England misses commander-in-chief

TED CORBETT

Shoaib Akhtar is cock a hoop after picking up the last England wicket.-AP

IT was not until 24 hours after England's defeat at the hands of Pakistan that I realised what had been missing. I walked into a press conference which Michael Vaughan was giving and suddenly everything was clear to me. He sat behind the microphone addressing 40 or 50 reporters, under the glare of a television spotlight, with half a dozen cameras clicking away and never so much as blinked.

Here was a man in complete command, assured of his place in life, willing to share his views with the world but at the same time savvy enough not to give away any secrets. Few captains, no matter how successful, can give off that air of certainty.

I have seen them all for 25 years. The never-twice-the-same Bob Willis, the carefree David Gower, the thorough professional Mike Gatting, the taciturn Graham Gooch, the ornery Mike Atherton, the suave Alec Stewart, the fiery Nasser Hussain.

They were all in their different ways expert captains. None of them was as good as this man who has led England to within touching distance of the top of the world.

Nothing I have to say about Vaughan's personality, captaincy and ability to get the best out of his men reflects in any way on Marcus Trescothick. The stand-in — while Vaughan was having treatment to a knee that at one time threatened to bring his tour to an end — performed as well as any substitute could expect.

Except that two years of winning, the return of the Ashes, the greater glory that has come to cricket through that win over Australia — "cricket is sexy at the moment," said one editor this week as she sent her cricket correspondent to Pakistan — have given Vaughan an undeniable status throughout the world. He knows he is the boss, which means that although he does not enjoy watching the game from the sidelines he can leave command to Trescothick and still feel confident that whatever happens he will be back stronger than before.

Even now not enough has been said about Vaughan's leadership qualities. He is the epitome of the 21st century captain; sufficiently aware of his players' individual needs to give each one his attention, enough one of the boys to go out to dinner with whoever he pleases — and, more important, whoever needs support — and yet have the respect of the whole side.

First he won respect with his batting — particularly in Australia in 2002-3 — and then, if for no other reason — because he was a winner.

Vaughan knows that Duncan Fletcher, the coach, is a big fan. "He is the best captain in the world at the moment," Fletcher says in his recent book and while the sceptical might think Fletcher would say that, wouldn't he, there is hardly any challenger to that position.

And in the recent Test, for all Trescothick made hardly a mistake, for all he had the luck and made intelligent changes at the right time, England missed Vaughan.

He is an unusual captain in that he stands at mid-off which he feels is both the position that suits him best and the place that gives him the best view of events and makes his wishes clear with big gestures while still managing to talk quietly to his bowlers and keep his eye on the bigger picture.

If he is stuck for an idea he goes off the field and consults Fletcher. Not, please note, to ask what he should do, but to revise the plan for the day in view of events.

There is no shame in Vaughan and at the same time he is his own man. He understands cricket, perhaps as well as those Yorkshire giants of the past who made their names by taking thought and by making sure everyone knew they had cricket brains.

So when he said, during this press conference, that he thought England would be able to produce the 10 per cent they lacked in the first Test he knew that he would have to make the difference.

Having said all that, I rate Trescothick's performance highly. Yes, England lost the Test by 22 runs after dominating the first four days and having a chance of winning, despite superb bowling by Danish Kaneria and Shoaib Akhtar, right up to lunch time on the fifth.

The defeat was not Trescothick's fault. If anyone is to blame we should look at the figures of those batsmen who failed to support him. After all, if one man makes nearly 200 and only two other batsmen pass 40 there is something wrong as obviously as there is when 10 batsmen cannot make 198 to win with time on their side.

Trescothick also set some interesting fields, called on the right bowlers at the right time and got the best out of his whole side. He could not do much to get another 20 runs out of the team in the second innings except to repeat his first innings knock all over again.

The highlight of this game, despite Trescothick's193, and Salman Butt's man of the match century, was the batting of Inzamam-ul-Haq. The old master cannot have long to go in the game. His weight has returned, he is 36, he trots rather than runs and one day a new generation of fast bowlers will surely force gaps in his defence.

But at the moment, while his sight is still keen, while his hands are still soft and while his reflexes are good, he bats as one Glamorgan batsman once put it, "from memory." His feet may not move very much, the big shots are rare sights, and spectators are no longer in the greatest danger from his high velocity sixes.

Instead he gently, almost nonchalantly, strokes the ball around the field as if he might while showing a team of girls that you don't have to be a muscle man to bat. His timing is impeccable, his footwork sufficient, and his hands, gossamer threads on the bat handle, steer the ball away in both attack and defence as if pace from Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison and spin from Shaun Udal and Ashley Giles could not hurt him.

He has had a remarkable career, this Sultan of Multan, since I first saw him belting the New Zealand attack round Auckland to ensure Pakistan's place in the final of the 1992 World Cup.

So if you get the chance to see him, don't count the cost for he is still a special batsman, still worth your dollar, still one of the best in the world. There will be another Mark Waugh, another Gower, another Des Haynes but there will never be another batsman like Inzamam-ul-Haq and we should treasure him while we can.

It was not his fault that Pakistan made only 274 in their first innings; he played beautifully for 53 while Butt made 74. Flintoff was — how often has this been said — the pick of the England bunch, with consistent hard work on an unresponsive pitch. Trescothick was England's innings although Bell made 71 and Flintoff played a poor shot after scoring 45. They should have had a lead of 250; but Flintoff was not alone in bad shot selection and their lead was just 144.

