Michael Vaughan's future as England captain was in serious doubt last night because of the persistent injury to his right knee. He was forced to miss his side's final warm-up game of their tour of India only 11 weeks after the third operation on a joint that is rapidly turning from an intermittently troublesome blip in a glittering career to a catastrophe that could threaten its existence.
The England camp remain mildly optimistic that Vaughan will be fit in time for the first Test next week after a cortisone injection but that did not alter the gloomy prognosis. If it seems premature, or indeed a knee-jerk reaction, to be writing off a batsman and captain who led England to their epic victory last summer, when they regained the Ashes against Australia, nobody was exactly endorsing his durability.
The team doctor, Peter Gregory, said: "It's got to be a concern when your captain has a knee that stops him playing." The coach, Duncan Fletcher, was hardly about to contradict him and did not when he said: "He's a major player, but with that knee we've always said we'll have this worry with the risk of it. Forever in the future we'll be concerned whether he's going to be fit or not."
Fletcher's statement, of course, begged the question of how long England dare support a captain whose ability to take the field is open to potential doubt each day. For a few months yet presumably, since the man who brought back the Ashes after 16 years and whose leadership of the team is utterly unquestioned is not to be discarded lightly, if at all.
Vaughan is one of a litany of casualties in the England squad and three others - Simon Jones, Paul Collingwood and Shaun Udal - were not considered for the match against the Indian Board President's XI because of injury or illness. Jones has had a fever and although England will be desperate for him, as well as Vaughan, to play in Nagpur, he will have bowled only 12 competitive overs since ankle surgery last summer, and those in what amounted to an exhibition match in Bombay. Collingwood's back is emerging from its spasm but Kevin Pietersen's back apparently went into a spasm when he batted yesterday. It forced him to retire hurt and he did not field later. Udal was taken to hospital as a precaution because his abdomen was so tender.
England are not yet sending for replacements, though the suitcase belonging to Alisdair Cook, of Essex, who scored a century for England A in the West Indies the other day, may be half-packed.
Vaughan's absence would dramatically affect the chances of a team already second favourites as always in the subcontinent. They lost the first Test against Pakistan after he withdrew despite controlling the first four days.
The chronicling of the history of his knee is not a particularly happy exercise. It has never been the sturdiest of his joints but after an arthroscopy shortly before England's tour of Australia in 2002, he had his most coruscating run as an England player, scoring three centuries of increasing majesty in the subsequent Ashes.
He twisted it in the nets before the Lord's Test against New Zealand in 2004, missing that match, but then had an unbroken run of 19 games until he felt a severe twinge in Multan before that first Test. Having left the Pakistan tour early and missing the one-day series, Vaughan again had arthroscopic surgery in early December. He felt soreness in the tour's opening match last week and that has grown worse.
Vaughan's public statements, like his knee, were being kept on ice yesterday, but he remained at the IPCL ground all day and could be seen chatting in his usual unruffled way.
Gregory said: "It's soft tissue inflammation around the joint that somebody has put their arthroscope in. He's just started using it over three or four weeks, increasing running on it, and that's bound to put a strain on a knee that's not normal. We always had this window of opportunity to try to get him fit so he had the maximum period of rest we could afford before this tour. To this point he progressed well and we were happy." Not any more they are not.
Captain's tale of pain
Missed most of the home Ashes series due to an operation on his left knee
Had operation on right knee shortly before Ashes in Australia, and missed the Champions Trophy
Missed first Test against New Zealand after being carried off on a stretcher from the Lord's nets, having injured right knee
Injures right knee before first Test in Multan and flies home from Pakistan after third Test to have keyhole surgery on knee