Vaughan praises England's mental resolve

Michael Vaughan was exhausted but elated, after becoming the first England captain to win a series in South Africa for 40 years. He had to do it the hard way as well - after England had slumped to 20 for 3, he battled for more than two hours for an unbeaten 26, to secure a hard-earned draw on the final afternoon.

"This is certainly the best moment I've known since I've been captain of the team," said Vaughan afterwards. "We're pretty tired now, but to achieve what we have achieved, in a country where it is very difficult to win, shows the character of the team. We've struggled for form and we've not been at our best, but we've dug deep and shown great mental resolve."

"The last session told the story of the series," added Vaughan, after South Africa's tempting declaration had left England teetering on the brink. "We've had to fight all the way and, in fact, the only game that was one-sided was the one that we lost [at Cape Town]. The others could have gone either way, and thanks to different individuals sticking their hands up at crucial periods, we've been able to grab the initiative in a couple of games.

"I thank my players for every session," Vaughan added. "Full credit to the batters for digging deep, but for the bowlers to play five games on the bounce, and to keep running in as they did in these conditions, was a great effort, both mentally and physically. And that goes for both teams as well - the way Pollock and Ntini kept coming at us today was incredible, considering the amount of overs they've bowled."

In the end, South Africa's desperate bid to level the series fell just short, although Vaughan admitted to one or two feelings of anxiety as England slumped to 20 for 3. "It was a tricky period," he conceded. "Ntini has so much energy, and Pollock is always a threat on a deteriorating wicket. But then you see Graham Thorpe walking to the wicket, with all his experience. He's a fighter, and though I've not been in the greatest of nick, he gave me confidence.

"I'm just so pleased with the team and the way we've played," Vaughan continued. "If the series had been level at 1-1, then I'm sure we'd have played it differently and been more positive, but at 2-1 you just scrap and make sure you come out with a series victory. If we had got a good start and had been 50 for 0, then I'm sure we'd have had a look, but at 20 for 3 it was back to the drawing-board!"

England have now become only the third side to win a series in South Africa since their readmission to Test cricket, and seeing as the other two teams were both Australians, there is going to be an inevitable surge of optimism ahead of this summer's Ashes battle. Vaughan, however, was refusing to get carried away.

"Australia are by far the best team in the world, and they have been for a number of years," said Vaughan. "We watch them regularly and they seem to be getting better and more experienced. That's what we're trying to do as well - get more experience of different opposition in different countries, and get into a habit of winning. But let's be realistic. Australia have so much experience and expertise - we will have to be at our very, very, very best to beat them in the summer."

With that series in mind, it was finally confirmed this morning that Andrew Flintoff would be returning home early to undergo surgery on his troublesome left heel. "We're just following medical advice," said Vaughan. "We want him fit for the Ashes, and it needs to be done, so now is the best period. With no disrespect to Bangladesh [England's next opponents], but I'd rather have him miss those matches than games against Australia, Pakistan and India."

For Vaughan and the Test squad, it was the end of an exhausting schedule of five matches in six weeks, and once again the cramped itinerary came under some scrutiny. "At the end of a five-Test series, you're always going to be tired," said Vaughan. "But both teams knew exactly what was in store. We're delighted to have won 2-1, but I wouldn't want to do it again!"

He won't be doing it again, but instead, there is the joy of seven one-day internationals to follow in the next 14 days. "We're tired now," said Vaughan, "but I'm sure come Saturday, we'll be looking forward to it."

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He has been following England's tour of South Africa.