Pakistan saw their chance and, after 122 from Butt and an imperious 72 from Inzamam left England to make a handful. Some of my colleagues thought 198 an easy target but before I left the stadium I saw Hoggard practising his batting although he had bowled 27 overs in the sun and it was almost dark. At least he knew a special effort was required.

On the final day Kaneria killed any hopes of a simple win with two wickets in his first over and finally Akhtar bowled the 94 miles an hour yorker that sent Giles' leg and middle stumps flying out of the ground in a perfect V, a sign of the impending Pakistan victory.

England will take a philosophical stance. "Yes, we should have won, but defeat was by only 22 runs and we will do better," they must have said. Pakistan have doubts about Shoaib Malik and Shabbir Ahmed, reported for throwing — probably when they were tired and trying for the big effort ball late in the innings.

England should not be too laid back. Remember Australia were inclined to think that the second Test at Edgbaston last summer was "only by two runs and we should have won."

You can have one bad game, play one bad shot — indeed you can write one bad piece — and people will forgive you if the next attempt is better. But sometimes playing badly becomes a habit and England must not allow that to happen.

I suspect that so long as Vaughan is available to lead the side that will not happen. Well, not often anyway.

The scores

Pakistan v England, First Test, Multan, November 12 to 16, 2005. Pakistan won by 22 runs.

Pakistan — 1st innings: Shoaib Malik lbw b Flintoff 39; Salman Butt c Jones b Udal 74; Younis Khan lbw b Harmison 39; Mohammad Yousuf b Flintoff 5; Inzamam-ul-Haq c Strauss b Flintoff 53; Hasan Raza b Harmison 0; Kamran Akmal c Trescothick b Hoggard 28; Mohammad Sami c Jones b Hoggard 1; Shoaib Akhtar (not out) 10; Shabbir Ahmed b Flintoff 0; Danish Kaneria c Giles b Harmison 6; Extras (b-1, lb-7, nb-11) 19. Total 274.

Fall of wickets: 1-80, 2-161, 3-166, 4-181, 5-183, 6-238, 7-244, 8-260, 9-260.

England bowling: Hoggard 22-4-55-2; Harmison 16.2-5-37-3; Flintoff 23-6-68-4; Collingwood 4-1-15-0; Giles 16-3-44-0; Udal 17-3-47-1.

England — 1st innings: M. E. Trescothick c Kamran Akmal b Shabbir Ahmed 193; A. J. Strauss lbw b Mohammad Sami 9; I. R. Bell c Salman Butt b Shoaib Malik 71; P. D. Collingwood c Kamran Akmal b Shabbir Ahmed 10; M. J. Hoggard c Kamran Akmal b Shoaib Akhtar 1; K. P. Pietersen c Salman Butt b Danish Kaneria 5; A. Flintoff c Shoaib Malik b Shoaib Akhtar 45; G. O. Jones b Shabbir Ahmed 22; A. F. Giles c Hasan Raza b Shabbir Ahmed 16; S. D. Udal lbw b Shoaib Akhtar 0; S. J. Harmison (not out) 4; Extras (b-8, lb-11, w-1, nb-22) 42. Total 418.

Fall of wickets: 1-18, 2-198, 3-251, 4-266, 5-271, 6-364, 7-388, 8-399, 9-400.

Pakistan bowling: Shoaib Akhtar 27-2-99-3; Mohammad Sami 16-1-76-1; Shabbir Ahmed 22.4-7-54-4; Danish Kaneria 27-4-106-1; Shoaib Malik 18-1-64-1.

Pakistan — 2nd innings: Shoaib Malik c Trescothick b Harmison 18; Salman Butt c Jones b Hoggard 122; Younis Khan c Trescothick b Flintoff 48; Mohammad Sami c Jones b Flintoff 3; Inzamam-ul-Haq lbw b Hoggard 72; Mohammad Yousuf c Bell b Flintoff 16; Hasan Raza c Trescothick b Flintoff 1; Kamran Akmal c Pietersen b Harmison 33; Shoaib Akhtar c Bell b Giles 11; Shabbir Ahmed c Jones b Harmison 0; Danish Kaneria (not out) 1; Extras (lb-6, nb-10) 16. Total 341.

Fall of wickets: 1-31, 2-124, 3-131, 4-266, 5-285, 6-291, 7-295, 8-331, 9-332.

England bowling: Hoggard 27-2-81-2; Flintoff 25-3-88-4; Harmison 19.5-3-52-3; Udal 12-1-47-0; Giles 22-2-67-1.

England — 2nd innings: M. E. Trescothick b Shabbir Ahmed 5; A. J. Strauss c Hasan Raza b Danish Kaneria 23; I. R. Bell c Kamran Akmal b Danish Kaneria 31; P. D. Collingwood lbw b Mohammad Sami 3; K. P. Pietersen c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Sami 19; A. Flintoff c Younis Khan b Danish Kaneria 11; G. O. Jones b Shoaib Akhtar 33; A. F. Giles b Shoaib Akhtar 14; S. D. Udal b Danish Kaneria 18; M. J. Hoggard (not out) 0; S. J. Harmison c Younis Khan b Shoaib Akhtar 9; Extras (b-6, lb-1, nb-2) 9. Total 175.

Fall of wickets: 1-7, 2-64, 3-67, 4-67, 5-93, 6-101, 7-117, 8-166, 9-166.

Pakistan bowling: Shoaib Akhtar 12.4-1-49-3; Shabbir Ahmed 10-0-25-1; Danish Kaneria 20-0-62-4; Mohammad Sami 9-0-31-2; Shoaib Malik 1-0-1-0.