England v West Indies, 2nd Test, Headingley, 1st day May 25, 2007

Vaughan savours the sweetest feeling

Michael Vaughan: a classy return to the colours © Getty Images

Once upon a time, Michael Vaughan built a cricket team in his own image. It was a unit so driven, so determined, so tightly knit, it was able to topple the greatest opponents ever assembled, in a contest that few who witnessed it believe will be matched for intensity in this lifetime. But then, before he could build on his glory and propel England into a new era, he was gone, let down by a body that had no way of matching the iron will that dwelled within it. Today, 18 agonising months later, he returned in triumph with a century that he will savour like few others.

"That's as fine a feeling as I've ever felt in the game," said Vaughan at the close of play, after a performance in which he took on not only a substandard West Indian attack, but more significantly an army of detractors in the media, who had questioned his right to waltz back into the side after such a protracted break, and were hovering with pens and microphones at the ready should he fail to live up to his own expectations.

"In terms of innings I've played, I put that right up there just for the pressure," said Vaughan. "It stands with the innings I played against Australia at Old Trafford [166, in 2005]. To go out there and produce it when it seemed the whole country was looking to see how Michael Vaughan was going to react this week; to play some nice shots under that amount of pressure and get the team in a good position was just really pleasing."

Vaughan was not, of course, alone in today's run-glut. Kevin Pietersen added his second hundred in successive innings, to take England's centuries tally for the series to seven - as compiled by six different cricketers. But within that stat lurked the extra layer of determination that has been missing from so much of England's cricket in the wilderness months of Vaughan's reign. The desire to dig ever deeper and stretch yourself in spite of the opponents at your disposal. It's precisely the trait that has just driven Australia to their third consecutive World Cup title.

All throughout the Ashes whitewash, Andrew Flintoff's stock insistence was that he "could not ask any more of his players". One day into his second coming as Test captain, Vaughan instantly dispelled such notions. No-one has dug deeper than Vaughan in the past 18 months, from the moment he fought back from his original knee dislocation in Lahore to play in the decisive Test of that 2005-06 tour; through the moment he was told by his surgeon he might never play again, and onwards into the new season - via a chastening World Cup campaign and a broken finger in his first first-class outing for 12 months.

That's as fine a feeling as I've ever felt in the game. In terms of innings I've played, I put that right up there just for the pressure

Michael Vaughan on his comeback performance

"I think the whole team knows what I've gone through," said Vaughan. "It's been a long road, with lonely hours in the gym with Wayne Morton and the ECB medical team. But this is hopefully the start of a long period. I feel I'm due a bit of luck with my injuries and hopefully this is the start of many games I can play on the trot. I always had to fight to get back, so perhaps it was meant to be, missing Lord's and then scoring a hundred at my home ground."

In doing so, in fact, Vaughan became the first Yorkshire batsman to score a century on the ground for England since Geoffrey Boycott in 1977 - a similarly memorable return from exile as he notched up his 100th first-class hundred. On that occasion, Headingley was swamped by thousands of ecstatic fans; today, their passion was matched by an extraordinarily exuberant Pietersen, who lauded Vaughan's achievement as if it was his own. Or maybe he just wanted to muscle in on the moment.

"It was a funny celebration," said Vaughan, who at one stage had to fear for his ribs as his team-mate gripped him in an emotional bearhug. "But Kevin breeds confidence in the team and the others waiting to bat. He has an effect on the opposition when he's out there because he hits the ball in strange areas and he's very forceful the way he bats. For me, it was a mixture of lots of emotions. It was a feeling I haven't had for a long time - the crowd cheering, and obviously that's what you play the game for."

Unsurprisingly, after everything he has been through, Vaughan felt that he had been touched by destiny in his innings. "I felt all week I was going to get some runs," he said. "Driving in I could envisage myself scoring a hundred. I just had this sense it was going to happen. I got to 20 and thought, there's a hundred in me today." There might even have been a double-hundred in him, as he himself admitted after picking out deep midwicket with a sweetly timed pull. "But if I'd been offered 103 in the morning, I would have taken it."

Among the many fans to stood to applaud Vaughan's achievement was one man who was singled out for a special mention - Nick London, the surgeon who reconstructed Vaughan's knee and made the emotions of the day possible. "It's quite ironic that he was here today," Vaughan added. "It's the first time he's seen me play."

Vaughan's last international appearance on English soil culminated in the most triumphant day of his life - the glory of the draw at The Oval that secured the return of the Ashes. But this time, despite his protestations to the contrary, it was all about No. 1. But is he the special No. 1 - cricket's equivalent to Jose Mourinho? Vaughan laughed, which is something he hasn't had a lot of opportunity to do of late. "I'll leave that for you guys to decide."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo