Battling Vaughan leads England to his best-ever series triumph

<preform>South Africa 247 &amp; 296-6 dec<BR> England 359 &amp; 73-4<BR> Match drawn</preform>
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The Independent Online

For 15 overs it appeared as though the unthinkable might happen. A cautious South Africa had set England the relatively simple task of batting out the final 44 overs of the fifth Test, but when Makhaya Ntini uprooted Marcus Trescothick's off stump Michael Vaughan's side were wobbling on 29 for 3.

For 15 overs it appeared as though the unthinkable might happen. A cautious South Africa had set England the relatively simple task of batting out the final 44 overs of the fifth Test, but when Makhaya Ntini uprooted Marcus Trescothick's off stump Michael Vaughan's side were wobbling on 29 for 3.

With 174 balls of the game remaining England's hopes of celebrating their first Test series win in South Africa for 40 years were suddenly put back on hold. This was not the time to sit back and reflect on a job well done. Both teams were fully aware that this enthralling and unpredictable Test series could provide everyone with one last twist, and England were under pressure.

But Vaughan, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff held firm against a spirited South African side, ensuring the hard work of the past six weeks was not wasted. Before this crucial match an upbeat England captain had stated that he wanted his side to play for a win here. But when the umpires offered him the light with 2.4 overs of the game remaining, England were on 73 for 4 and Vaughan seemed very happy to take the draw and a 2-1 series victory.

"This is the best win we have had during my time as captain," said Vaughan. "We had to dig deep for every victory and the only one-sided game was the one we lost. We had to dig deep as a team and find mental resolve and that is the most pleasing thing for me - that we came through it and won."

Though South Africa took the honours in this match England deservedly became the second side since readmission to win a Test series here. Australia, naturally, are the only other country since 1991 to leave these shores as winners but England will have to raise their game considerably if they wish to mount a serious challenge for the Ashes this summer.

There were many outstanding performances from England players - Andrew Strauss's three hundreds, Trescothick's two centuries and the bowling of Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff - but there were too many periods when they were ragged and undisciplined.

South Africa were guilty of making the same mistakes, but the inability of either side to make the most of their opponent's errors produced great excitement. Had South Africa started the series with the team that finished it, or shown greater confidence in tight situations, it could have been they who lifted the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.

But even in a must-win situation South Africa showed caution and it was difficult to work out exactly what they were trying to achieve after the lunch break. During the morning session Jacques Kallis and A B de Villiers had transformed an overnight deficit of 53 into a lead of 100 and everybody was expecting an onslaught to follow.

That both batsmen played for their hundreds was understandable but when Kallis continued to block good length balls one began to wonder whether South Africa were actually trying to win this match. Kallis is an outstanding batsman - he scored 625 runs at an average of 69.4 in the series - but this display did little to rid him of his reputation of being a selfish cricketer.

The timing of Smith's declaration, along with the batting of Kallis, surprised many but the target of 185 was something of a teaser. A larger score would have left England with no option but to block out the remaining overs but Vaughan's side would have known that if they batted well they should be able to reach the total.

And this was exactly the conundrum Smith wanted to place England in, hoping they would end up being distracted by two goals.

England would not have been contemplating a victory when Strauss edged the eighth ball of the innings to Kallis at second slip. The left-hander initially accepted that Kallis had taken the low catch cleanly but he then stopped and queried the decision. Both umpires claimed they could not see whether the ball had carried and passed the decision to the third umpire, who gave the batsman out. Strauss has had a brilliant series - 656 runs at an average of 72.89 - and this was an undignified way for it to end.

South Africa opened up with Andre Nel and Ntini, their two most aggressive bowlers, but it was the relentless Shaun Pollock who claimed the home team's second wicket when he trapped Robert Key in front in the 12th over. Key was being given plenty of chirp by the fielders and it was a soft inconclusive stroke which led to his demise.

Key's dismissal would have increased tension levels in the England dressing room, but the atmosphere would have changed to mild panic when Ntini knocked Trescothick's off-stump out of the ground with the last ball of the 15th over. In situations like this players go very quiet and start looking at each other. Nobody dare say "hey lads we could lose this" but everyone is thinking it.

The loss of Trescothick killed England's aspirations of winning the series 3-1, and survival became the aim. Smith rotated his bowlers, and maintained attacking fields, but Vaughan and Graham Thorpe dug in.

Batting looked difficult on a pitch where the odd ball from the quicker men scuttled along the ground. There were a couple of strong appeals - which were rightly turned down by the umpires - but it could hardly be said that their partnership blossomed.

But then, with 12.2 overs of the match remaining and England looking safe, Ntini found the outside edge of Thorpe's bat. Herschelle Gibbs took a low catch at third slip, the increasingly inflammatory Barmy Army - it will not be long before opposing supporters start wading in and throw a few haymakers - went quiet and South Africa once again dreamed of the impossible.

But Vaughan and Flintoff confidently coped with one last surge from the South Africans and England celebrated a fourth consecutive series win.

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