Vaughan starts stage two of long march

England in South Africa: Smith and Co a real test of how much still has to be done to achieve the ultimate ambition

Considering the traumatic events of one morning five winters ago, it is extraordinary that Michael Vaughan should be returning to South Africa tomorrow as England's captain for a Test series in which they will be outstanding favourites. However it eventually finishes for Vaughan in international cricket, he will never forget how it started.

In case Tallulah, his six-month-old daughter, is not doing the job well enough, it is the sort of thing guaranteed to keep a man awake at nights. Vaughan was making his Test debut on 25 November 1999. He had been a bold, unexpected selection for the tour after an English summer in which his average was 27.

As the first ball of the series went at loosener pace and regulation height to the wicketkeeper, a denizen of the press box pronounced: "Flat, draw". Sixteen balls later, England were 2 for 4, Allan Donald's tail was up as high as an elephant's eye, and Vaughan was standing dumbstruck at the non-striker's end.

Although England went on to lose the match and the series, what immediately followed that catastrophic inauguration provided evidence that here was a special cricketer. Vaughan dug in, unflustered by the extravagant movement. He has since made many more handsome runs than the 33 he hewed from the minefield that day, but none has been necessarily as telling about his nature.

And what progress there has been. Vaughan has emerged as the unquestioned leader of a team who have taken all before them. Together with the coach, Duncan Fletcher, who was also starting with England that overcast morning in Johannesburg, he has forged a side who are second in the Test-match rankings (to you know who). Over the next two months, in five Test matches and seven (yes, seven) one-day internationals, Vaughan will lead a side who are accom-panied by a lip-smacking sense of anticipation. Their hosts, on the other hand, are going through a tortured period.

It is convenient to compare the teams through their captains, Vaughan and Graeme Smith, because their tenures have run almost in tandem. Both took over in exacting circumstances last year, Vaughan after the dramatic resignation of Nasser Hussain, Smith following the emotional sacking of Shaun Pollock. Their fortunes since have been contrasting.

Vaughan has led England in 19 Tests, of which they have won 14, including 10 of their last 11. His tenure comprises six series, of which four have been won, one drawn and one lost. Smith's team have won eight of their 20 matches, two of their seven series but only one of the last four.

There is an excitingly fresh and relaxed quality to England. They reflect Vaughan's character, yet he has developed the steely quality imbued in them by Hussain. The startling but planned arrival of two players who bestride the world has helped immeasurably. Stephen Harmison is now the No 1 ranked bowler in the world. Since it all really started for him in Jamaica only nine months ago, he has taken wickets at a rate of one every 43 balls, well ahead of the rest of the field.

Flintoff is a marvel. He has taken his 35 wickets at one every 50 balls for a respectable average, and he has scored a half-century in each of his past eight matches. They are great friends, though differing characters, and their influence goes well beyond their statistics.

The pair carry themselves now with an authority which has got nothing to do with swagger or arrogance. They know, their opponents know and they know their opponents know. Although both men are hugely complimentary about Hussain - Harmison will never forget how the former captain kept faith when he could not hit a barn door - it cannot be entirely coincidence that their significant advance has been under Vaughan.

South Africa have seemed to border on disarray. They are going through coaches at a rate Harmison takes wickets and the incumbent, Ray Jennings, has been given only a temporary contract. They seem to have struggled to put behind them their failure in the 2003 World Cup, when a whole nation expected so much.

Despite their abundance of extremely high-class players - Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Smith himself - they do not convey the impression of being at ease with themselves. Smith, it can probably be seen with hindsight, was handed the captaincy too young. He is still only 23, and while he has a mature bearing, opponents - most notably Stephen Fleming - have rattled him. The youthful intensity is sometimes misplaced. The fact that everybody - board, government, press, public - still get themselves into a tizzy over the composition of the team cannot be helpful.

For all that, this will be no shoo-in. If South Africa possess one attribute it is that they do not tend to go quietly. They will be cussed in the next two months, and if Pollock and Ntini are not quite Donald and Pollock, they will keep England's top order honest.

England must quickly shed their stiffness. With only four days of cricket before the series opens in Port Elizabeth, six of them could be distinctly short of time in the middle. Nor is there time to regain form once the series starts. There are no games between Tests. These days an international cricketer is just that.

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