A hard working athlete

Of all the captains who have led England, I plump for Michael Vaughan because he has the stats to back his claims and because he was able to choose his own moment of departure although it was a tearful one, writes Ted Corbett.

I don’t think there is much argument about the definition of Michael Vaughan as the greatest England captain of all time. He won back the Ashes by staying cool when there was a grave danger that those around him might lose the plot. He pulled off more victories than anyone else who has led England in the last 112 years and only Mike Atherton has led England more often.

Indeed Atherton now says that Vaughan is as good as anyone who has held one of the great offices in British sport and Nasser Hussain has praised his dignity and his merits as a man, a batsman and a skipper.

Not just because he has retired from all first-class cricket, at least in part to make it easier for youngsters to progress, but because for those close to the game it is so obviously true.

Of course there is always room for debate on the merits of any cricketer; and Vaughan has powerful brains to compete against.

There are four men I look at when the title of The Greatest England Captain is debated: Douglas Jardine, steely, ruthless, authoritarian destroyer of Australia with Bodyline; Len Hutton, the first professional England captain in the modern era undefeated in any series; Ray Illingworth, older but successful and canny in his understanding; Mike Brearley, whose intellect might have allowed him to handle any position up to and including head of the civil service; and Vaughan.

Of those I knew Illingworth best. Like Hutton he had a knack of finding the simple words to answer any question. I never came away from a conversation with him without feeling he had added to my knowledge. He was a professor of the game, just as Brearley was the ultimate intelligence and Hutton the source of all knowledge.

Jardine was dead before I made my first forays into the outer circle of cricket but I judge him to be an Army officer by nature, a long term planner and, above all, a man who disliked Australian familiarity with such a loathing that he would have resorted to any means to defeat them.

You can argue all day about the moral rights and wrongs of Bodyline but it was, in the hands of Jardine, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, a force so powerful that it drove through changes in the laws as well as undermining Australia’s cricketers and causing that nation to think about leaving the Empire.

So all five have merits beyond the 75 other captains who have led England and it inevitably comes down to personal preference. I plump for Vaughan because he has the stats to back his claims — six more victories than Peter May, a captain just outside the top five mainly because he had, like Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, such a powerful attack — and because he was able to choose his own moment of departure although it was a tearful one.

It is now clear that Vaughan went in part because he could no longer get on with the coach Peter Moores, who should not have had that job in the first place and whose presence later brought about the departure of Kevin Pietersen. Moores now seems happily placed in charge of Lancashire where his extra effort philosophy is probably more appropriate than it was with England where the egos are bigger, the reputations more impressive and the temperaments more difficult to control.

Lloyd and Richards win their place at the top of the tree because they understood the need to keep mighty characters on a loose rein; in comparison it must be a piece of cake to be in charge of Australia where the discipline instilled into kids from an early age makes for quieter dressing rooms.

No, I have not forgotten Andrew Symonds but, hey, 20 years ago his problems with drink would not have caused any captain to blink and, besides has Symonds sinned more than Andrew Flintoff?

Vaughan never had a problem with discipline and I like to think that was because his players held him in high esteem, because he was, with one or two exceptions, such a hard working athlete and, in the main, because they knew that he was not just their own choice as leader but because he had everyone else’s backing too.

They did not want him to stand down when he did a year ago. I believe they would have happily scored runs on his behalf and obeyed his every order; but he realised that he could not fight against the Moores factor as well as his own poor batting form and that it was better to step aside for a while.

Unfortunately sport, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Within a day or two Pietersen was the new captain, within a few months he had shown his potential by leading England back to India after the horror of Mumbai and then overplayed his hand by trying to force out Moores. Ravi Bopara has taken the spot Vaughan wanted and without any fault of his own suddenly there is no room for his talent.

The consequence is that England are reforming, lucky to find themselves facing a reshaped Australian side still living to some extent on the reputation developed by Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and company but still vulnerable.

England ought to beat them at home even though Andrew Strauss is yet to prove his leadership capabilities if only because they have more powerful spinners.

How much easier it would be if Vaughan was still in charge, standing at mid-off under the big hat, one arm aloft that said “Watch me, I’m the boss” and so intent you could see his brain ticking.

The greatest in the world? Maybe, but as he leaves the centre of events for the commentary box, one step removed from direct control, England had better hope he is willing to have a quiet word in the right ear, ready to share his understanding and knowledge and bears no resentments.

One day he may retire from TV so that he can be England coach, or the chairman of selectors or even chairman of the board.

They have not made best use of his talents but there is time for him to play a greater part in the future of cricket.