Is Vaughan the one to reconnect the ECB with its public?
The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.
- Sloan Sabbith, The Newsroom
English cricket could do with a greater fool right now. Someone with the courage of their convictions. Someone prepared to suffer the slings and poisoned arrows of outrage and scorn in pursuit of revolutionary change. Someone prepared to get up, stand up, and shout about rights and wrongs. Someone willing to be knocked down but always ready to keep punching. Someone who knows they are fighting for the future of the best game in the world.
There's something vaguely encouraging about the sheer bravura of Colin Graves, the new ECB chairman, but the feet that fit these particular shoes ought to belong to someone with the populist touch, someone to whom even the game's millions of mislaid customers can relate. And what better place to start the search than with the (thus far) remit-free new post created by Paul Downton's exit from ECB Towers? Lord's needs a new suit as much as Bryan Ferry needs a stylist, but to backtrack now would mean kicking off the Graves Era with a PR fiasco, so this should be seen as an opportunity to empower someone to shake things up.
Three candidates have publicly stated their desire to be fitted for this particular whistle and flute: Alec Stewart, Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan, admirable chaps all, of whom the last clearly has the people's vote. Averse as cricket administrators rightly are to dignifying the shrieks of antisocial media, let alone heeding them, there is sense in relenting now. Not least because Vaughan possesses the qualities most vital to the quest for greater foolishness: he knows he's right and he doesn't give a damn what anyone else thinks of him.
The ECB's paramount concern right now should not merely be results but reconnecting team with public. And while it is hard to envisage the latter being achieved without the Ashes being reclaimed and The Oval treated to a communal watering, a blast of adventure could do wonders.
The freest spirit, not to mention the boldest and matiest of the contenders, he embodies many of the virtues valued by that prized demographic: cricket followers under the age of 30. Appointing such a media-friendly figure could be a PR coup; by diverting attention towards himself, he could also lessen the load on captain and coach. For the downside, consider those previous dalliances with an alleged supreme being.
A posh maverick whose batting had illuminated a grey age, Dexter seemed so promising, this column even overcame its dismay at his (futile) bid to become a Tory MP. A free thinker with the foresight to realise that the game could benefit from getting into bed with those sneaky PR types, he was behind the first player rankings, and even wrote a half-decent cricket novel.
Unfortunately, upon becoming the inaugural chairman of the England Committee in 1989, his first assignment was an Ashes series that saw Merv Hughes find his snarl, Steve Waugh find his feet and Allan Border locate his inner Mr Nasty. Two more Australian thrashings followed, not to mention horrendous tours of India and Sri Lanka. On Dexter's watch England would draw with the brand leaders, West Indies, at home, but his legacy is such that most recall his astrological alibis and the fact that he didn't know the name of his fastest bowler.
Like the other three Yorkshiremen of the Apocalypse, Geoff Boycott, Brian Close and Fred Trueman, Illingworth was the antithesis of the media-trained, Sky-savvy, T20-ified portfolio-filler. Though shrewder, diplomacy was no more his style than theirs. He was also everything Dexter was not: a non-Southerner, a non-public schoolie and a non-Oxbridger. Tell Closey he was being bloody daft? Only Illy dared do that. Richie Benaud ranked him among his top captains, hailing an "acute mind and equally steely touch". As a man-manager, countered Darren Gough, he possessed the skills of Basil Fawlty.
In hindsight, he was doubly unfortunate. With England mired in a mostly desultory decade and a half, Illingworth's tenure as chairman of selectors brought tours of Australia and South Africa under a young captain, Mike Atherton, followed by a ghastly World Cup; of the coming generation, only Darren Gough was shaping up as a champion. Secondly, even though Test results marginally improved, "the Illytollah", as the press dubbed him, was a man out of time. Back then, giving such jobs to sixtysomethings was all too par for the course. A psychologist might have passed on some tips about man-management, and perhaps made Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash feel more wanted, but this old dog had no time whatsoever for new tricks.
