A captain cut short of greatness
And so Michael Vaughan's reign ends as it began, amid the chaos of a South African steamrollering at Edgbaston. The venue that became synonymous with English triumph in the summer of 2005 has reverted once again to being a scene of captaincy disasters. First Nasser Hussain in 2003, and now Vaughan five years later. Both have departed the ground as chastened and spent leaders, crushed and compromised by the might of their opposite number, Graeme Smith.
This was not the end that Vaughan deserved. Like Hussain before him, he unquestionably ranks among the very best captains that England have produced since the second world war, but in the final analysis, both were found wanting in the leap from good to great. Hussain failed against Australia and lost the Ashes inside 11 days in 2001 and 2002-03, and though Vaughan may have won the subsequent contest, he has since lost something even more precious - the aura that he established so painstakingly during his glory years of 2004 and 2005.
The man who's clapped and cajoled from his familiar position at mid-off this summer is not the same leader who ran rings around Ricky Ponting in 2005, as England moved clear of the chasing pack to become the second-best side in the world. In an emotional address to the media at Loughborough, the pressures that have come with his position came pouring into full view, and Vaughan admitted that, had he not taken this decision, it might well have been taken out of his hands. In the cruel world of sport, heroes can be recast as zeroes with a haste not seen in any other walk of life.
And yet, Vaughan already knows this all too well, for the heroism of his second coming as England captain has had little to do with on-field events, and everything to do with his awe-inspiring defiance of an appalling knee injury that, by rights, ought to have curtailed his career in its pomp, three years ago. Who knows what he would have achieved, personally and for England, had he not turned for that second run at Lahore's Bagh-e-Jinnah in December 2005, and suffered the injury that was to cut him adrift from his charges for 18 dark months?
The mark of the man is his response to adversity, and while England drifted rudderless for four subsequent series - culminating in their 5-0 Ashes drubbing of last winter - Vaughan soldiered on in the shadows, overcoming surgery, rehab and gruelling strengthening sessions in the gym, as he implored his body to pull together once again and give him the chance to resume the mission that he had been forced to abort. His efforts were not always appreciated, and he was denounced as a distraction while England were lurching to defeat in Australia, but the dedication he brought to his role could never be called into question.
After all, it is easy now to forget just how infused with optimism English cricket had been when Vaughan set off on that fateful tour of Pakistan. There was no leader in the game who could match his authority - not Smith, the ICC's choice as captain for the World XI, whose stock took a tumble against the Aussies in that same winter, and certainly not Ponting, who wouldn't hit the high note of his captaincy for another 12 months. England were on a record roll of six consecutive series wins and could dream, without delusion, that world dominance was in their sights.
Instead they were struck down with a vengeance that might have been lifted straight from a Greek tragedy. In the space of 48 chaotic hours in Nagpur in March 2006, Vaughan and Simon Jones vanished without trace to career-threatening knee injuries, and Marcus Trescothick fled the tour with the first surfacing of his stress-related illness. Andrew Flintoff was next to go lame, as his ankle gave way ahead of the Pakistan series in July, and suddenly a team which had been forged in Vaughan's own granite-willed image had been scattered to the winds like cherry blossom.
As they struggled to compute the chaos that had hit them, England's selectors chose to retain Vaughan in absentia, a loyalty that in hindsight seems misplaced but which spoke volumes of the regard in which he was held. He had found his feet as a leader on an arduous tour of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 2003-04, in which physical fitness had been installed as the cornerstone of his new team ethic, and where he cemented his relationship with that other great casualty of the post-2005 meltdown, Duncan Fletcher. By the time the Ashes had been sealed 21 months later, the players were responding to his commands like a racehorse to its jockey. Deft tweaks and touches, but the firm use of the whip when required, allowed Vaughan to remain a man of his people, but a cut above all at once.
The grand statements made the record-books - England's long-awaited victories in West Indies and South Africa, and of course the Ashes - but it was the little moments that made the difference where Vaughan's captaincy was concerned. His denouncement of a misleadingly comfortable victory at Port Elizabeth in 2004-05, for instance, as "shoddy", or a memorable fourth-evening session at Headingley in 2004, when out of the dregs of a match destined for a draw, Vaughan caught a whiff of cordite in his nostrils, and ordered his men into a full-frontal assault against New Zealand's bewildered batsmen. Four wickets followed in 18 balls before the close, and the rout was wrapped up before lunch the following morning.
That was then, but this is now, and though Vaughan has returned to the saddle, the beast beneath him is an unfamiliar mare - frisky and lazy in equal but erratic measures. Moreover, in his first coming as England captain, the certainty of Vaughan's purpose masked lapses with the bat that were all-too-frequent for a man who'd once been ranked as the No. 1 player in the world. Unlike Hussain or Steve Waugh (or even, one day, Smith) Vaughan's is not a style that has adapted well with age. He has always played like a prince among paupers, because the sublime elegance of his strokeplay demanded a cavalier approach. And yet, his immobility in the field, albeit belied by a thrilling spread-eagled catch in the deep on Friday morning, has been as hard to disguise as his desperate struggle for form.
Ugly runs were never Vaughan's forte. His greatest series as a batsman was also his most graceful, in the 2002-03 Ashes, when Australia were whipped and driven for three outstanding centuries in five matches. For his final act as England captain to be an infinitesimally misdirected cover-drive was cruelly apposite. The old intent never wavered, with bat or in the field. But somewhere between his two stints in the side, the signals being emitted became scrambled.
But if there is one aspect of his timing that has not deserted him, it is the manner in which he has departed from the role. Vaughan desperately wished to be given one last crack at the Aussies, and a more stubborn man could have called in his final favours and brazened his way to 2009 regardless. He knows, however, that the mission is no longer his to undertake. The authority that gave him the edge in 2005 stemmed directly from his success Down Under two years earlier, and with that in mind, the time is right to hand over the role to the one England batsman whom the Aussies truly fear.
Hussain knew when his time was up, and now, in a remarkable repetition of history, so too does Vaughan. At 1pm tomorrow, Kevin Pietersen will be unveiled as England's new captain across all three forms of the game, and at The Oval on Thursday, he will lead the team for the first time in Test cricket. Vaughan will not be present in body, as he steps away for now to take stock of his career, but in spirit he will persist, as Hussain did before him. The good'uns endure, because the gratitude will never dim.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo