New Zealand v England 2007-08 / Features

New Zealand v England, 1st Test, Hamilton, 5th day

Vaughan faces his toughest battle

England's 189-run defeat in Hamilton leaves them at their lowest point of Michael Vaughan's captaincy and there are precious few signs that they are capable of turning their form around

Andrew Miller in Hamilton

March 9, 2008

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Captain of a sinking ship: Where does Michael Vaughan turn after England's humiliating defeat in Hamilton? © Getty Images
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When he finds a moment of solitude at the end of an abject day for English cricket, Michael Vaughan will no doubt reflect on everything he has endured to bring him to this moment. The pain, the defiance, the soul-searching. The sheer bloody-mindedness that enabled him to fight his way back from the brink of retirement and resume his leadership of the national side. It's taken three knee operations and countless false comebacks since his demise in Lahore in December 2005. Now, he must surely be asking himself, has the sacrifice been worth it?

This is not the Return of the King that Vaughan's mind's eye would have envisaged. In his first incarnation, he was the captain of a side that knew no bounds to its ambitions. The Ashes victory in 2005 was his sixth series win in a row, and Vaughan was as adored for his enterprise as Kevin Keegan at Newcastle. But now he's the helmsman of a ship that's being splintered on the rocks. Nothing he can say or do can makes the slightest bit of difference to England's course. As Keegan would testify, second comings aren't always what they're cracked up to be.

The looks, the mannerisms, the forthright attitude is the same, but it is as if Vaughan is the leader of a team that he has never before clapped eyes upon. He has no "go-to" bowlers now that Steve Harmison is a busted flush, he treats Monty Panesar as if he was a less reliable version of Ashley Giles, and though his batting has flourished intermittently since his return, he's found no way of shaking his top six out of a lethargy that Mahela Jayawardene pinpointed as early as the Colombo Test last December, and that has now proven to be terminal.

"With the talent we have, to get bowled out for 110 isn't acceptable," said Vaughan. "We hold our hands up and admit we haven't played a good game at all." If it was an anomaly, there might be more forgiveness, but this standard of performance is currently the norm for England's batsmen. Only two innings have elapsed since they were bundled out for 81 by Chaminda Vaas at Galle, and when they've not been getting out, they've been getting bogged down instead, as their disgracefully slow first innings testifies.

Once upon a time, Vaughan presided over a side that delighted in rattling along at close to four an over. He had men such as Marcus Trescothick, the real Kevin Pietersen (not the one-paced impostor who turned up for this match) and of course, Andrew Flintoff, whose uncertain fitness casts a shadow almost as gloomy as the one caused by this defeat. Until his future is mapped out once and for all, it's hard to see how England can possibly progress.

Now, England's agenda is set by men such as Ian Bell, who once again flourished when the pressure had ebbed away, and the overall atmosphere is defeatist. Vaughan's new England can't better such aggression, so they don't even try to match it. "The plan was to bat big in that first innings, bat a number of overs and take the game deep," said Vaughan of England's 11-hour first-innings crawl. "Yesterday our target was to bat to tea, because then only one team could win." It was an incredible admission of impotence, especially in light of what actually transpired. Far from batting until tea, England lost their last three wickets in a clatter, which in turn gave Ryan Sidebottom time to work his mini-miracle.

 
 
England have three days in which to put their fears to one side and find faith in themselves again, but there's no quick fix where matters of the heart are concerned
 

Vaughan used to click his fingers, post a few gullies, and create such sessions on demand - New Zealanders will doubtless recall the dramatic fourth-day turnaround at Headingley on the 2004 tour. This time Vaughan never even considered such a collapse to be a possibility. "There is a little bit of a lack of confidence in that dressing room," he said. "If the players out there believed we could win the game, we could go and take it. We just didn't give ourselves anywhere near the chance to take that opportunity."

England have three days in which to put their fears to one side and find faith in themselves again, but there's no quick fix where matters of the heart are concerned. And Vaughan was in no doubt that that is where the problem lies. "It's not a matter of hard work, it's a matter of asking yourself questions and looking within," he said. "It's all down to the inner strength of the individual to come out and perform."

Which brings us back to the eternal conundrum of Harmison, whose efforts in this contest have been little short of pitiful. He was anodyne in the first innings, and no better second-time around, when he entered the attack after Paul Collingwood, and served up four half-cock overs for 24 runs. "It is a worry because I want to see Steve back to what we all know," said Vaughan. "Eighty-five mph-plus, getting the ball going away from the right-hander, and getting the ball in decent areas. He'll be the first to admit he hasn't done that in this game. The sooner we can get Steve to do that, the better."

Time, however, is clearly running out for Harmison. A Sunday Times report has revealed that he earned close to £10,000 for each of the 24 wickets he picked up in 2007, the sort of figures that back up the evidence that he no longer has any hunger for the game. More troublingly, his fecklessness seems to be infectious. Vettori's cheeky declaration means that it is now been seven consecutive Tests since England took 20 wickets in a match - the pre-requisite for victory. Harmison is not a strike bowler in any sense of the word any more, and if he has no faith in himself, what hope his team-mates?

All this and more Vaughan will take on board between now and the Wellington Test. He of all people knows how to dig deep, and fight back from the brink of oblivion. The trouble is, does he really know the calibre of the men with whom he is entrenched?

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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Andrew Miller Andrew Miller was saved from a life of drudgery in the City when his car caught fire on the way to an interview. He took this as a sign and fled to Pakistan where he witnessed England's historic victory in the twilight at Karachi (or thought he did, at any rate - it was too dark to tell). He then joined Wisden Online in 2001, and soon graduated from put-upon photocopier to a writer with a penchant for comment and cricket on the subcontinent. In addition to Pakistan, he has covered England tours in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007
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