South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg, 2nd day January 14, 2005

Vaughan batting from memory

Safety first: Michael Vaughan defends ... the attacking shots came later © Getty Images
A scoreline of 2 for 4 is not something that is easily exorcised from the memory. But until late yesterday evening, England must have believed it was well and truly out of their system. They were back on the ground where the misdeed occurred, on the opening morning of the 1999-2000 series, but this time around they were 262 for 2, and cruising back into the ascendancy.

Try telling that to Michael Vaughan, however. Five years ago, he had been making his debut, and having watched from the dressing-room as two of the wickets fell, he then stood helplessly at the non-striker's end as two more went down before he had faced a ball. When asked, before this match, what thoughts had gone through his mind at that moment, he was unequivocal in his answer: "Oh s**t!"

He would have been forgiven for similar sentiments this time around, for come shine or gloom, there was to be no easy way for Vaughan to forget what went on that day. As if he were some bat-bearing albatross, England lost six wickets for 51 runs from the moment he came to the crease - including five for 16 to the new ball - but once again, it was Vaughan who led the salvage act, with a mini-masterpiece in the most trying of circumstances.

The circumstances on each occasion were, admittedly, rather different - debutant then, 53-Test veteran and England captain now. But, after his late introduction to the fray last night, he faced 45 balls for his nine runs, and looked as jittery as such a fluent strokemaker can ever have done, at any stage of his career. He had just reason to be on tenterhooks as well, given that each of his six previous innings of the series had fallen in the range of 10 to 20.

Simply by surviving to the close, however, Vaughan must have believed that the worst of his ordeal was over, and Andrew Strauss, England's centurion, certainly had faith in his captain. After yesterday's play, Strauss backed him publicly to convert his start into a big score, adding that England would be looking for 400 at the very least after their promising start. It turns out that he was right on both counts, although he can't have banked on such a winding route to the summit.

Johannesburg's weather is notoriously fickle, but even the local forecasters were flummoxed by the bank of cloud that appeared first thing in the morning and loitered over the ground all day. Suddenly, England's batsmen were transported back to the conditions that had prevailed here in 1999. Against a new ball that was just five overs old, and against an attack that had been afforded a two-hour lie-in (and threatened, according to Ray Jennings, with ice-baths if they didn't come up to scratch), there was a definite sense of expectancy when play finally began.

Nothing much had been expected of Matthew Hoggard, the nightwatchman, but Andrew Flintoff's wafty dismissal was as poor a shot as he's played all tour, and when Geraint Jones came and went in an instant, there was a school of thought that England should declare at once at 278 for 7, and stick South Africa in for a dose of their own medicine.

It wasn't such a bad idea at the time, but by the close England were very content with their position. Vaughan had finally emerged into the twenties for the first time this series, he passed 33 - his score here five years ago - with a pair of crashing hooks, and later he brought up the 400 with an even more emphatic brace, the second of which flew all the way for six. He was castigated for his use of the hook in the rearguard at Cape Town, but he defended his shot-selection then, and amply justified it here.

It was the support from England's tail that really made the difference, however. Ashley Giles's batting prowess received the recognition of the record-books during the third Test, when he pipped Flintoff to the double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets, but it was Harmison's second contribution in consecutive innings that was the true revelation.

Harmison was England's top-scorer with 42 in that debacle of a second innings at Newlands, but at the time that had been attributed to lost-cause syndrome. Here, however, there was firstly a cause to be saved, and ultimately, a cause to be won. With the runs on the board and confidence back in the bank, Harmison might just be wishing for more of the same conditions tomorrow. If that happens, England will have no need to dwell on 1999 for a moment longer.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England on their tour of South Africa.