Western Australia v England XI, Perth, 1st day December 9, 2006

Silent Vaughan continues to lurk, but why?



Michael Vaughan spent a full day in the field but no one was able to ask him how it went © Getty Images
What on earth is Michael Vaughan doing in this England team? That was the question that everyone was asking at the end of an inconclusive day at the WACA, but it was one that Vaughan himself was not permitted to answer. England's injured captain emerged unscathed (we believe) from his first day in the team since the tour of India in February, and even took charge for a two-over spell when Andrew Strauss had to leave the field. But to what end, no-one was quite able to fathom.

Instead, after requests for a post-match interview were turned down by the ECB, it was left to Sajid Mahmood to speak on Vaughan's behalf. "He's still vocal, still his usual self. It's good to have him back," said Mahmood, who produced a decent but inconclusive spell of 2 for 61 and spent most of his time fielding various enquiries about the form and fitness of a man he has never played under in Test cricket.

It's becoming a recurring theme on this trip, because Vaughan's presence in Australia is veering towards the supernatural. He's the captain without a voice, the minister without portfolio, the familiar face among the anonymous rookies of the ECB Academy. And the harder the ECB attempt to play down his presence, the more they stir their own pot of innuendo.

And so, we ask again, what on earth is Vaughan doing in this match? It's a reasonable question and it deserved a reasonable answer, especially given Duncan Fletcher's suggestion to the BBC yesterday. "There's not enough cricket between now and the third, fourth and fifth Tests," said Fletcher, "especially cricket where he has to stay in the field for a long time, probably two days standing on that leg, and for a long innings. So until he can do that and he's confident in his knee we won't consider Michael Vaughan."

So here instead, courtesy of the ECB, is Mahmood's take on the situation: "He was a huge success in the Ashes last year, and to have him back in the field was great for the lads." So, given that all we are can to do is speculate, Vaughan must be out there geeing up a dispirited side and getting them back on track for the last three Tests. I bet that'll do wonders for Andrew Flintoff's sapping morale. After all, leading by inspiration is meant to be his one true talent as a captain.

Make no mistake, Vaughan deserves sympathy for his plight and admiration for his refusal to bow to what has long seemed the inevitable. Like Jonny Wilkinson, his rise and fall is a tale lifted straight from a Greek tragedy - the glory of his finest hour giving way instantly to pain, suffering and recriminations. But there is a time and a place for such a public show of single-mindedness, and right here, right now - on the eve of England's make-or-break moment in an Ashes series - is emphatically neither.

Before the tour began, those in the know - most of whom are in and around the press box and the England camp - were scoffing at the prospect of Vaughan making an Ashes comeback. Many in fact questioned whether he would ever be seen on a cricket field again. Now, however, who knows what we are to believe. England have already shown themselves to be obsessively fixated with the team of 2005. Is it really so improbable that Vaughan is about to be parachuted into the fray?



Sajid Mahmood on Vaughan: 'To have him back in the field was great for the lads' © Getty Images
After all, the damage has already been done on this trip. Mahmood, Chris Read and Monty Panesar were whipped out of a winning side and left to simmer on the sidelines, smarting at such a public show of no-confidence from an administration that remains perversely loyal to its non-playing captain. "It's been frustrating," admitted Mahmood today, just as Panesar admitted to Cricinfo on Thursday and Read to anyone within earshot. Panesar's display today was remarkable - it was skill blended with relief blended with fury when he snatched his jumper back after an appeal was turned down. His desperation to impress seemed to dent some of his unbridled love for the game. And that is as sad as it is wrong.

Vaughan is not a quitter. That much is abundantly clear, and so there is a perverse logic in having him hanging around so close to this Ashes squad, so close to their final, final, chance. But that's all it is. Perverse. In days gone by, before he lost faith in the men at his disposal, Fletcher would have backed his captain to the hilt - publicly, privately, and everywhere in between. And by captain, I mean Flintoff, who had to reiterate last week that he had been put in charge for all five Tests, and not Vaughan. Just in case Fletcher has forgotten.

Instead, Fletcher has thrown a hospital pass to his active captain by blaming him, through a mysterious source at The Daily Mail, for the selection disasters at Brisbane and Adelaide. Rumours, rumours. But now, what's this we read today? " It was the right choice to make [Freddie] captain and I'm not sure if he's getting the side he wants," said a certain Shane Warne in his Times column today.

Shane Who? Amid all the bickering, the struggle for the Ashes seems to have been forgotten. But at least we now know that Mahmood "put the ball in good areas" and "felt in good rhythm in the nets". All hope is not yet lost.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo