James Lawton: Dithering undermines search for Vaughan's stand-in

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The Independent Online

It is instructive on two counts to imagine that it was Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's highly rated captain, rather than Michael Vaughan, conqueror of the Caribbean, who emerged from the Lord's nets the other day sounding as if he had stepped into the path of a truck heading for the M1.

It is instructive on two counts to imagine that it was Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's highly rated captain, rather than Michael Vaughan, conqueror of the Caribbean, who emerged from the Lord's nets the other day sounding as if he had stepped into the path of a truck heading for the M1.

What it tells us is that the Kiwis, who have a superb record in punching more than their weight on the cricket fields of the world, would not, like England, have launched a two-day, highly publicised search for the man to step into the leadership of the team on the opening day of an important series.

Nor, perhaps, would they have come up with somebody who is still less than a year away from a misjudgement widely considered to be one of the most monumental in the entire history of Test cricket. Marcus Trescothick, who accepted the bad light offer of the umpires at Headingley last summer when he and Mark Butcher, another captaincy candidate, were in the middle of crushing South Africa, was yesterday awarded the job for which he has long pined. Other listed runners: former captain Nasser Hussain, who walked away from the responsibility after one match in that South African series, and the fast-rising all-rounder Andrew Flintoff.

Why is it that only in English cricket would a captain's mishap create such an apparent riot of personal ambition - and so many questions about the natural replacement? Don't ask the Kiwis - or the world champion Australians. They pick their best players and let captains, and their stands-in, emerge quite naturally. Says the New Zealand manager, Lindsay Crocker: "We don't have an official vice-captain but if anything happened to Stephen Fleming, it's fair to assume that the job would go to Chris Cairns." Cairns is 33 and one of the world's top all-rounders, and in the Kiwi dressing-room his accession - the manager made clear - would have been accepted as a formality. In the English camp such certainties remain something of a dream, a fact underlined by the willingness of both Trescothick and Butcher to discuss their prospects publicly and Hussain to confess that he was far more preoccupied by whether he would keep his place in the team.

The contrast, of course, runs so much more deeply than the captaincy debate. While the 11 New Zealanders who report to Lord's for Test duty this morning will have had 48 hours to compose themselves for the action, England will wake up with the usual raft of questions.

Will the highly regarded but utterly untested Andrew Strauss take over from Vaughan as opener? Probably. Why? Because Butcher says he wants to play No 3. Will Simon Jones hold off the challenge of James Anderson? Heaven knows, literally, because apparently the selectors will look at the sky and see if it suits the swing of Anderson. Ashley Giles may not play because maybe the runs of Paul Collingwood - in the absence of Vaughan - might be more vital to the cause.

Meanwhile, Hussain makes a heart-rending defence of his place in the team, pointing out that at 36 he remains the man for the tough job when England are 10 for 2. This, from a former captain, is surely something to think rather than say, but then maybe he, too, is anxious that the point of having him around will be overlooked by the selectors while they are looking at the sky... or their own navels.

Matthew Hoggard, a hat-trick hero in the West Indies, tells of his fears that his Test career was over after being dropped in the winter, and of being confused because he didn't know what he had done wrong.

All of this disruption of the spirit is by way of background to the dispiriting fact that two of the most important men in English cricket, coach Duncan Fletcher and academy chief Rod Marsh, are scarcely on speaking terms after the former's decision to jettison the Australian's wicketkeeper protégé Chris Read. Marsh, one of the great glovemen, swears that Read has the makings of a world-class operator. Fletcher wants the stronger batsmanship of Geraint Jones.

All the time, the words of the great Australian captain, Steve Waugh, gain in their power to haunt. "It's not for me to tell English cricket how to get competitive again at the highest level," said Waugh, "but there does seem to be a problem in how you identify your best young players... and then put your faith in them over a sustained period. That's the way you make Test cricketers. You help to develop the confidence that they can do it at the Test level."

Waugh said that three years ago while nursing an injury on the balcony of the Headingley pavilion before his crushing return in the final Test at The Oval. A decade earlier the belligerent David Boon had made a similar point after another English defeat at the Sydney Cricket Ground. "Crikey, mate, every time you play England it's a different team... it's a cast of thousands."

Yes, you may say, but what is the problem now? England ransacked the West Indies at all times except when, after the series had been settled, Brian Lara regained some of the best of his huge talent. It's true enough, but that was before an inspiring captain fell in the nets and an old problem returned. It was the reality that in English cricket, Test players, and natural leaders, may be born but are rarely made. With luck they just happen. Or, too frequently, don't.

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