It's high time to praise Vaughan, not to bury him


Despite the fall-out from Michael Vaughan's Fredalo comments his achievements as a player and captain deserve high praise. By Michael Henderson.

The moment Monty Panesar took his 10th wicket of the match, to enthrone Michael Vaughan as the most successful of all England captains, the mind's eye recalled that dismal morning at The Wanderers, Johannesburg, in November 1999, when Vaughan made his entrance on the international stage.

As news emerged that South Africa had won the toss, and fancied a bowl, the lady scorer in the press box did a jig of delight. She was even more pleased when Allan Donald ripped out Michael Atherton's off stump in the first over, as drizzle made the pitch damp. When the scoreboard revealed that England had scored two runs while losing four wickets gallows humour broke out: what a good time the Yorkshire greenhorn had picked to make his Test debut.

After four gruelling days England lost by an innings, and they lost the series, too, even though they clawed back a victory thanks to Hansie Cronje's pact with a bookie.

Vaughan made a half-century there but nobody had him down that day as the man who would eventually move past Peter May's 20 Test wins. Now it is a pleasure to acknowledge his place among the immortals, for if anybody has earned fame the hard way it is M. P. Vaughan. And if he was going to break May's record in England then Old Trafford suited him best, despite the recent kerfuffle about Andrew Flintoff's aquatic adventures.

Vaughan was born five miles from the ground, in Worsley, and scored his first Test century in Manchester, against Pakistan in 2001, with the crucial runs coming, somewhat bathetically, from four overthrows.

It would be nice to say that, after that breakthrough innings, he was on his way. But he wasn't. Injury kept him out of that summer's engagement with the Australians, and injuries have continued to impede his progress. So to move beyond PBH is quite an achievement. He was the captain who led England to seven of their eight successive victories in 2004, a record sequence, and his hand was on the tiller when they regained the Ashes two summers ago. So he has a hat-trick of real achievements.

How interesting it is to remember those early days. He wasn't a heavy scorer in county cricket and even in Yorkshire people thought of him as a lovely player who didn't make the hundreds the quality of his strokeplay merited. When he was promoted to the England side (well done, Duncan Fletcher) it took him a little while to dispel the view that he was a maker of elegant 40s.

It was an innings hewn from sheer rock that helped to change popular attitudes. On a draining, almost unendurable day at Lord's in 2000, Vaughan helped Atherton to survive a superb assault from Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Vaughan took 29 balls to get off the mark, and made only 41, but they proved to be the most valuable runs he ever made, enabling England to win the Test (just) and go on to win the series.

That was the first success of Fletcher's reign and within a year Nasser Hussain had also led them to victories in Pakistan, where they became the first tourists to win in Karachi, and Sri Lanka, where they were the first team to come back from losing the opening match of the rubber. Vaughan missed out in Pakistan, sidelined by yet another injury, but he was there to share the joy in Colombo.

So it's been a hard road to hoe, not least in the last 18 months when he must have doubted he would ever hit a ball again. Any true lover of the game will be pleased for him today because he has been a batsman of rare beauty and an excellent captain.

He let himself down recently only by denying that he used a word that was captured on tape. Taken overall the interview with Donald McRae revealed him to be a thoughtful, honest man. Sometimes the good guys do come first, and Vaughan is one of the finest cricketers this land has ever produced. Those of us who backed him from the start may feel justified but even those who expressed doubts can acclaim a sportsman of true class, and an exceptional leader.

His race may not have much longer to run, though the desire that sustained him through the dark days of 2006 will carry his brittle knees a few miles further. Carry on, Michael, for as long as you can. When you go we shall all miss you.