Stumps are drawn for a truly great captain

Vaughan was a superb batsman but his finest talent was as a leader
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Let there be no mistake. Michael Vaughan was a great captain of England. The teams he led won 26 Test matches, six more than achieved under any other individual's stewardship. His best side brought back the Ashes after an interminable period of 16 years.

But there was much more to it than mere figures. Indeed, it was what made the figures possible. Vaughan was shrewd, innovative and tough as Yorkshire oak. He embodied the characteristic ingredients of England's captains from the county, Stanley Jackson, Len Hutton, Ray Illingworth – all of whom, like him, led teams that won the Ashes.

He had hoped to have one more bash at repeating the feat but last summer he realised that it was an impossible dream and resigned the job in a veil of tears. Still, rightly he craved one more assignment as a batsman. Now, as a result of declining form and chronic injury he is to end his career. Presumably, he has concluded that there is no point in hanging round for a call that is not going to come. He always was pragmatic as well as inspired. The formal announcement will be made at Edgbaston tomorrow and it will be tinged with regret as well as acclaim.

Vaughan is not a Yorkshireman by birth, having begun life in Lancashire, but he may as well have been. He possessed some of the classic traits from the broad acres, certainty, cussedness and a vast store of cricket knowledge being among them.

For a wonderful, all too brief halcyon period he was also the most accomplished batsman in the world, grand to watch and formidable in achievement. His three centuries in the Ashes of 2002-03, of increasing splendour, were a wonder to behold in a losing cause.

His batting was never quite to reach those elevated heights again – there were cameos but these fleeting glimpses never led to sustained peaks – and it is his captaincy and what it did that will endure down the ages. When Vaughan was first selected for England in the winter of 1999, on the back of a summer's average of 27, there was little or nothing to suggest that he would be the next captain.

It seems bizarre to reflect now that he was barely mentioned. For a while he could hardly nail down his place in the side. Two images stick in the mind, which seem to depict Vaughan's huge presence on the field. The first was before he became captain, but which seemed to suggest that he had something of what it took to be captain, the second was from his vintage months as captain.

In Adelaide in November 2002 he might have been out caught by Justin Langer at point. The umpire gave the batsman the benefit of the doubt. Langer would not let the matter drop, however, but he met his match in Vaughan who was not about to be cowed and at the drinks break shortly afterwards told Langer his fortune and more besides. This chap was not for wilting.

By the following summer he was captain, taking over a side that had been hardened by Nasser Hussain and forming an equally uncompromising partnership with the coach, Duncan Fletcher. By 2005 he was in his glorious pomp as leader. It was at Trent Bridge in the second Test of that legendary series that the immortal image of his captaincy was enshrined. Australia edged ever closer to a target that they should not have had a hope of getting. England were already 1-0 down in the series and the Ashes were slipping away as ever.

Vaughan's carapace was, not however, for breaching, his physiognomy was unchanging. Nothing he tried seemed to come off, and when with 15 runs required by Australia a catch was spilled at third man that seemed to be that. Vaughan did not flinch, he marshalled his men imperturbably as if he were organising nothing more fraught than the sandwich rota for a Sunday afternoon team. As he was to concede a while later there was inside a tumult of emotion and despair. But he did not give it away and because he did not England kept fighting to the end and they gained their just reward.

Throughout that golden summer he was perfect. He allowed the players to express themselves, in his own happy phrase, and if they failed he minded not. He expressed himself. Perhaps above all, he stayed calm. Ricky Ponting of Australia was left in his wake in terms of original thought and natural leadership and although he was to atone quite magnificently there was no mistaking that in a classic Test series of minuscule margins Vaughan was in his element.

Thereafter, sadly, it started to wrong. His knee had always been an insubstantial joint and in Pakistan that winter he was forced to miss the first Test after pulling up going for a second run in an early tour match in Lahore. He returned for the second two matches of a series England lost but it would never be as it had been.

For too long afterwards, England had a non-playing captain. Vaughan was unfit for the defence of the Ashes a mere 14 months after they had been so agonisingly regained. In his stead, the selectors appointed a warrior captain, Andrew Flintoff in front of the more natural, thoughtful leader, Andrew Strauss, but whoever got the role, it was understood, was acting in a temporary capacity.

This was surreal. Vaughan was out of the team but it was still his team. Nobody wanted to take the really hard decision because of what Vaughan achieved. He did come back in the end and that is testimony to his cussedness and his overwhelming desire to have one last crack at Australia.

He remained razor sharp as captain and if sometimes he was so sharp that he was in danger of cutting himself he was forever instilling doubts, changing fields but also changing bowlers quickly if he felt the circumstances demanded it. Gradually it began to dawn on him that it would never be the same again. Who knows, if England had beaten South Africa at Lord's last summer instead of being held to a draw that had looked improbable when the tourists had been bowled out for 247, or if they had squeezed a victory at Edgbaston as they might have done, instead of losing the series? Vaughan might have stayed to fulfil his heart's desire.

But he saw the time had come. His spirit was broken. There was to be one final moment of influence. Kevin Pietersen, his successor, with one eye on the Ashes, wanted Vaughan to be recalled for the tour of the West Indies. It did not happen, The only way back for Vaughan was to score a mountain of runs for Yorkshire. That did not happen either.

There remained an outside chance that he would be part of this summer's Ashes, that the present captain and coach, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, might see some sense in having such vast experience on tap. But the sense that it was slipping away, that Vaughan was part of yesterday and not tomorrow could not be repelled.

The knee was playing up again, the batting was not working and although he tried to remain upbeat it was unconvincing. At the Riverside earlier this summer he made 20 in 96 balls and although Yorkshire were holding out for a draw this was not the Vaughan from the days of yore. It was not what he was put on earth to do.

The pictures that will endure are the lovely cover drive, sometimes off one knee, and the front foot pull, as assertive as it was thrilling. His batting was splendid and frequently a thing of beauty but when they remember England captains, well then they will be really talking.

Golden knocks Vaughan's top five Test innings

*Michael Vaughan hit an imperious career-high score of 197 in the second Test against India at Trent Bridge in 2002. During this match he also employed his handy off-spin to good effect – bowling the prolific Indian danger man, Sachin Tendulkar.

*In the fourth Test of the 2002 India series, Vaughan once again put his sweet cover drive to good effect, scoring a mighty 195. That year, he amassed 1,481 Test runs, the sixth highest for a calendar year in history.

*Vaughan celebrated another classic knock as he posted 177 against Australia in the second Test of the 2002-03 Ashes series. In 10 Tests played against the Australians, he has struck a hefty 959 runs.

*England were staring at a humiliating Ashes whitewash in that series until Vaughan's majestic 183 helped them to win the final Test in Sydney. Despite the 4-1 defeat, the future captain's three tons ensured he was named Man of the Series.

*Vaughan hit 166 against Australia at Old Trafford in 2005 to gain a vital draw in the third Test of the Ashes series. England won 2-1, their first Ashes success since 1986-87.