Mike Holmans August 18, 2008

Vaughan again

Vaughan’s triumphs will shine through history, but history will take its own good time to decide how much weight to place on the subsequent disappointments

If Michael Vaughan’s knee injury at the back end of 2005 had ended his career, as once seemed likely, his place in history as one of the great captains would be assured.

He managed to square the 2003 series against a fairly obviously superior South Africa, had an indifferent visit to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and then won six series on the bounce, including England’s first series wins in the West Indies and South Africa since the 1960s and culminating in the glorious victory in the 2005 Ashes, over which a grateful nation swooned.

His ability to get the best out of the individuals in his team and uncanny knack of knowing which bowler to bring on and what unorthodox field to set for each and every batsman evoked comparisons with the other two great England captains of my watching career, Raymond Illingworth and Mike Brearley.

But the story of Vaughan’s captaincy is an Aristotelian tragedy, in which a man’s reversal of fortune comes from a mistake. It was reasonable enough to appoint a stand-in captain for the series in India which followed the injury, but once it became apparent that the injury was going to take a lot longer to heal, he should have given up the captaincy and allowed England to move on while he came back in his own good time.

As it was, when he finally resumed office, he was concerned about his knee and his batting form dropped off disastrously. Captaincy had affected his bating before: he had averaged in the high thirties in his first period of captaincy compared to the high forties he had been registering while still in the ranks, but that was a reasonable price to pay for the wickets he could take by ingenuity in the field.

But when the runs dried up almost completely, at least against good bowling sides, he seemed to rely more and more on the two things which he felt had won the Ashes – consistency of selection and unorthodox field settings –eventually resulting in his over-the-top reaction to the selection of Darren Pattinson and making 253 field changes in a single day.

Vaughan’s tragic mistake was not to recognise what in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is contained in Ecclesiastes, although atheists like me tend to digest it in the form of The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn”: “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The lengthy injury was a signal that his captaincy had had its time, but he failed to spot it and thus incurred the unhappiness of the second time around.

A production of the Tragedy of King Vaughan could portray him in several ways. He could be played as power-hungry, arrogantly refusing to give up his crown, but this would seem unfair to me. When the vast majority of the advisers (in the form of the ECB) and the people (in the form of the fans, including me) plead with the king to stay on because we believe in him as a miracle-worker, it would take a monarch of extraordinary sagacity to deny them when falling in with their wishes seems only too agreeable a prospect. Were I to be directing it, I would present it as a parable on the dangers of dwelling on the glorious past rather than taking a clear-eyed view of the future.

Vaughan’s triumphs will shine through history, but history will take its own good time to decide how much weight to place on the subsequent disappointments. For those English fans who lived through the 2005 Ashes, though, it is easy to forgive what followed.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on August 20, 2008, 13:58 GMT

    Mark, no offence really taken, and I fully take your point that I was fuelling an "elitist" reputation.

    I shan't promise not to do it again, though. A great sport has the capacity to evoke the same deep and rich responses as great music, art or literature, and it would be faintly dishonest not to reflect that in articles which are meant to be a personal response to events rather than cold analysis.

    Please feel free to puncture any further balloons of pretentious pomposity you detect, especially if you're going to come up with lines as good as the one about Aristotle and Boycs's mum.

  • testli5504537 on August 20, 2008, 9:30 GMT

    Mike...apologies, no personal offence intended. Over intellectualising is the point I was trying to make. As I said, I am a fan of your tripe and have no wish to accuse you of pretension. The one point I would like to make is that the article does fuel the rather elitist reputation the sport has in the UK...I also seem to have lost the last line of my post yesteday: "Aristotle? Even Geoff Boycott's mum could score a hundred against him" a humorous dig was my intention, not a personal attack.

    cheers Mark Diston

  • testli5504537 on August 19, 2008, 19:10 GMT

    Mark, I strongly object to "pseudo-intellectual tripe". There's nothing pseudo about it at all. If it's intellectual tripe, that's one thing, but to be accused of faking it is just not on.

    Yes, I know the Tragedy doesn't conform to Aristotle's unities, but I still maintain that the general outline of the plot and the nature of the hero conforms to the Poetics. And I can't help it if studying philosophy and Eng lit to degree level means I have an unnatural desire to quote Aristotle whenever possible.

    I mentioned the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the vague hope that someone who understands Eastern religions might be able to point at something in those traditions which says that people should realise when it's time to move on.

    Over-intellectualising I may be, tripe I may write, but there's nothing ersatz about it.

