Vaughan watches in vain as records rain on his parade

Second Test: As young Smith walks on water, his counterpart treads on coals
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The Independent Online

Michael Vaughan was summoned, barefoot and towel draped around his midriff, into what passes for the coach's room at Edgbaston on Monday evening, and asked to become England's leader. Instead, he has spent much of this Second Test as cheerleader. For the opposition. This was suffering at its most acute as Vaughan was forced to orchestrate the congratulations as his counterpart, Graeme Smith, individually, and South Africa, collectively, accumulated record after record, culminating in the touring team registering their highest Test score.

While the remarkable Smith continues to walk on water (never mind that he ultimately fell some way short of Brian Lara's record hit of 375 when he was eventually undone by James Anderson), Vaughan treads with increasing discomfort through burning coals. As baptisms go, this was not so much a blessing for the Lancashire-born Yorkshire player as a prolonged, agonising drowning. "Thanks for the opportunity, Nasser," he would have been justified in muttering sarcastically to himself as he sat on the England balcony after being dismissed for 29. In his first innings he had garnered only 33. This, it must be placed in context, is a man whose Test average is over 50. The pre-match words of Smith came to mind when he had reflected on Vaughan's appointment: "Maybe it will weigh on his shoulders, who knows?"

There is a Yugoslav proverb, "If you wish to know what a man is, place him in authority". It is a reference to political leadership, although it may equally apply to sports captaincy. Nasser Hussain, the new skipper's immediate predecessor, was a hard-nosed autocrat, a hot-blooded and by no means gracious recipient of criticism, as his gestures to the television and radio media, and in particular those hanging judges who once played the game, illustrated. Vaughan, as far as we can observe thus far, is a benign democrat, a character who is quite content that there should be 10 other captains on the field, although as the sun began to set here yesterday on England's longest day, their presence became increasingly less apparent.

Had Hussain still been leading England under similar inauspicious circumstances, one suspects that the pack would have been howling for his removal well before last night. Vaughan, rightly, will escape that hostility in consideration of his unfamiliarity with the task at Test level, but also because if ever there was evidence that the Great God of Safe Hands (the same one who betrayed England's David Seaman so cruelly) was enjoying a little mischief at his expense, this was it.

On a chastening occasion, even for a crowd who had arrived in fatalistic mood, the sheer paucity of England's fielding induced gasps of disbelief. Within minutes of the start of play yesterday, Ashley Giles, at first slip, had set the tone, reacting to Boeta Dippenaar's snick like a park goalkeeper unable to deal with a regulation cross. By the end of South Africa's innings, it was four put down, and counting. It was becoming the new English disease.

One can only wonder at what must have been going through Vaughan's mind as he surveyed all from his vantage point, usually at mid-off. His demeanour was one of quiet appraisal, in a manner somewhat redolent of Mike Brearley, as he surveyed a series of boundaries clubbed ruthlessly by Smith and Dippenaar, as he contemplated a route out of Desperation Pass.

Even when temperatures rise, Vaughan prefers the understated approach, as he demonstrated when James Anderson became embroiled in a spat with Smith just before lunch on Friday. It was actually Hussain who intervened, with a volley of four-letter invective directed against the South African captain. It evidently takes much to move the new incumbent of the office.

After one particularly hostile over from the 21-year-old Lancashire bowler, Vaughan cantered over to give him a slap on the back. But that was about the extent of his flamboyance on a day in which he was occupied too frequently chasing the ball as South Africa chased runs.

Certainly, there will be rather less flaring of the nostrils and rather more contemplative stroking of them. His method is in his attacking might. His reputation with the blade - swiftly earned as the man advanced from his Test introduction in the winter of 1999-2000 to world No 2 - stands as the motivating device for those who surround him. Like football's David Beckham, his captaincy will be based on establishing standards to which his team must adhere; a character whose own prowess inspires dedication to the cause.

In his preferred environment, facing up to the pace of Makhaya Ntini, five-wicket tormentor of England in the first innings and the man who snared his own, the majestic manner in which he pulled the same player for four off the second ball of his second innings, once South Africa had declared, was worth a thousand lashes of the tongue where his men were concerned.

On the eve of his first Test captaincy, that portrait of him in an England cap with a genial, ebullient demeanour had impressed many. Once stumps were drawn on the first day, Vaughan did himself no harm by fronting up to his media inquisitors, readily conceding England's failings. Yet his real strength, or otherwise, will be in his influence over the composition of the teams he leads out. Though the captain is no longer a member of the selection committee, Vaughan will be determined to maintain a significant voice.

In a transitional period, in which Hussain, Alec Stewart and Darren Gough approach the conclusion of their Test careers and the future of Graham Thorpe remains a delicate dilemma for the England management, Vaughan will have his own ideas about the virtues of those pressing their middle-order claims - the likes of Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell and Ed Smith - and those, including Chris Read and James Foster, who may replace Stewart.

And what of Matthew Hoggard, Richard Johnson and Andrew Caddick to supplement the pace contingent? In many respects, Vaughan will have a crucial contribution to make. Perhaps rather more than he could ever have expected to make in a week when all England's recent much-vaunted progress was suddenly exposed as decidedly fragile.