James Lawton: Hope of Vaughan's return casts haunting shadow over Flintoff

'We have to prove we can go Down Under and finish the job we started when we took back the Ashes'

South Perth Oval is a suburban playground in another world to the famous cross-town fast track of the WACA - and more than 2,000 miles from the scene here of England's desperate attempt to resurrect their Ashes campaign on Friday. But in the small hours of this morning it was suddenly a potential focal point of that desperation. It centred on an almost cultish hope that something astonishing might just be afoot.

Michael Vaughan, the man whose astute leadership was such a vital factor in the winning of the Ashes in the summer of 2005, was fighting to prove, perhaps to himself as much as the England selectors, that he might still just play a part in the defence of the prize he snatched so brilliantly.

Vaughan, who was in Brisbane as the team that so recently responded consistently to his guiding touch, all but fell apart against Ricky Ponting's vengeful Australians, is even being projected by some insiders as a potential starter for the pivotal third Test in Perth starting on 14 December despite the fact that after his serious knee injury there are wider doubts about whether the man who is still officially captain of England will ever play again at the highest level.

Translating a comeback appearance with the England Academy XI against West Australia's second string players into a meaningful test of his ability to face the likes of Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne is unquestionably a reach against the heaviest of odds.

What isn't in doubt, however, is that Andrew Flintoff, the man who was appointed in Vaughan's place, after considerable agonising, can only feel another chill of doubt about his own leadership.

The fact is that England's ordeal at the Gabba only accentuated for many hard judges the scale of the loss of Vaughan. The talk - and even the presence of the former captain on the same continental mass - forms an inevitable shadow.

While Australia holds Flintoff in the kind of rare regard it extended to a handful other warrior heroes of England - extrovert characters like Ian Botham and Darren Gough - his performance as a captain has come under some heavy sniping. His use of his bowlers, and notably his failure to take up the spearhead role when it was plain that Steve Harmison was in no mental shape to lead the attack, has suggested to many that the cares of captaincy represent a huge hindrance to his own performance.

There are already some considerable nuggets of circumstantial evidence - and not least his performance with the bat, most disturbingly when he gave up his wicket with a rash shot when England were fighting for their lives in the second innings.

The team coach, Duncan Fletcher, was certainly less than dismissive about the possibility of Vaughan becoming involved as more than a long-distance adviser. He said that while Vaughan was positive, he personally did not see him playing in the Test series. However, he added: "I speak to Michael a lot. Michael seems pretty positive about things and it was good to see him in Brisbane and he is working hard at his game. We are still hoping that he will be ready for the one-dayers in January. If anything comes earlier than that, all well and good."

Fletcher played a straight bat when asked for an interim verdict on Flintoff's captaincy in Brisbane. He said: "I don't think he bowled too many overs. I think he bowled the ideal amount. From a batting point of view I believe he is coping with it all pretty well when you consider that it is his first Ashes Test as captain. It's a difficult job but he's doing pretty well at the moment." It was maybe not the kind of endorsement that totally precluded the possibility that at some stage Vaughan might indeed be injected into the action.

Certainly there is now a haunting quality to the first major interview Vaughan gave in the wake of the Ashes triumph in England. The glory of the parade through Trafalgar Square on the way to Downing Street was still just a few days old when he declared: "I want to keep this team honest, I want them to focus on what they can do in the future rather than what they have achieved in the past. I know that's a lot to ask. In many ways this team has exceeded all my hopes but great teams have a hunger - and this is something a great Australian team displayed for so long.

"I think we will show this when we go to Australia. As a team we have to grow from our success. We have to prove that we can go Down Under and finish the job we started when we took back the Ashes."

That kind of passion was, frankly, not so visible in the Gabba. It surfaced in the brilliant batting of Kevin Pietersen and the inspired resistance of Paul Collingwood but in the end England were put to the sword without producing much more than a series of whimpers.

Afterwards, Flintoff was accused by the Australian media of uttering no more than a series of platitudes. Some even suggested that as a captain he looked distant and confused - and out of his depth.

These were hard, some might say unfairly quick charges to level against England's ultimate cricket hero. But they did confront a certain disturbing truth that no one is under more pressure here than Andrew Flintoff. So does the growing yearning for the miraculous recovery of Michael Vaughan.

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