Illingworth's first and only full tour, to South Africa in 1995-96, aroused instant controversy. Fresh from a meet-and-greet with Nelson Mandela, Devon Malcolm did not take kindly to having his action publicly demolished by Illingworth; nor was the kindly, momentarily giddy fast bowler partial to being loudly blamed for South Africa's decisive win in Cape Town, much less being poked in the chest. "I was sure Devon was going to hit him," recalled Gough, "and I wouldn't have blamed him." While the r-word reared its ugly head, this episode probably had less to do with racism than with the j-word: jealousy. Either way, the need to slap down Mr 9 for 57 said more about slapper than slappee.
It felt as if Illingworth saw himself as a football manager; a cross, probably, between Matt Busby and Brian Clough: a wise, fatherly disciplinarian. Being fond of the sound of his own voice, not to mention the crack of his own whip, he was closer to the latter: all well and good when the boys play for three hours a week, not so when the requirement is 30.
Inevitably, that fearless candour, ignited by a ferocious need to have the final word, got the better of the Illytollah. In One-Man Committee, published in June 1996, he submitted his side of the Malcolm saga too vividly, and was heavily fined for bringing the game into disrepute. The affair was over. The Independent headline said it all: "Isolated by self-belief: Ray Illingworth". In search of an epitaph, Wisden editor Matthew Engel alighted on a motto he had seen on a friend's wall: "In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with the world that no longer exists."
At the risk of being shot for ageism, let's not pretend that advancing years are a guarantee of managerial wisdom, especially when a game is undergoing radical change. Illingworth was less the right man at the wrong time than the wrong age at the right time. Here was the last unmourned roar of the ancient regime. Ahead lay central contracts, which he might have favoured, if only because it would have facilitated firmer control. But what England needed then was an autocrat on the field - and they got one when Nasser Hussain took over in 1999. Had Illingworth remained in charge, would he have tolerated his independent-minded irreverence? Doubtful.
Vaughan could prove a much cannier bet. Dexter and Illingworth both returned to international duty 21 years after their final Test; Vaughan is less than a decade out of the side. Neither is he low on self-esteem, and he's better at passing it on. What Andrew Flintoff liked most about Captain Vaughan was how he "encouraged people to express themselves and have no fear of failure". Short of offering to have his children, it is hard to imagine a more ardent declaration of loving gratitude. Managing from the pavilion is a very different matter.
A good boss requires two key skills: 1) persuading people earning less than you to work much harder than you; 2) ensuring the respect/fear/loathing balance never reaches the point where they will stop at nothing to make you look stupid. Sport subverts the first and messes with the second. Here, the bosses regularly earn less than the workers, often appreciably so. That's why Vaughan's criticism of current players is such an obstacle. Will Jonathan Trott ever forget that ludicrously over-the-top description of his dismissal in Brisbane two winters ago? How much impact it had one can only guess.
Such views may be genuine, but honesty is more hazardous these days. Like Illingworth, Vaughan is neither a Southern softie, a public schoolie nor an Oxbridger: three crucial boxes ticked in the all-important Image column. Like Illingworth, he plays to the gallery, in print and on air; he also seems utterly unabashed about contradicting himself should the Twittersphere dictate. As a poacher-pundit, he does his job brilliantly. For someone who contends, not unreasonably, that better man-management would have prevented that calamitous kerfuffle over Kevin Pietersen, the transition back to gamekeeper could be challenging.
Open frankness is the way to an audience's heart; talking out of school is the best way to shatter the fragile unity that binds teams with such impermanence. So forget all that meddling with the sanctity of the five-day Test. If he believes yet another suit truly is the way forward, these are the questions Graves should be prioritising:
Can Vaughan be trusted to put team before selfie?
When an insider-turned-critic fancies marching back into the tent, isn't resentment inevitable?
Does it matter if he can junk that jester's jersey and play the greater fool?
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now