Following England's splendid six-wicket victory over South Africa on Saturday, Michael Vaughan's side travel north for their third NatWest Series match of the summer. Predicting what effect the 200-mile journey may have on the injured back of the England captain will be as difficult to forecast as the direction in which his side move once they arrive in Leeds. Vaughan will naturally hope that progress continues to be made against Zimbabwe but the state in which his young side leave Headingley tomorrow evening is anyone's guess, such is their inconsistent nature.
The character of a team is defined through a combination of the captain and the players. Under Vaughan, or Marcus Trescothick as it was at The Oval, England's is becoming evident and nowhere can it more clearly be seen than in Vikram Solanki, the man of the match against South Africa.
Before his wonderful innings of 106 on Saturday Solanki, like England, had something to prove. A weak performance against Zimbabwe had, to a large extent, undermined the gains made in defeating Pakistan 2-1 in the NatWest Challenge. During these matches Solanki has shown several glimpses of his talent without going on to finish the job.
Before this innings it had been Solanki's fielding that caught the eye, rather than his batting. Like a panther at backward point, the Worcestershire player has been outstanding. His desire and commitment to save every run appears to have transmitted its way through the side. In the field England now look an energetic and athletic outfit. Instead of beginning matches 20 runs in arrears, they now hold their own.
With the bat we had only seen flashes of his potential. Breathtaking shots may make the television highlights but it is big scores that win matches and before this innings Solanki had failed to pass 50 in any of his previous 11 attempts. The presence of Trescothick throughout their record opening partnership of 200 was crucial for Solanki. Having the in-form Somerset left-hander at the other end allowed him to relax and play the way he wanted. The 27-year-old did not have to worry about winning the match while Trescothick was in the middle with him because he knew his partner could take care of that.
Solanki and Trescothick showed growing maturity while at the crease. During each of their careers both have been guilty of playing cameo innings of 70 or 80 before throwing it away. This time the pair ensured their team got over the line. To watch the openers play in such a manner would have given great encouragement to an England dressing-room containing Vaughan, who was forced to pull out of this match with a lower back strain 50 minutes before the start of play.
"This was a fantastic display," said the injured captain. "To come back and play like that after losing to Zimbabwe shows that we have some good characters in our dressing-room. It would have been very easy for our young and inexperienced team to fold. But the way we bowled and fielded in the morning and the way Tres' and Vikram went out and batted was very special." Not many in the 18,500 at The Oval would have given England much chance at the halfway stage. South Africa collected their runs in a workmanlike manner until Andrew Hall took 21 off the 50th over bowled by Darren Gough. On a belter of a pitch, their total of 264 was built around a well crafted and emotional hundred from Jacques Kallis. With his father suffering from lung cancer in Cape Town Kallis has not played for South Africa since the World Cup. In honour of his dad he changed the number on his shirt from 3 to 65 - his father's age - and dedicated this century to him.
That Kallis's efforts failed to win his side the match was down to some ordinary bowling from South Africa as well as inspirational batting from England. Solanki was caught off a Shaun Pollock no-ball on 21, but this was the only chance the visitors were given by two batsmen who struck the ball with alarming power. In full flow the Indian-born Solanki combines dashing drives and cuts with the wristy subcontinental flicks and clips we regularly see in Asian players. It has not taken him long to be compared with Virender Sehwag of India.
"Vikram is a Sehwag sort of player," said Vaughan. "One day he will get a low score and on another he will come out and play like this.
"He is such a fluent and natural batsman and it has just been a case of him getting him to go out there and play with the freedom he does for Worcestershire. That is what we have told him to do. To reach your first international hundred is a huge milestone but to do it in such a manner against a very good South African team when chasing 260 showed a good strength of mind and character. It was great to watch from the balcony."
Now England's opening combination appears sorted, Vaughan will have to score his runs in the middle order. The England captain, whose form is a concern, admitted he was due to bat at four on Saturday. He will hope that leading England on his home ground will give his game the extra lift it has so far lacked. "Tuesday's game will be a big day," he said. "I don't get the chance to play there that often and it will be a special occasion to lead the team out at Headingley."
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