Vaughan leads England back on to the treadmill

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The Independent Online

After a break amounting to all of 30 days, England left for another tour last night. They are returning to Sri Lanka, scene last month of their remarkable one-day series triumph. It would be a more impressive trick if it were to be repeated in the three-match Test rubber.

If one was like pulling a rabbit out of the hat what faces them in the next five weeks is cutting the lady in half. It was to be expected that their captain, Michael Vaughan, was optimistic if hardly shouting the odds.

Indeed, it may work in England's favour that Vaughan, having given up the one-day captaincy, has had a break of almost three months from international cricket. He sounded full of beans, a man ready to conjure victory.

"I was delighted with the way the boys turned up at the Loughborough training camp," he said. "They were full of energy and youthfulness and cheekiness."

England, more than any other team, are on a constant treadmill. If 30 days off sounds a lot, part of it was taken up with the training camp, part of it with the necessary fitness routines. But by the time Christmas approaches, in the heat and humidity of Colombo and Galle legs will be ever more tired and a hard year of cricket will begin to take its toll.

It will get worse. They have New Zealand in the new year, a home season immediately following, the day after which they leave for Pakistan before going on to India. For now, it is the teardrop island.

"We have to try to start well," said Vaughan, referring to the Kandy pitch which may represent England's best chance of winning. "It will be important to get the right combination of players and balance will be the key."

That will mean deciding whether to pick four bowlers or five, two spinners or one. England have never gone into a Test match in Sri Lanka with only one specialist spinner, but Vaughan hinted that it was just possible at Kandy where seam has been successful lately. But it would be a brave call and what seems possible in team selection on a cold, bright day in London will appear very different on a hot, steamy one in the sub-continent.

If Vaughan was full of good cheer, he was also aware, or rather he was made aware, that his position as captain could be under threat. His colleague and friend, Paul Collingwood, is now the one-day captain and he led the team to their exceptional one-day victory. If Vaughan loses, given the capricious nature of sports pundits and the response to them, his wonderful past as a captain will be swiftly forgotten.

"I am delighted to be here a captain," he said. "It's the best job in the world and I'm looking forward enormously to leading a young team. But I know it won't last forever and I'm not losing sleep over that."

He is not losing sleep over the split captaincy either and reiterated the fact that he and Collingwood could make it work. Of more immediate concern is the selection of the team and getting the squad acclimatised. Since 12 of them were in Sri Lanka for the one-day series they should hit the ground running in the latter regard.

One of Vaughan's immediate concerns will be the form, fitness and presence of Steve Harmison. The fast bowler seems certain to be present now having taken nine wickets in the first of his two matches in South Africa, designed to prove that he was fully prepared.

"It seems he's just getting better and better," said Vaughan. "We will need all the experience we can call on in the squad. Sri Lanka is one of the most special places to tour but it's tough because of the conditions and because of their very wily team."

And because of Muttiah Muralitharan. If anything was likely to keep Vaughan and his men awake it would probably be him. "We have to play him well," said Vaughan. "Everybody will have their own methods and how he is played in the first 20 balls will be important."

England land in Colombo this morning and start the first of two warm-up games on Tuesday. They will be warm-ups in every sense.

The England all-rounder Ravi Bopara has signed a one-year contract extension to keep him at Essex until the end of the 2010 season. Bopara, 22, signed the new deal just before flying out with the rest of the squad.

"Essex has become like a second home to me so I'm delighted to be committing myself to the county for another year," said Bopara. "I'm very happy with the progress I've made over the last year so I hope to achieve a great deal more for both Essex and England by the time this contract runs out."