July 27, 2003

Riding the hype

England v South Africa, 1st Test, Edgbaston, Day 4

Michael Vaughan: a sublime 156

This year, the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack took a deep breath and used a picture on its front cover for the first time in history. It was, as has been widely reported, a huge gamble. But never mind 139 years of tradition and all that - what was really at stake was the here-and-now. By anointing Michael Vaughan as Wisden's star of 2003, the old yellow book was tempting fate in a truly heinous fashion.

Superstitions are an invaluable part of every cricketer's kitbag, so it would only have been natural if Vaughan had been unable to buy a run all season. Look, for example, at the curse of the Playfair annual - every cricket anorak's pocket companion - who, year after year, have ruined the seasons of their chosen stars.

And sure enough, Vaughan began 2003 with a worrying set of wobbles. Against Zimbabwe, he managed a tortuous 8 from 42 balls at Lord's, followed by a flashy five-shot 20 at Durham, as if his key attributes of grit and flourish had had a quarrel and taken an innings each. A glut of one-day matches hardly helped his composure at the crease - all too often he was dismissed early, trying to make something out of nothing with un-Vaughanish glides through gully or uncalibrated hoicks over midwicket.

But, how different his game appears when there is nothing at stake but the match. Vaughan's splendid duel with Shaun Pollock, from whom he faced every single delivery of the first hour, encapsulated his performance. For the first time this season, Vaughan was not being expected to live up to the hype that his Ashes series created, merely to ride with that hype.

In that first session, Vaughan faced 76 deliveries from Pollock and scored 17 runs. It was the pivotal spell of the day, and, with England an eternity from saving the follow-on, unquestionably the most gripping. But a similar return against Zimbabwe, or in a one-day game, would have been deemed unacceptably slow. Never mind the fact that, for the remainder of his innings, he rattled along at exactly four an over.

Despite his success as England's one-day captain, Vaughan may never be able to convert his prolific Test form into consistency in the limited-overs game. He is too finicky an artist for that. But, give him a blank canvas and all the time in the world to produce a masterpiece, he'll clatter one off and still leave time to spare.

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