James Lawton: Vaughan's rabble show validity of Illingworth's fears

Former chairman of selectors' doubts that Yorkshire player is the right man to lead England seem confirmed by Headingley Test fiasco
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The Independent Online

Ray Illingworth, who is considered by some reasonable judges to have been the most astute Test captain England ever had, must some days feel he is now operating in his own private dust bowl. The erosion of his reputation has been relentless over recent years.

Mike Atherton put the boot in on the pages of his acclaimed autobiography when he reviewed their always taut relationship during Illingworth's spell as chairman of selectors.

More recently, Illingworth has been lashed bitterly for his suggestion that the new England captain, and Michael Vaughan like hima Yorkshire player, is no doubt a wonderful batsman, but might not be a natural leader of men. This assessment, one critic claimed, finally cemented Illy's reputation as a "mumbling boor". That's as mebbee, as they would say in Yorkshire, but it could happen that the miserable old bugger might just be right.

Vaughan's defenders will no doubt argue that he faced a fiendishly difficult task after his predecessor, Nasser Hussain, walked out on the job so petulantly. They will also say that he deserves time to bed down into an assignment of terrible pressure. But I'm afraid they can keep on saying these things on the hour of every day until the final Test match at The Oval without dislodging for a single second a conviction which simply cannot go away. It is that England at Headingley were a leaderless rabble of quite shaming proportion.

No one is better able to analyse, both morally and technically, the debris left by the appalling débâcle than my colleague Angus Fraser, for whom the wretchedness of the English bowling must have represented a shocking betrayal of everything he stood for as a Test player of great accomplishment and pride. But then it is also true that there were aspects of the performance which had to be dismaying for an Englishman with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the game.

In terms of body language alone, comparisons between Vaughan's team, and that of the 22-year-old Graeme Smith, were gut-wrenching. Yesterday, when the last rites of a Test match England at several points held by the throat were completed so massively in South Africa's favour, Vaughan, three Tests into the job, looked a broken man. He talked of bouncing back at The Oval as England had done at Trent Bridge, but even as he did so you could see in his eyes that he was discussing not just a leap of faith but also of practicality.

In one sense, Vaughan could only be seen as a victim. He inherited chaos, and now he has to make something of competitive attitudes which for five days had been utterly exposed as insubstantial. Illingworth's point that he might not have the force of personality to pull off such a huge challenge was perhaps, on reflection, not the aside of an irredeemable curmudgeon but a genuine insight of someone who indeed knew what he was talking about.

Before the remarkably driven Smith was appointed he was interrogated thoroughly by the South African selectors. He was asked what he was prepared to sacrifice in order to succeed in the job. Laconically, he said, "My youth". Smith impressed the selectors with the force of his nature and his understanding of the problems he might encounter. He also said he didn't see the folk hero Lance Klusener as part of his plans. He didn't think he would fit into the dressing-room he had in mind.

We do not know quite how closely England selectors examined the captaincy credentials of Michael Vaughan. Did he relish working with a coach and a former captain, Hussain, who hitherto had been virtually joined at the hip? Did he endorse the rubber stamping of veteran Alec Stewart's Last Hurrah march to the climax of his Test career at his home Oval? If he was going to carry the can after Hussain's defection, would he be in charge of all its contents? Could he be sure that he would be given the means to drive out a culture of fear which was so depressingly confirmed by the decision to restore the 40-year-old Stewart to the team after the young Chris Reed had made such impressive progress in the one-day series?

These last few days no cricketing soul has appeared to be more tortured than Vaughan's. Before the Trent Bridge Test, he said that his style would not change. He would stay relaxed and smiling.

By the end of the Headingley match he seemed about as relaxed and happy as an inhabitant of Death Row. Conviction has drained from his batting. Perhaps the most damning indictment of England's performance came from the great South African batsman Barry Richards. Appalled, like most observers, by England's decision to accept the invitation to leave the field for bad light when Mark Butcher and Marcus Trescothick had the South African bowlers on the ropes, Richards said that it seemed to him that England didn't even know when they were on top, and could there ever be anything more indicative of a team without direction and positive leadership?

It is to Trescothick's credit than he shouldered the blame for that terrible miscalculation, but when he did so you were bound to note that before the emergence of Vaughan as a world-class batsman it was the former who was being groomed for the England captaincy. That he wasn't the man for the job was revealed by one flash of illumination in the Headingley gloom. Vaughan may yet overcome the shakiest of starts, but to do so he will need the kind of support, on and off the field, which has been so brilliantly exploited by Graeme Smith.

In the meantime, we perhaps might give more of an ear to someone as unfashionable and crotchety - and deeply knowledgeable - as Ray Illingworth.