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In the early 90s, rumours circulated among the Yorkshire faithful of a schoolboy in Sheffield, said to be the best batting prospect seen in the Broad Acres since the young Len Hutton sixty years earlier. In 1995, soon after he made his Yorkshire debut, I saw him play against Gloucestershire. He made 74 runs with an elegance and class which bore out the rumours, so I became a devoted fan of Michael Vaughan.
After establishing himself as a Test player, in 2002 he embarked on a year playing as regally as anyone I have ever seen. He was my idea of batting perfection apart from a tendency to throw things away in the nervous 190s, and at the start of 2003 the ICC rankings briefly agreed that he was the best batsman in the world. Had he carried on like that, the phrase “the great Michael …” would not today inevitably end in “Phelps”.
But he took on the England captaincy and the spell was broken. His batting descended to the mortal plane, then he got. Following physical rehab and his resumption of the captaincy - a mistake about which I have written before - his batting continued to deteriorate until his resignation this summer.
That this would happen was unknowable in advance: batsmen take captaincy in different ways, as Vaughan and his predecessors and contemporaries show. It adversely affected Vaughan, as it did Rahul Dravid, but had no discernible effect on the batting of Mike Atherton or Ricky Ponting while propelling Graham Gooch and Mahela Jayawardene to performances at your favourite level of the upper atmosphere. Ever the contrarian, Nasser Hussain began by finding captaincy a burden but went on to perform above his average level.
Giving up a burdensome captaincy can work wonders. Paul Collingwood recovered his batting form within 24 hours of deciding to resign as ODI captain. But since he quickly found that he was not much good at being captain and began to dislike it not much later, giving it up was clearly liberating.
Vaughan, though, was a brilliant captain in his dream job. The feeling that he would have to give it up grew over months and when the end came it was heartbreaking. Being driven to resignation like that cannot be far different from seeing a parent slip into terminal illness or realising that your marriage is on an inevitable course to shipwreck. He is bound to need considerable time to recover his equilibrium.
Awarding Vaughan a central contract but leaving him out of the squad to tour India is thus a signal that the selectors believe that he will be able to bat at a level somewhere near his old standards once he has recovered his mental fitness, although rehab for the soul will take quite some time.
There being nothing I enjoy more in cricket than seeing Michael Vaughan score Test centuries, I fervently hope they are right.
A lot of the press reaction, though, has implied that they are either nuts or ridiculously sentimental. Since I can weep at the end of “The Return of the King”, I’ll plead guilty to sentimentality, but I will also pose a question.
If it had emerged that a player had been batting in considerable pain and had had surgery to remove the problem, but that it would take three months’ rehab and he would therefore miss the tour of India, it seems unlikely that anyone would bat an eyelid at the award of a 12-month contract. Why is it different when the pain has been in his mind rather than his right shoulder?
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