England v South Africa, 3rd npower Test, Edgbaston, 4th day August 2, 2008

Vaughan distraught as aura vanishes

Michael Vaughan has rarely looked as disconsolate as he did as he faced the media after South Africa's thrilling five-wicket win in the third Test

Michael Vaughan: struggling to justify his place in the side © Getty Images

Michael Vaughan has rarely looked as disconsolate as he did as he faced the media after South Africa's thrilling five-wicket win in the third Test at Edgbaston. With the series lost and his personal batting form in tatters after a total of 40 runs in five innings, the end of the road is looking increasingly nigh for the most successful captain in England's Test history.

At the age of 33, and with high-profile defeats against India at home, Sri Lanka away and now South Africa, Vaughan's reputation as a talismanic leader has taken something of a battering. Thirteen months ago, he announced his return to international cricket with an emotional hundred against West Indies at Headingley, but victories in that series, and in the back-to-back contests against New Zealand earlier this year, cannot compensate for the magnitude of the defeat that Graeme Smith's South Africans have just inflicted on him.

"It was a real bitter blow," said Vaughan. "The lads are distraught as they have thrown everything at them, but I am more gutted than anyone because I fully expected us to win today. It's the first time I have ever lost back-to-back games and certainly midway through the day I expected us to bowl them out for 200 and win quite comfortably. But we've just witnessed a very special innings from Graeme Smith, and he deserves all the plaudits he's going to get."

The identity of his tormentor will hurt him even more, for it was Smith who inflicted Vaughan's very first Test defeat as captain, when he scored the second of his back-to-back double-centuries at Lord's in 2003. What is more, the first of those innings was made at Edgbaston, and it proved sufficient to persuade Vaughan's predecessor, Nasser Hussain, to call time on his own leadership career. It's not yet out of the question that Smith will claim the scalp of a second England captain before this series is out.

"I have no doubts about my captaincy ability," said Vaughan. "Absolutely none. But I am not scoring runs. As a No. 3 batsmen I have got to score runs and in this series what have I got? I have had some good balls, and a little bit of bad luck, but I set myself a lot of high standards and in this series so far I have not got anywhere near those standards. I want to look at that, and make sure I get back to playing like I can."

One potential solution for Vaughan would be a slide down the order to No. 5 or 6, where the likes of Viv Richards and Allan Border established themselves in the latter days of their captaincy. But with England's top six under intense scrutiny in this series, Vaughan could yet conclude that he can no longer justify his place in the side. "We have to sit down and reassess," he said. "Emotions always run high after defeats like this, so we'll let the dust settle from today and try to work out where we are."

There is not a lot of time for Vaughan and England to restore their equilibrium, however. The fourth and final Test begins at The Oval later this week, and the squad is set to be announced as early as Monday morning. "We are not playing the level of cricket which I would like," said Vaughan. "I can't fault any of the efforts from any of the players, they are giving it absolutely everything, but we are just not playing well enough as a unit or as well as we can. That has to be looked at."

In his moment of triumph, Smith was magnanimous towards his beaten rival. Having endured his own high-profile loss of form, against Australia two years ago, he could empathise with the struggle that Vaughan is currently going through. "I think a captain feels a little less pressure when he's performing well," said Smith. "There are times when I've struggled and the pressure on yourself as leader to ask a lot of your players all the time when you're not performing well, is a big thing.

"It's about being consistent when you're not doing well, and you have to dig deep," he said. "I've had my tough moments, but now this year I've had a great year. It does help to score runs, because it takes pressure off you."

There's no prospect of the pressure letting up on Vaughan any time soon, however. "You've just got to deliver out in the middle," he said. "I am an experienced player and at the minute I am not delivering, so I will have to come up with a formula to give myself the best chance to deliver when the pressure is on. I've done it before, and I'm sure I'll do it again.

"I'm prepared to do anything to benefit the team, but I've got to get back to playing well and get back to the standard I've set myself. At the minute I'm not at that standard."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo