October 28, 2009

Death by circumstance

It's hard not to feel sympathy for the former England coach, who has conducted himself with dignity amid the stone-throwing

Hindsight is truly a wondrous thing, a miraculous creature, right up there with love and new days and the occasional fleeting glimpse of world peace. It turns mysteries into open books, transforms the bemused into knowalls, the duped, the misguided and the plain wrong into seers. It doesn't necessarily mean, notwithstanding Michael Vaughan's repeated assertions to the contrary, that Peter Moores was a poor choice to succeed Duncan Fletcher as England coach.

Even on the evidence of a few extracts published by the Times, the value of waiting until after you have retired before publishing an autobiography has seldom been more firmly underlined than it has been by Vaughan's Time To Declare. If I were a publisher I would insist on it. The result may well be one of the least yawn-worthy sporting autobiographies of recent times.

Removed from the cloistered bubble of the dressing room, and hence accusations of disloyalty and the repercussions of public criticism, however objective or well-intended, the subject is far better able to cast a credible light on what goes on far from the madding crowd, and hence satisfy those seeking causes and cures. Removed from the torment of lost form and daily anxiety, the subject is far better able, in theory, to present a rounded picture of himself, however slanted.

So it is that Vaughan can now admit, with refreshing candour, that one of the prime reasons he was such a poor catcher was the fear that gripped him whenever a leather-encased lump of cork flew in his direction. So it is, emboldened by the example so movingly set by Marcus Trescothick, that he can lay bare the self-doubt that plagued him during the final phase of his career. And so it is that he can finally reveal, in public, the extent to which he and Moores failed to connect. By publishing extracts from what the Times called "Vaughan's secret diary", moreover, the former captain cannot be accused of being wise after the event. Provided, that is, we accept that there has been no creativity after the fact - and there seems no reason to accuse Vaughan, who has always given the impression of being a straight dealer, of such literary chicanery.

"The team is starting to get irritated by the new management regime," he wrote after New Zealand had won the first Test in March 2008. "Being told what to do and treated like schoolkids. Peter loves talking and having the last word." Nor did a change in fortune prompt a change of tune. "I am finding Peter goes over things again and again rather than just getting to the point earlier and moving on," Vaughan noted a few days later, annoyance and frustration undimmed by the fact that England had just levelled the series. "He talks round in circles. The batsmen are not playing their natural instinct games and I'm starting to think it's because of the constant analysis and picking."

For those of us who observed and knew Moores while he was steering Sussex from the longest fruitless streak in County Championship history to title-winners in 2003, with a squad that would take the crown twice more in the next four years and go on to become the premier force in the county one-day game for good measure, such complaints are both surprising and strange. True, he had a not-so secret weapon by the name of Mushtaq Ahmed, and a strong, up-and-at-'em skipper in Chris Adams, but Moores' insistence on treating players as individuals rather than trainee robots was also an integral factor.

Take Michael Yardy. After struggling to break into the first-team squad, the left-hander took his chance despite a worrying habit of going for a leisurely stroll across his stumps as the bowler approached. Indeed, he would win international recognition and succeed Adams as captain. Instead of persuading him that prosperity lay in divesting himself of such a technical encumbrance, Moores told Yardy to carry on doing what felt right, infusing him with self-belief.

When Moores was promoted from running the National Academy, his successor at Sussex, Mark Robinson, was convinced he had the mettle and steel to survive an international dressing room. Especially the steel. "One thing I would never question is his strength of character," he said at the time. "He's got steely eyes. He stands up for everything that is right in the game and he's prepared to go toe to toe with anyone. No one should doubt that he will be a strong guy." No wonder he and Kevin Pietersen clashed. No wonder Vaughan fumed and seethed. Dressing rooms are seldom big enough to accommodate a strong-minded captain and a strong-minded coach when neither is quite sure where his job ends and the other's begins. Vaughan and Fletcher were a good team because those boundaries were clear, but also because there was mutual respect.

Although I never heard a murmur of dissent from a Sussex player, the change to a whip-cracking training regime at international level was never going to go down terribly well - or at least not with the likes of Andrew Flintoff. The self-assured don't take too kindly to being castigated or shamed into shape. Besides, a new culture needs time to be accepted. "I've got where I have doing what I do the way I do it, mate," runs the general rationale when dealing with coaches. "You're there to help me iron out any technical wrinkles and reinject me with a shot of confidence when and where required. Got it?"

Dressing rooms are seldom big enough to accommodate a strong-minded captain and a strong-minded coach when neither is quite sure where his job ends and the other's begins. Vaughan and Fletcher were a good team because those boundaries were clear, but also because there was mutual respect

It is hard not to conclude that Moores was acting out of character during his time with England. His brief, after all, was to challenge what was widely perceived as a cosy, insufficiently professional team that, by beating Australia in 2005, had already supped aplenty from its Holy Grail. The contrast with his function at Sussex could not have been starker.

Robinson, who will escort the England Under-19s to New Zealand this winter, the first rung on the ladder David Lloyd climbed to the senior job, may not be the most dispassionate observer. He can, nonetheless, see both sides of the coin. "There is no better human being," he says of the Moores he met at Sussex. Not unnaturally, he is quick to defend his friend. He describes Moores as "very enthusiastic, very intense - and a huge contrast to Duncan [Fletcher]". Which is why, having been in the Yorkshire dressing room with the young Vaughan ("I admire him and love his passion for the game"), he can "easily imagine how Pete [Moores] could get a laid-back bloke like Vaughan's back up".

But remember, he urges, what Moores had to contend with besides complacency: the advent of the IPL and the ensuing disputes over central contracts; the Stanford fiasco; a splendid captain approaching the end of his tenure and starved of runs; the constant injuries to Flintoff; the Mumbai terrorist attack. "It wasn't a proper period of transition," contends Robinson. "There were certain things outside Pete's control and, sadly, the powers-that-be couldn't hang on."

MANY HAVE LONG SUSPECTED that it was Vaughan who leaked to the media the falling-out between Moores and Pietersen that ultimately cost coach and captain their jobs, and the conspiracy theorists will doubtless have a field day thumbing through this book. The truth will probably never be known. Given the turbulence that buffeted HMS England as 2008 gave way to 2009, does it matter?

A clean break was better for all concerned. The proof is there for all to see. To go from Caribbean chumps to Ashes-snatching champs in the space of four months suggests the right combination is at the helm. For now. The ends don't always justify the means but they do here.

All the same, it is exceedingly difficult not to feel for Moores, who has conducted himself with tremendous dignity and self-control amid all the name-calling and stone-throwing. Not for him the self-justifying tabloid column or the vengeful autobiography. He has a new life now, coaching Lancashire, and is probably strong enough to resist the urge to scratch any scars. Robinson still believes he could have been an "outstanding" national coach, given time. Unfortunately, time, and straitened circumstances, meant that patience was always going to be the scarcest commodity.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton