James Lawton: Crying game will remain national sport as long as Vaughan's vision is betrayed
An intelligent captain, his legacy is so much less than it might have been
Tuesday 05 August 2008
The battle fatigue displayed by Michael Vaughan was honourably achieved for the most part, and at times magnificently. Unfortunately, though, the summer of his departure will not only have to be remembered as arguably the most inglorious in the history of English cricket, but also one in which some of his attitudes and those of his team, and not least the way the players were selected, were fresh illustrations of why so much of the nation's team sport has become third rate.
If you question that assertion, consider the last time you saw an England captain weep at the point of resignation – and remember the circumstances.
It was football captain David Beckham in Baden-Baden two years ago, when another England team who had considered themselves an impregnable club filled with, to borrow Vaughan's phrase, "good blokes" had shown their inadequacy at the highest levels of competition.
England's footballers left scarcely a mark on the 2006 World Cup tournament. Vaughan's team, despite eddies of form from men like Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen – and Paul Collingwood's return from the dead – proved themselves incapable of competing with the consistent fight of the South Africans and the quality of the leadership provided by their captain, Graeme Smith.
Vaughan's tears on Sunday, as Beckham's in 2006, seemed mostly to be irrigating the pain of personal defeat. They should really have been about the bankruptcy of spirit and philosophy displayed by teams who for one reason or another – but mainly a lack of hard-nosed competitive values – had slipped beyond their powers of leadership.
The abdication of Vaughan, at least for this witness, was particularly poignant because a few days after his greatest triumph – the delivery of the Ashes at The Oval three years ago – he spoke long and hard and rather brilliantly about what he saw as the future of the team which exceeded everyone's hopes.
He was far away from the hype of Downing Street and triumphant victory parades in Trafalgar Square. Vaughan was back in his cricketing roots at Headingley. He said of his heroic players: "Their places in the team are guaranteed only by their hard work, their willingness to do again what they did so magnificently when it mattered this last summer.
"What is most exciting of all to me is the future. The possibilities have to be so good when this young team have beaten the No 1 team in the world in the most incredible circumstances. The pressures and the challenges went beyond what we expected with the levels of expectation going into the last game at The Oval, when we were asked to bat out the last day and did it so convincingly. That told me I had so much character at my disposal, but then I also know you are only as good as your back-up. It means that you have to keep building and it's so important we keep getting young players pushing the team and making sure everybody stays honest. That is what it is going to take to stay in the team."
It didn't seem that way when Vaughan, explaining a catastrophic performance in the second Test at Headingley, said that a "confused" selection had demoralised his team, plus the absence of one of the most popular men in the dressing room – Collingwood – and no matter that he was suffering, rather like Vaughan, a nightmare run of form.
No, competitive honesty was not the phrase buzzing around the dressing room. Filling the place was outrage that these particular boys of summer were not in fact irreplaceable.
When Collingwood, with much grit, scored his excellent century at Edgbaston it did not disturb for a second the belief that his selection had been a scandal of hope and speculation, and that the place for his rehabilitation was back in the trenches in Durham and not a critical Test match. Yesterday the choice to succeed Vaughan was another journey into the unknown.
Pietersen, who got the job, had a claim based entirely on his extraordinary talent, his immaturity having once again been revealed in a light-headed slog while approaching what could have been a century of significance unmatched since his vital contribution to the Ashes triumph at The Oval. Pietersen can be as exasperating as he is inspiring. No doubt he is an exceptional cricketer, but it is hard indeed to believe that he is a suitable captain. It's not just the liking for bling and celebrity; it is an attitude of mind that seems to carry him too often beyond the needs and the psychology of a winning team. However, it cannot be said that the selectors were sifting through diamonds. My hunch would have been to invest in the youth, but also proven competitive values, of Alastair Cook.
He may not have displayed unerring maturity, not least when he tried to mix it with the old bruiser Mark Boucher the other day, but his instincts looked good and certainly he was one of the new Englishmen to emerge with credit and some kind of perspective from the shocking collapse at Headingley.
The other runners, Andrew Strauss, whose place in the team on form has been in jeopardy for almost as long as the first impressive phase of his Test career, and Robert Key, long rejected as a viable England batsman, did not create any degree of confidence. They are simply players who, unlike the spectacular Flintoff, had not disqualified themselves utterly as candidates for the role that Vaughan had once defined so brilliantly.
None of this is guaranteed to generate more than a flicker of optimism before the visit next year of the Australians for an Ashes series which might just represent one of the last expressions of the highest form of cricket, such is the current obsession with the catchpenny, lungeing frenzy of Twenty20.
This was what made so depressing the farewell of Michael Vaughan. A beautiful batsman, an intelligent captain, his legacy is so much less than it might have been. He argued the case for a tough new world of the English game, he proclaimed the need for an honest, grown-up team of fighters who were quite as hard on themselves as the opposition. But what he left was something rather different. What he left was a team back where they had started. It was a team still unable to live consistently with the demands of being among the best in the world.
Olympic flame chokes into life amid smog of cheating
Flying to a Beijing apparently made smog-free by a sudden sounding of executive gongs is to return to ambivalence that stretches as long as the Great Wall of China.
We are told that Olympic "drug-busters" will blitzkrieg every drop of suspect urine. We are also asked to believe that the exclusion of Dwain Chambers from the British team is a hugely significant endorsement of the clean Olympics, a declaration apparently untouched by the fact that his detection did not flow from testing procedures but the intervention of a disaffected whistle-blower. This isn't to say that the Olympics shouldn't happen, for moral or political reasons. Or that in the long run it will not have a beneficial effect on the way a large slice of humanity are able to conduct their lives.
No, it is merely to restate the truth that no regular event on the calendar of the world is capable of inspiring such a mixture of idealism and dread. The positive testing of a crop of Russians last week and the decision at the weekend to strip the American men's 4x400 metres relay team of their Sydney gold medals, after Antonio Pettigrew's admission of doping violations, will encourage the hope raised by a former Olympic president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, that the battle against drugs had to be a fight to the death of cheating.
Be sure, though, that in three weeks' time the battle lines will be drawn as they have been pretty much since the birth of the modern Olympics. And that the flame will splutter on.
Hamilton's arrogance races ahead of title credentials
Shortly before Felipe Massa put him in his place at the second corner as though he was an impertinent schoolboy, Lewis Hamilton was announcing that he could do for McLaren roughly what Michael Schumacher did for Ferrari.
This was also around the time he kept the rest of the drivers waiting for the pre-race conference as he attended to his business in his own sweet time. Inevitably, the question is posed: is Hamilton racing slightly ahead of himself? Great drivers, including men like Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, were capable of great arrogance.
They believed, as an article of faith, that the world had been created largely for their benefit. But first they acquired a calling card. It was winning their first World Championship. Until Hamilton does this, nothing he does on the racetrack will encourage the kind of reverence it seems he is now coming to expect.
Perhaps the desperately unlucky Massa has imposed a measure of timely restraint. For Hamilton's sake, let's hope so.
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