Batman's revival a boost for the natural order

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The Independent Online

Relief all round. The captain's back. Just when it seemed that Michael Vaughan would be spending his time in South Africa - and, who knows, perhaps to infinity and beyond - scratching around the crease like a dog who has lost a bone, he conjured an innings of deep character and skill in the Fourth Test.

His innings of 82 not out was far from his highest for England, but it may come to be seen as one of the most significant. It was obviously important to his side's position in the match, but it went beyond that. Vaughan had scored 80 runs in the series, one half-century in his past 11 Test innings.

This is hardly terminal, but a captain's form can have far-reaching effects on the team. The lack of runs - for captains are usually batsmen - can eat away at them, and if it does not affect their planning they will worry that it does. Equally, the fact that they have to make so many decisions can disturb their form.

That was certainly the case with Vaughan's predecessor, Nasser Hussain. He worried so much about the team, about plotting the strategy for their victories, that he once went 16 innings without making a half-century. It was while England were assembling a sequence of four successive series victories, so it hardly mattered, but while Hussain denied it at the time he was clearly worrying himself sick about the shortage of runs. Eventually, he almost pulled it back, so that his average as captain was only one run less than his overall average.

Vaughan is of a more relaxed demeanour but he knew something was wrong. It became plain from the way he was playing that he was concerned, and after his ill-conceived hook shot in the Third Test defeat at Cape Town he went to work in the nets once more. Last summer, he had suffered a blip, and he and the coach, Duncan Fletcher, spent several days analysing his game. Vaughan went to Lord's and scored two centuries against West Indies.

Something similar happened last week. Fletcher and Vaughan took themselves off to the nets. It did not pay immediate dividends, because when he went out to bat on Thursday he was plain dreadful, and it was only his survival instinct that kept his wicket intact. Overnight he watched videos in his hotel room, detected a flaw, put it right and then on Friday morning was confronted by abject conditions for batting.

He hung around again at first and was a model of propriety in doing so. But he had the nous to change gears, and when he took the attack to South Africa he was at his resplendent best. Whether this finally lays the bogey of Vaughan's batting as captain will emerge shortly.

He thinks so, but then he thinks there was never a problem. The figures - an average of 50 when not captain, 34 when he is captain - do not lie, however. There had already been mutterings that his place in the order and the order generally might profitably change.

England have lost early and middle-order wickets in clusters in this series: three for 29 in the First Test, four for 27 in the first innings of the Second Test, four for 41 in the second innings, five for 45 in the Third Test. So it happened in the Fourth Test, when they went from 262 for 2 to 278 for 7, five wickets for 16 runs.

This makes batting a permanent salvage operation, with Vaughan directing proceedings this time. Perhaps this shows that South Africa are a different proposition from West Indies and New Zealand, but England are clearly not performing as well.

Such form also allows vultures to start gathering. The intermittent argument over Marcus Trescothick's spot in the order will be resurrected shortly. It may be recalled that last time it was in full cry, he scored a magisterial 219 at The Oval. Nor is Graham Thorpe's spot at five as seemingly inviolable as it was. True, there was the typical accumulative hundred in Durban, true, he received a humdinger of a ball in the first innings of this match, but the suspicion has started to circulate that his 35-year-old eyes are not what they were.

And then there is the conquering hero, Andrew Flintoff at six, scorer of half-centuries in eight successive matches not so long ago. But what was he doing jabbing to slip in murky conditions on Friday morning? How swiftly it can all change.

Vaughan at least allayed part of this madcap talk by his endeavours on Friday. But he still has some ground to make up. Hussain apart, of recent England captains Mike Gatting (44 compared to 35), Graham Gooch (58 to 42) and even Michael Atherton (40 to 37) were all inspired enough by the job to improve their batting performance.