July 31, 2003

The darkest of new dawns

England v South Africa, second Test, Lord's, Day 1

Michael Vaughan: not the best start

English batting collapses are supposed to be a thing of the past. According to his recent eulogies in the national press, Nasser Hussain had brought a new steel and determination to their game. English cricket was no longer a world-wide joke. Well, the rest of the world was smirking today, as England produced a nightmarish performance straight out of their Ashes scrapbook.

Today was supposed to be the start of a brave new era, but it was more like a trip back to those dark days that Hussain inherited and then banished. Barring the Ashes, he just about turned things round, and Vaughan will now have to try to turn this game around. Like Hussain's mission of four years ago, it already looks a lost cause.

To be fair to Vaughan, the 73 England captains before him can't have had such short notice to prepare for their first Test in charge, but not many have had a worse start either - not even Chris Cowdrey in his only Test against West Indies at Headingley in 1988. Despite captaining this summer's one-day internationals, Vaughan has been thrown in the deep end, just as he was on his Test debut in 1999.

At least England didn't plumb the depths of 2 for 4 today, but similarities will nonetheless be made with that infamous day in Johannesburg. It was against South Africa and Vaughan made 33, the second-highest top score. But the difference this time is that Vaughan is not a blameless subaltern, but England's field marshall.

Whatever he says will not excuse a dismal performance. Admittedly there was a bit in it for the bowlers early on, but that's nothing new. There was simply no plan. Alec Stewart, Andrew Flintoff, Vaughan himself, and to a lesser extent, even the top-scorer Darren Gough, were all to blame for their dismissals. The dressing-room may now be a more relaxed place without Hussain reading the riot act at every interval, but today's poor display will not be lost on anyone in it.

It was a big day for the (latest) ex-captain too, and unfortunately, he had a stinker. Hussain lost his middle stump to a loose drive, and his fortunes were summed up by a dolly of a drop at cover, where Vaughan himself would usually be fielding. Ironically, the lucky recipient was the other captain, Graeme Smith, who has so far proved himself to be a clear-thinking and brave leader.

It took a lot of guts to bowl first after such a batsman-dominated first Test, and the gamble paid off beyond his wildest dreams. Smith, it was assumed, would be cowering in Hussain's mere presence during this series? That has turned out to be a joke too.

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