A Vaughan masterclass in vain
A century in this Test match has been a long time coming, but when it arrived it was a gift from the Gods. Michael Vaughan in full flow is arguably the most exquisite sight in the game - he is a stylist with attitude, who has the matchless ability to play like a dream but keep his innings rooted firmly in reality. All the while that he was filleting India's attack with an assortment of glides, clips and cover-drives, England could dare to imagine that the impossible was within their grasp.
And yet, the end - when it came - was swift and decisive. A quirk of fate brought Vaughan's command performance to an end, and without his insouciant dominance, the rest of the order were all too willing to comply with the inevitable. It's been a wearily familiar theme all through the summer, although such has been England's effortless dominance, the fragility of their lower-order has barely merited a passing remark.
Duncan Fletcher would doubtless break into a rictus grin if he were to sneak a peek at England's batting cards this season. During his final year as coach, his insistence on selecting a No. 8 who could bat became the joke without the punchline - his graceless remarks about Monty Panesar's abilities would eventually seal his fate during the Ashes. And yet, although it's nice to believe that you can leave the batting to the batsmen and the bowling to the bowlers, the serially maligned Ashley Giles did at least provide a footstool to assist the step-down in class.
What England have fielded this season has been more like a precipice. Matt Prior at No. 7 is a bona fide batsman (albeit he has stalled a fraction since his stunning debut century at Lord's) but beneath him lie an assortment of over-promoted tailenders. Chris Tremlett, like Liam Plunkett before him, is no Giles with the bat - let alone a Shane Warne, who is Australia's equivalent No. 8. Nor are they equal to Anil Kumble, Chaminda Vaas, Daniel Vettori or Denesh Ramdin. Or Bangladesh's Mohammad Rafique for that matter.
Lurking further down the list are three men who would slot uncomplainingly into the No. 11 position in most Test teams. Panesar, Ryan Sidebottom and James Anderson are not quite as awful as the infamous trio of Phil Tufnell, Allan Mullally and Ed Giddins who greeted Fletcher in 1999 and haunted his tenure ever after, but their returns this series have been nothing to boast about.
In consecutive innings, England have lost 9 for 80 and 5 for 31 at Lord's; followed by 7 for 97 and 7 for 68 at Trent Bridge. "One out, all out" as the great Trade Union cry used to go. Even against West Indies England were fallible. When Darren Sammy instigated a collapse of 7 for 48 in the second innings at Old Trafford, the net result was a fourth-innings run-chase that all but squared the series.
This time the upshot is even more problematic. Zaheer Khan, fuelled by his loathing of jelly-beans, has bowled India to the brink of a sensational victory - one that will secure them at least a share of the series, and maybe even their first win in England since 1986. And not even the most sumptuous innings of the year could rescue England's lost cause.
But what an innings it was. "He was exceptional," said Paul Collingwood, who played Caliban to Vaughan's Prospero throughout a 112-run stand for the fourth wicket that, for two precious hours, seemed to have snatched the momentum of the match. "I assure you it wasn't too easy out there, but Michael was in the zone, and played a magnificent innings. He was under control, he was positive, he was lining the ball up superbly well. They were swinging the ball both ways but it was always going to take a jaffa or bad luck to get him out. He could easily have gone on and got a real big one."
In the end, it was bad luck - nothing less - that truncated the masterclass, as Vaughan stepped across to a leg-side delivery, deflecting the ball off the underside of his thigh-pad so that it jagged back and across into his stumps. It was a freakish dismissal, and yet familiar - he fell in an identical fashion to Heath Streak at Lord's in 2003. But it was like setting off an alarm clock in the middle of England's REM sleep. The eyes burst open in alarm, the dream drifted off into the ether, and a grim realisation slapped the team square in the eyes: the new ball was just 16 deliveries old, and the score was effectively 4 for 4.
"Another hour of myself and Michael would have finished off a great day for England," said Collingwood. "They were showing signs of getting quieter and quieter in the field, and we were putting them under the pump a bit." Instead Bell, fidgety all series and suffering from a blow to the head in the nets, lasted just two deliveries and Prior attracted the ball of the day, a searing inswinger from RP Singh that had shades of Waqar Younis as it detonated his middle stump. Accidents will happen, as Vaughan in particular will doubtless reflect tonight. But what followed next was pre-ordained. And it could yet cost England their six-year unbeaten home record.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo