Michael Vaughan: 'The one thing that scares me most'
England's lost leader haunted by the spectre he may never get to lead his team again
The captain of England is delighted about having holes in his knee. Nobody has been this happy about holes since anti-war protesters found them in the Government's arguments for invading Iraq. "It means we know what the problem is," he said. "In Pakistan and India we weren't sure. We weren't guessing exactly but now we've found out we can fix it."
About time, too, because that is what is running out. You might remember the captain of England. Tall, dark chap, classical batsman, won the Ashes, name of Michael Vaughan. Trouble is that while the medics have been exploring his right knee - and although the holes were the main impediment, they were not a solitary defect - the job has been done for two series by Andrew Flintoff, all-round genius.
Vaughan is one of the smartest, toughest cookies England have had as captain. He knows the form: the longer the absence the less England are his team. "I understand that, and that's why it's important that sooner rather than later a decision is made. That's why hopefully I'll be back soon leading the team.
"That's the one thing that scares me most, that I won't get the opportunity to do that again. I would like to think that the team would allow me to come back and be their leader if I get fit again, whether it's this week, two weeks, four weeks. I'd like to think I'd done enough to get another opportunity if I come back. That is the most important thing."
On the one hand, Vaughan is extremely optimistic about returning, all but scoffing at those who have doubted his ability to do so. On the other, his conversation veers towards the cautious, consisting of more ifs than whens.
He is desperate to get back. It is the sort of job that is difficult to give up - ask previous incumbents - and at 31 there should still be so much more to come. "Reports of it being the end of my career are far from the truth. They are so far off the mark, and even if it takes a bit longer I'll be back. In a way I can understand people writing what they have because we hadn't got to the bottom of it. Now we have. It could take quite a bit longer. People have got to be patient, but next time I play cricket, it will be the right time."
Vaughan has missed the last five matches because of the knee and that will become six next Friday. Of the team members at Lord's and Edgbaston, three have never played under him.
Flintoff, good old Freddie, insists at every turn he is merely keeping the seat warm, but much longer and all bets will be off. Australia loom again in the winter, and if Vaughan were to miss the whole summer, an immediate recall would be improbable.
But for all Flintoff's virtues, England look incomplete without Vaughan. He is hellbent on looking forward but was willing to be briefly reflective last week as he prepared for a question-and-answer session on behalf of the England team's latest sponsors, the search engine Ask.com.
"The first year I got the job was the hardest," he said. "You try to do everything because you think you can get involved in every meeting and every decision. Over time you learn, because you become tired. Then you delegate some things, concentrate on what really matters."
He defended, as he always has done, his batting record since he became captain. His Test average was almost 51 when he assumed the captaincy; it is almost 36 since, 39 if he were allowed to exclude the initial four games against South Africa in 2003, when he was thrown to the wolves by Nasser Hussain's emotional decision to quit. He said: "36, 37 is not bad. A lot of players in the last few years have made great careers out of averaging that. And you have to be realistic.
"My overall average is still 43 and there is no way I could go through a whole career averaging 63 as I did in Australia on the last Ashes tour, because no matter what people say of Michael Vaughan, I'm not a Brian Lara. I'm a very good player but I'm not in that category.
"You don't reach a peak of performance and stay there for five or 10 years. You have little troughs. Remember, I'm young still and of course I'll have another patch like I did in Australia, of course I will."
In Australia this winter, all of England hopes. But put aside his batting; it is Vaughan the captain who is required above all. He is not given to emotional comments before interviewers, but he made a heartfelt point. "I'm not deluding myself about my figures but it's also worth remembering that good leaders necessarily improve the performance levels of those around them.
"I think I've done that. Of course I want to get 150 every game, but I want to win every game and that's what the England captain should be judged on. Do we win games, competitions, big sessions?
"I'm confident about the way I do things; I ask people, get them involved but underneath I like to make decisions as well. I've a fair idea of what players need to get the best out of them."
But the infernal knee has to be fixed. Cartilage surgery has been complemented by attention to the anterior cruciate ligament. The tiny holes on the surface are now deemed to be the real problem, and Vaughan has had two injections in the past fortnight which should do the trick.
"There hasn't been a single moment when I thought, 'That's it'. I've been down, particularly when I came back from India. There has been a setback but that happens. I'm not going to make myself look an idiot by speaking too soon. I've got to be as right for cricket as I can be.
"The hardest part of rehab is the last 20 per cent, getting the boots on, twisting and turning, diving in the field, running a quick two. They're the final hurdles and we're getting towards those tests."
The other Tests for England will follow, but Vaughan knows we will be convinced only when he leads England over the boundary rope again.
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