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.