Vaughan's optimism could throw England into confusion

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After Michael Vaughan had spoken at a National Sporting Club lunch yesterday it was difficult to be certain of the effect of his words. It was a close run thing between putting the cat among the pigeons and throwing a spanner in the works.

Whatever Vaughan says about cricket (and it is possible to add whenever and wherever) it is essential to remember one cardinal point. He was the captain under whom England won back the Ashes after eight consecutive, increasingly wretched series spanning 16 years and 42 days. Without him, it is perfectly safe to argue, eight would have become nine and 16 would have turned to at least 17.

Vaughan was shrewd, adventurous and implacable. The team would have followed him to hell and back, and at times during the 2005 Ashes series they did. But by the time of The Oval climax on 12 September, Michael Vaughan, Mick to the team, had led them to paradise.

In any assessment of England captains he would be right up there and considering the despair that enveloped the English game throughout most of the Nineties, a rational case could be made for placing him at No 1. Vaughan has been a great captain of England and there is no question that without him this past year they have been a lesser side.

Whatever, whenever and wherever has to be accompanied unfortunately by however. England have had to get by without him for 10 consecutive Test matches while his knee has twice been operated on. It has not been easy and they have frequently struggled. But they survived.

The measure of how much he was missed was evident when the squad for this winter's Ashes tour was being picked. The selectors worried for days about which of the two men who had done the job in his absence should take the team to Australia. Eventually, they alighted on Andrew Flintoff but do not think that Andrew Strauss was lightly discarded. Had Vaughan been fit the subject would never have been discussed.

But one comeback in the summer was aborted when it was clear that the earlier surgery had not done the trick. It was then stipulated clearly that Vaughan would miss at least the Test series in Australia. He said so himself.

It seems that his rehabilitation has gone well, better than he expected or dared hope, that the knee which many predicted would lead to the end of his career, has recovered well and quickly. Vaughan is now saying that he could be fit for most of the series and could play in a warm-up game in Perth on 9 December before the third Test.

Even from thousands of miles way this is distracting and unhelpful. Suppose, first, that he is fit and again batting as he did in Australia four years ago, when he made three gorgeous centuries and became No 1 batsman in the world.

The squad has already been picked. Imagine the effect that his advent might have on Flintoff's captaincy, not least because the selectors have always made it clear that Vaughan is still the official captain of England, which always seemed crazy. The only non-playing captains are usually in golf and tennis - the Ryder and Davis Cups respectively. It tends not to work in cricket.

If he joined the squad it may follow that he would have to resume the captaincy, but the Ashes squad contains four men with whom he has never played. If he was not captain, Flintoff's leadership may in any case be undermined.

But then there is Vaughan the batsman. His formidable talent is beyond doubt but it is rusty. A handful of club games and a warm-up against Western Australia may not be adequate preparation for seeing off Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and whatever new kids there are on the Australian block. Vaughan was a truly great England captain and he may well be again if the knee allows it. But not now, not this winter. Oh, unless England are down in the series. In which case send for Mick.

Stephen Brenkley is the cricket correspondent for The Independent on Sunday