By Abc of Cricketís UK Correspondent Neil Robinson 05/05/04
Thirteen months ago, Michael Vaughan returned from Englandís tour of New Zealand knowing he was still some way from securing his place in the England batting order. Since an encouraging, battling debut in South Africa two years before, he had shown plenty of promise and played some important innings for his country, but fortune, as much as anything within himself, seemed to be holding him back. A series of unrelated injuries had deprived him of his place at the most inopportune moments, most crucially when a fine maiden hundred against Pakistan in June 2001, was followed immediately by a knee problem, which kept him out of the entire Ashes series that summer. It was only with the retirement of Michael Atherton later that year and the ending of the brief Butcher-Trescothick experiment, that Vaughan was given his chance in his preferred slot at the top of the batting order for the series in New Zealand.
The results were not propitious. A total of 131 runs in 6 innings and only one opening stand over 30, were a poor return from his long awaited link-up with Marcus Trescothick and confirmed an impression of under -achievement and ill-fortune, in which his bizarre handled-the-ball dismissal in India a few months earlier figured large. In April 2002, Michael Vaughan and his many supporters could probably have been forgiven for thinking it just wasnít meant to be.
The transformation in Vaughanís fortunes since then have been well recorded. Centuries have flowed from his bat like rainwater from a Headingley sky. More than that, the manner of his run-scoring has been a revelation. The solidity of his technique and his calm demeanour had long marked him out as the successor to Michael Atherton, the latest model from the template of defiance and determination from which all English batsmen seemed to be shaped during the 1990s. Instead, Vaughan has taken the attack to the bowlers and scored his runs with a verve and an elegance not seen in English cricket since the heady days of Ď85. To younger eyes, with little memory of more golden days for the England team, he has seemed to bat, thereís no other way to describe it, like an Australian. To the cricket loving public in Britain, a long awaited hero seemed to have come and whatever the disappointments of another Ashes defeat, the future suddenly looked brighter and full of hope.
In recent weeks the Michael Vaughan story has taken on even more momentum. Elevated to the No1 position in the World Test Rankings (the first Englishman to achieve that status since Graham Gooch), the first man ever to have his photograph adorn the cover of Wisden Cricketersí Almanack and now considered a racing certainty to be named as Nasser Hussainís successor as Englandís one-day captain within the next few days. Perhaps it was inevitable his first innings of the new season should have ended after seven balls, when he was bowled by Wasim Akram for one run. One can easily imagine him strolling from the crease, a wry smile upon his face with the words of the old adage about the game being a great leveller running through his mind.
The English love to elevate their heroes to iconic status, before demolishing them in a hail of half-bricks and derision, so it is to be hoped that this moment does not mark the zenith of Michael Vaughanís rise, or at least when form does prove elusive, faith in the man is retained. His selection as Captain of the One Day side should be an important stepping stone for Vaughan, adding a further string to his already richly filled bow and marking him out as the likely heir to Hussainís throne as Test captain in due course.
Although Vaughan has yet to demonstrate the same assurance and consistency in the One Day game as in the Test arena, he has appeared the logical choice for the One Day captaincy since Hussain stood down after the World Cup. The previous heir apparent, Marcus Trescothick, had an uninspired debut in the role in Zimbabwe 18 months ago and blotted his copybook further during the World Cup, when he provided false indications of the state of the Duckworth-Lewis calculation to acting skipper Alec Stewart in the game against Namibia. Trescothickís later claims that he deliberately fed false information to Stewart in order not to worry him with news that England were behind, have been taken with liberal pinches of salt. A few other names have been tossed into the hat, Paul Collingwood for one, whose impressive performances with the bat and in the field over the winter have convinced many he has the character of a leader, even though he has no formal experience of Captaincy. But Collingwood, tragically, suffered a dislocated shoulder in a pre-season game and looks likely to miss at least the first two months of the season and the probable chance of a Test debut.
