Beginning at Lord's today, Michael Vaughan will come under the closest scrutiny. Not of his skills with the bat which, by general consensus and statistical evidence, is of the highest order, but his ability to handle the unique responsibility of an international cricket captain.
In the many thousands of words that have been spilled out since Nasser Hussain's sudden decision to rejoin the ranks, very little, if any, attention has been paid to the fact that the role of a captain in cricket is like no other in sport, requiring a mind-set that few have found attainable.
On these pages yesterday, John Emburey, who performed briefly in the job, remarked to my colleague Jon Culley that Vaughan is taking on the "toughest job in English sport'', a description that has been widely associated with the task of England football manager. "Michael will need to show character and have a very thick skin,'' he added. "Opponents will single him out as a target and people will be on his back when things start to go wrong.''
The very nature of cricket, the amount of time spent in the field, with all the game's variables, makes Vaughan's sporting task like no other. Many have tried. Many have failed. As Emburey says, an impenetrable hide will come in handy.
Football captains are chosen for their presence in play and influence in the dressing-room. They seldom have any tactical input. I remember discussing this with Paul Thorburn when he led the Wales rugby team. It had never occurred to him that his counterparts in the round-ball game carried little if any authority and were simply expected to lead by example.
Rugby has since gone down that road. Martin Johnson is the exceptional leader of an outstanding England team, and might have more to say than most of his contemporaries, but must conform to Clive Woodward's deliberations.
I suppose the most famous partnership in English sport was that of Alf Ramsey and Bobby Moore, who are synonymous with English sport's greatest achievement. After an uneasy start, Ramsey came to value Moore's leadership qualities, however the notion that his captain carried any real authority is erroneous.
Proof of this came when England met West Germany at Wembley in 1972, the first leg of a qualifying tie for the European Championship. When Brian Clough withdrew Roy McFarland from the team (McFarland turned out in Derby County's colours two days later) Ramsey brought in Norman Hunter at centre-half, a role he had rarely filled for Leeds. With England's reformed defence being pulled about by Günter Netzer, then in his best form, Hunter suggested to Moore that they should switch positions. "Let me go and nail the bastard,'' Hunter said. Although Moore saw sense in this move he was reluctant to go against Ramsey's orders. "If Alf wants us to change he'll tell us,'' the captain said.
One thing we have to remember is that cricket is a drawn-out game providing plenty of opportunities for the captain to make a fool of himself, both on the field and when coming under sharp interrogation. During his tenancy, Ted Dexter was asked on arrival in Fremantle how many overs he expected his bowlers to get through in the upcoming Ashes series. Overlooking that the requirement was overs of eight balls, not six, Dexter got off on the wrong foot by stating an impossible figure. From that moment hardened Australian cricket writers saw the elegant England captain as a sitting duck.
Time was when one of the big issues in cricket was whether the captain should be chosen from the players selected or on the basis of natural authority. Australia favoured the first option. England preferred the latter, giving the captaincy to amateurs who were not always up to the required technical standard.
A personal favourite among cricket anecdotes concerns the great Keith Miller whose passion for life didn't embrace thoughts of field placings and bowling changes. On a rare appearance as captain of New South Wales his instruction to the team was "scatter''.
Captains in sport lead us up a blind alley. The Ryder Cup captain is now a non-playing member of the team, his contribution mainly tactical. Enthusiasm and imaginative choice should be his principal assets.
Only in cricket does the captain's role have any real significance. Having placed down a marker in one-day internationals, Vaughan must now prove that he is up to the bigger job. If history is anything to go by he will need all the luck that's going.Reuse content