days in fearsome humidity. It is to be hoped England are in a position where they might be level going into extra time.