  • testli5504537 on August 19, 2008, 9:21 GMT

    A perfect fit with Aristotle's recipe in the Poetics is not required. Vaughan falls short of heroic status, in many ways. But the "tragic flaw" of pride took hold, and his destruction followed. That habit of referring to himself in the third person (belief in his own mythical status) and the constant fiddling in the field (belief that he could control his own fate and that of others) are good instances. The opening stand in the World Cup match against South Africa (30 balls without a run) shows a good streak of selfishness, too. The Fredalo interview with the Guardian, and his subsequent denial (disproved by the tape) was evidence of self-deception, at best. Likewise his complaint after Headingley that the selection was "confused" (although it has emerged that he and Peter Moores had the final say over the 11). I think there was a golden period, that led to the Ashes in 2005, but signs of decline were evident shortly after, and the decline itself proved relentless. Fairly tragic

  • testli5504537 on August 19, 2008, 9:07 GMT

    Really Mike...haven't heard such pseudo intellectual tripe for some time, I bet even an avid listener at the annual Oxford/Cambridge picnic would struggle to surpass it. Aristotle is to tragedy what Journalists are to cricket...They talk about it, some show various degrees of insight...others just try and show off their knowledge or lack of it. I've enjoyed your writing up till now, but really? "Judaeo-Christian tradition"...how long before Krsna whispers advice in M.S.Dhoni's ear on the eve of the 20/20...take a Hadjj to Headingley and see how Aristotle goes down...piss poor writing mate...

  • testli5504537 on August 19, 2008, 7:03 GMT

    I find all this talk of Vaughan's greatness as a captain to be totally overblown. One dicey decision when the Aussies were two runs away from an unassailable 2-0 lead (Kasparowicz's gloved catch) kept England in the hunt for the Ashes. And then a dropped sitter by the normally reliable Warne off Petersen allowed them to hang on to that 2-1 lead in the 5th Test. Two strokes of good fortune do not a great captain make. I will say that in his pomp there were few batsmen who could hold a candle to Vaughan. The real tragedy is that his knee injury and the pressures of captaincy kept him from reaching his full potential as a batsman. There is something to learn from all of this, as the English now go overboard in their praise Petersen-the-captain. Please don't. He's only as good as the team around him - and that's a pretty average lot.

  • testli5504537 on August 19, 2008, 6:02 GMT

    Michael Vaughan is a classic case of an Englishman made-by-the-media and slain-by-the-media, as opposed to the Aristotelian tragedy analogy. In time, even he perhaps came to believe what was written about him--until it meandered to the 'Vaughan The Prawn' phase. He was a competent skipper of a team that had more talent than what a Nasser Hussain presided over. Let's not forget: England took over Ashes 2005 after a McGrath injury. That was one half of the Aussie attack, and showed up an Oz team that had for long depended on the deeds of two bowlers, the captain notwithstanding! It's hard to assess skippers of the 21st century because they hardly come up against a killer opposition. If they do, the team capitulate. And as with India (in Oz) 2003-04 and Ashes 2005, they played a string team without the big guns. So, any victory must be taken with a pinch of salt. Vaughan reigned in such an era!

  • testli5504537 on August 19, 2008, 4:56 GMT

    Michael Vaughan was a great captain, an astute leader and seemed a generally nice bloke. Warne, on the other hand, could have been a great leader- if all that matters is what you do and say on the field. Maybe its just me, but I think a captain should be someone who inspires you. Warne was a phenomenal bowler but the captaincy wasn't given to him because he would have completely embarrassed and disgraced the position. The stuff that he did put the Fedalo incident to shame- on the eve of the world cup, he had to be suspended for a year for taking drugs ( and it should have been more, and if it was McGill or anyone of lesser importance he wouldn't have played again. Meanwhile Ponting scored 140not out from about 80 balls in the final, an extraordinary innings. Plus, I fiond his comments about Murali, S Waugh, Buchanan and countless others to be that of an arrogant, bitter man. Warne, the best captain we never had, the man they should have chosen, this line of argument is a joke

  • testli5504537 on August 18, 2008, 17:18 GMT

    It would be wrong to compare Border to Waugh or Ponting. Border took on a beleagered team, identified protogonists, instilled the killer spirit and won the world cups. His captaincy saw the worst team become the best. Ponting, at one stage,took the best team and lost the Ashes. Waugh's captaincy was about smothering opposition, but Ponting's rein might just be 'more of the same'. Shane Warne would have been the best of them all- and a pity he is not even in the discussion of 'best captains'.

  • testli5504537 on August 18, 2008, 13:44 GMT

    Leadership development is different to teaching leadership. I think ponting is an example, originally, circa 2005, he was struggling, but he's really grown in stature, same as Waugh and Border before them. The big deal is succession planning; like Australia did with Ponting, with Waugh, with Taylor, and like they are now doing with Clarke. Who is England vice-captain? I don't even know (my guess is Strauss). If Pietersen was to be the next captain, why wasnt the coach and Vaughan giving him opportunities slowly over the past 2 years? Pietersen might be a good captain, but they've certainly had to take a risk; with succession planning, the risk is far less.

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