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The England cricket captain Michael Vaughan struck back in Johannesburg on Friday against the South African opposition, against the umpires and against the first pretender to his throne to emerge since he inherited the job 18 months ago.

His major achievement was to see England through a nasty middle-order collapse and put them in a position where defeat in the fourth Test now seems extremely improbable.

Having been 262 for two at the zenith of their fortunes on Thursday, they lost five wickets for just 16 runs. But Vaughan remained staunch, took himself to 82 not out and the total to 411 for eight at the close of the second day, which was truncated by meteorological miseries more associated with summer at Headingley rather than on the Highveld.

The strength of that score will depend largely on the weather to come. England want conditions fine enough to permit play but cloudy enough to make the ball jag around for their bowlers, as it did, ferociously, for the South Africans between lunch and tea.

After the morning had been lost to rain, their two strike bowlers Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock were almost unplayable. But after another lengthy interruption which should have refreshed them Ntini in particular lost his length, his rhythm and, ultimately, the plot.

First, Ashley Giles took the bowlers on and won. Then Steve Harmison came in to play a series of effortless and inventive shots. By the close he had shared an unbroken stand of 82 with Vaughan. All he has to do now is to remember how to bowl.

In cricket, though, the human drama always outstrips the details of the game. Vaughan is a sunny individual who, since he replaced Nasser Hussain in the politically charged post of captain, has had a great deal to be sunny about: 2004 was England's most successful year ever in Test cricket.

But these situations change very fast. The team's form has been far rockier in this series currently at 1-1 with one to play than for some time.

Vaughan himself had failed to pass 20 in his six Test innings out here. And for the first time it has become possible to spot a rival on the horizon: Andrew Strauss.

On Thursday evening, after completing his third century inside a month, Strauss was having dinner with his wife in a Thai restaurant.

A group of journalists walked in: "Good meal?" one of us asked. "You can't go wrong with a Thai," he replied. "Well, you can't go wrong," one of us said.

England's current innings is their seventh of this series; had he hit an extra boundary in the second innings at Cape Town, Strauss would have been the top scorer in every one, an unprecedented feat.

He is intelligent, personable, a proven captain (with Middlesex) and has rapidly made himself an indispensable member of the team.

He is not England's most gifted batsman, but his judgment at the crease is outstanding in a way that suggests he will find his way through the inevitable periods when The Force is not with him as spectacularly as it is here.

Had Vaughan failed yet again, and the team too, his leadership would have started to become a talking point. A whispering point, at least.

It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which the selectors might remove him before England attempt to recapture the Ashes in the summer. But the pressure would have started to build, as it has done for almost all his predecessors since the game began. He fought his way out of trouble the way he knows best: he batted. It was monstrously tough at first. After more than two hours he only had 14. But as the bowling grew ragged, Vaughan grew in confidence.

He knew on Thursday that a technical error had crept into his game, and he narrowly survived. He spent the evening watching videos of himself, then went to the indoor nets in the morning. By afternoon he felt sure it had gone. He smilingly declined to reveal what the flaw was. But for a batsman to graft his way out of a trough the way he did is as meritorious as it is for a man in supreme nick to stroke it around as Strauss did.

By evening, Vaughan felt confident enough to have a dig at the umpires, always a risky option for cricketers. Play ended when South Africa were able to exercise their option of going off for bad light, even though England had wanted to continue.

The floodlights had been on all day and, under the incredibly complex regulations governing these matters in Tests, this means the fielders can also persuade the umpires they cannot see the red ball.

Vaughan moaned: "All we ask for is consistency. We don't think the umpires have been consistent today." But he wasn't angry. He was a very relieved man.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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