Tragic injury also struck another fringe contender, Kent captain David Fulton. Fulton, was first suggested as a candidate by none other than Steve Waugh, who played under Fultonís captaincy at Kent last summer. A fine batsman and intelligent leader, Fulton would have made a good choice, but before the season began, a ball from a bowling machine sneaked in above his helmet grille in the nets and struck him in the right eye, necessitating an operation on a damaged retina. This week, Fulton had to cope with the news he would never fully recover the vision in his right eye. He plans to carry on playing for Kent, but his chances of an international call-up have surely received a fatal blow.
The other contender from outside the current squad is Surrey captain Adam Hollioake. Hollioake, is popularly considered to be the finest Captain in County Cricket and he has matured into a devastating and fearless batsman since returning after the death of his brother Ben, just over a year ago. Hollioake did the job previously, from 1997 to 1998 and with reasonable success, so it is probable he would be the ideal short-term candidate if nothing else but success on the field were the objective. But, Englandís selectors are likely to make this appointment with an eye to the future, both in terms of the next World Cup in 2007 and of blooding a successor to the Test captaincy. At 32, Hollioakeís long term credentials are not so impressive.
Hollioakeís short reign in the One Day game, was brought to an end principally because of doubts about the notion of having split captains for the national side. Those doubts now appear to be at an end. The success of Ricky Ponting as Australiaís one-day skipper and the apparent ease of the transition back to the Waugh regime for Test matches, have shown the scheme can work, especially with regard to blooding a natural successor for the Test role. It should work well for England for several reasons. Nasser Hussain, will enjoy being able to concentrate on the Test Match role ,in which he feels so much more comfortable and having someone else to take some of the pressure off, will help his batteries stay charged. For a Captain who puts heart and soul into his work, the act of delegation will be a rare and blessed relief and for the England side, the opportunity to introduce some freer strokemakers into the middle-order is long overdue.
If England are indeed looking for a Captain who can lead the team in the next world Cup and also take on the Test job after Hussain, Michael Vaughan is the ideal choice in both respects. With a swathe of retirements from the One Day team and Trescothickís continuing struggle with confidence and technique, Vaughan is the only batsman currently assured of his place in the side, in both forms of the game and although he has never Captained his County, he does have experience in the role from his time as England under 19 skipper and from his leadership of England A, in South Africa in 1998-99. Both times, he carried out the task with aplomb.
For Vaughan not to be announced as Englandís new One Day Captain this week, would be the kind of surprise one used to expect at Baghdad press conferences. Even Adam Hollioake, interviewed at the launch of a foundation in his brotherís memory last week, suggested Vaughan was the ideal man for the job. The next accolade in Vaughanís remarkable career seems assured. Success is less so. After all the incredible achievement of the past twelve months, it would be little wonder if this great leveller of a game, were to reward Vaughan with a spell of poor form, inevitably starting whispers that the Captaincy was one burden too many, for Englandís most valuable asset.
The new One Day Captain also faces a tough summer. Three internationals against Pakistan in June, are followed immediately by the Natwest Series, featuring South Africa and Zimbabwe. All three nations may be in some disarray after the fall-out from the World Cup, but England have many problems of their own. It was a strange enough decision for England to take only five specialist batsmen to the World Cup (including Collingwood, whose billing as an all-rounder is a little misleading), but of those five Hussain and Knight have retired, while Collingwoodís injury will probably keep him out of all the summerís ODIs. Vaughan and Trescothick are assured of the opening slots, but whither numbers 3,4 and 5? There is plenty of exciting young talent bubbling under and waiting for a chance, but promoting three youngsters at once will not be what the selectors had in mind for a rebuilding programme. Despite the oft-mentioned ECB mission statement to make England the best team in the world by 2007, the temptation to take a backward step with the recall of Thorpe or Butcher may be too great to resist.
Michael Vaughan is a quiet, confident young man, who appears unruffled by all the fuss and to take all the expectation in his stride. This is a good sign, for the summer ahead looks likely to present him with his greatest challenges yet. The promise has been offered, English cricket will now expect its fulfilment and the pressure upon this son of Sheffield, is sure to be intense. At the end of it all, the rewards for success will be sweet; a place at the head of the England batting order and the ultimate honour of the Test captaincy when Hussain stands down. But, however all that turns out, 2003 is set to be a year of celebration in the Vaughan household. He plans to marry in the autumn.