Vaughan battles round his learning curve

NatWest Series: Captain's travails mirror those of his untried team on their voyage towards a new one-day world
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Michael Vaughan was invited to assess England's one-day progress yesterday. In the event, it was impossible to extricate the analysis from Michael Vaughan's one-day progress.

The hero of England a few months ago, the No 1 ranked Test batsman in the world, scorer of seven centuries in as many months, has found that the game has decided to exact some retribution for the good times.

Vaughan, elevated to the one-day captaincy on the strength of his glittering Test form, has struggled to make runs. He has not had the best of luck, some of the pitches have been ropey, and when he has looked in he has received something unplayable.

His team have been short of both runs and wickets in the middle stage of an innings. If they do not supply them quickly, the one-day section of the summer, which began so brightly against Pakistan, is in danger of fizzling out. To try to rectify one element, the selectors are giving serious thought to playing Stephen Harmison against Zimbabwe in Bristol today, for the first time since he went for 27 in two overs against Sri Lanka at Adelaide last January. England want his pace in the middle of an innings.

To their credit, they have maintained that the new side would not necessarily strut their stuff immediately. But considering the involvement of Zimbabwe, it would be a severe blow if the home side were not at Lord's for the tournament's final next Saturday.

Vaughan is still in the calm stages. Being Vaughan, he will probably remain so, but the fact remains that the captain seems to be learning how to play one-day cricket while his team are doing likewise. It may not be an ideal combination.

"Everyone will say that it's the captaincy, but I don't think so," he said. "I struggled for form in the two Test matches against Zimbabwe, got out. In the one-day matches throughout I've felt in touch, but this week has proved that you can only control the controllables.

"At Headingley, I was 35 not out and might have gone on to get 80 not out [it rained], and then I got a jaffa from Shaun Pollock at Old Trafford. Sometimes a batsman can't help getting out."

When Vaughan took over the team four weeks ago, he made it clear that he needed to score runs and fully intended doing so. Make no mistake, he needs a score, or the carpings of observers will lead to a disturbance in the side.

Vikram Solanki's vibrant hundred at The Oval apart, the team have become excessively reliant on Marcus Trescothick. The entire middle order are struggling, and Vaughan's shortage of runs aggravates the team's struggles. 'Twas ever thus with captains.

England are at risk of making an elementary mistake in the case of their captain. He soared elegantly to the top of the world rankings by opening the batting. It is his natural position, and he and Trescothick have forged what ought to be an enduring Test opening partnership.

Yet in 31 one-day international innings, Vaughan has batted 13 times at No 3, 10 times at four, five times at five, twice at six and once at seven. He has never opened the innings. Vaughan played it down yesterday.

"It is good question, but we are building for four years' time and with Vikram, he has been opening the innings for Worcestershire and that's why he has been picked. It would have been unfair to pick him and suddenly say you're going to bat four now. It's a totally different place to bat and a totally different mindset about how to bat. And so far it's been successful.

"I believe that if you bat three, it's very similar to opening anyway. You could be in within the first ball. The first three I think should be openers, as we have with the Test side now, with Mark Butcher at three."

Vaughan and the England middle order have to begin firing on a cylinder or two shortly, or their chances of reaching the final could be effectively extinguished today. They were well beaten by South Africa the other night, part of the roller- coaster ride that a new team tend to provide. It is always worth marking the words of Duncan Fletcher in this regard.

"It was disappointing. But a game like that doesn't mean you rush into making changes. We're trying to identify a team for two and three years' time. It takes time to get used to this level, and some take more time than others."

No doubt those sentiments are as true now as when Fletcher first expressed them three-and-a-half years ago, also after a heavy defeat by South Africa. There comes a time, however, and it is arriving soon, when inexperience has to look half-competent.

Harmison has been kept short of experience by not being picked. He showed a tendency to bowl wides last winter in one-day cricket, but England realise they need something different.

"You do need wickets in the middle, and against a real good player like Jacques Kallis, where you're just bowling length at 80mph you're not going to get people like him out. You need a bit of reverse swing, a bit of mystery about you, and I guess Steve is that mystery bowler," Vaughan said.

While Harmison can at last expect a game after being sent to play in a Championship match for Durham - in which he took four wickets - Robert Key has probably played his last for now. He will play for Kent in their National League match in Maidstone today. He needs runs. But then he is in good company.