Sunday, 2 August 2009

Michael Vaughn Retires

Cricket lovers in England and other cricket-playing countries will have been saddened by the retirement of Michael Vaughn, last month. The former England captain finally accepted that he had lost the battle against the recurrent knee injury. Vaughn had hoped for one last hurrah against the Aussies this season, but continued concerns about his fitness and lack of form in the County championship meant that the man who led England to a historic Ashes win in 2005 was left out of the test squad. Vaughn, in a style characteristic of his batting, did not waste much time dithering, and announced his retirement from all forms of cricket with immediate effect.

Vaughn was England’s most successful cricket captain in recent years. The statistics speak for themselves. He won 26 out of 51 tests in which he captained England, a very impressive success rate of more than 50%. He led England to six successive test series victories in a row, which included, in addition to the Ashes win in 2005—the first time in twenty years England beat the old enemy—a first series-win in South Africa for more than forty years. He also became the first England captain not to lose a test series in India for more than 30 years when England belied pundits’ predictions of a ‘brownwash’ and squared the series. Andrew Flintoff had no hesitation in choosing the best moments of his career: ‘It was when Michael Vaughn took over as captain for the South Africa series and the years after that,’ said the all-rounder, whose own test career, riven by injuries, will sadly come to an end at the end of the current Ashes series. Most England test players of recent years, who played with or under Vaughn would agree. Vaughn’s relaxed style of captaincy was in sharp contrast to the dour, bum-cheeks-firmly-clenched style of his predecessor, Nasir Hussain. For Hussain, a test match was a war and losing it was a catastrophe; the players needed to be badgered and continuously exhorted to focus; he rarely smiled on the field—one would feel sore in muscles by just watching his intense, glowering countenance. For Vaughn, as the cliché goes, cricket was just a game; he treated people as grown-ups, allowed his players the freedom to do their own things—he knew that players like Flintoff and Pieterson needed to be given an attacking license even if that meant that sometimes they played injudicious shots when caution was required— and, counterintuitively, got the best out of his players. Matthew Hoggard, another seamer who flourished under Vaughn, put it even more bluntly than Flintoff. When asked whom he preferred playing for, Vaughn or Hussain, Hogaard answered without hesitation: ‘Vaughn. He does not shout at me as much as Naseer.’ Vaughn brought a sense of fun and enjoyment to the England dressing room. Boycott, who is known to suffer from tongue impediment when it comes to praising people, compared Vaughn to Mike Brearley. The comparison is apposite: both Brearley and Vaughn succeeded in blending harmoniously the talents of diverse groups of players to forge winning units. They were both unflappable, calm, collected and had excellent man-management skills.

Unlike Brearley, who even by his own estimation was a mediocre batsman (he was that rare entity in cricket; he held his place in the team because of his leadership skills and not playing abilities), Vaughn was a very gifted batsman, who, at his best ranked amongst the top players in the world. Blessed with oodles of natural talent, he had a kind of lazy grace, which made batting look easy and world-class bowlers club-class. At his peak Vaughn was one of the most majestic players to watch, who utterly dominated the opponents. Different batsmen have different styles of batting. Some, like Boycott and Gavaskar, systematically ground the opposition to dust by batting for hours. (I remember watching a test match between England and India when Sunny Gavaskar batted for almost three days—he scored 70 runs on the first day, added another 70 on the second, and batted for a few more hours on the third day; when he finally got out having scored 170 odd runs, the test match was dead and all except die-hard Gavaskar fans had lost the will to live. Boycott was once dropped from the side after he scored 246 because the selection committee felt he took too long to score the runs and put his personal milestones ahead of the interests of the team.) Others, like Vivian Richards, wanted to destroy the opposition from the first ball. Vaughn’s style can be best described as silken. He was temperamentally incapable of being a grinder; neither was he a destroyer. He was pure elegance and a treat to watch. Repeatedly the bowlers were left shaking their heads in wonder and admiration as Vaughn leaned into his trademark cover drive sending the ball to the boundary as if in a slow motion. Vaughn was probably at his best in the 2002 and 2003 season. He scored three big hundreds against India, which included 197 in the second test, his highest score in tests, and 195 in the last test. He continued his excellent form when England toured Australia and scored three big hundreds in an otherwise dire tour for England, which included a match-winning 183 in the final test. He became, briefly, during this period, the number one batsman in the world, according to ICC ranking, ahead of Tendulakar and Lara. It was inevitable that he would lead England when Nasir Hussain stepped down in 2003. At that time his test batting average was an impressive 50.98. Vaughn did not manage to maintain the same form and consistency over the next few years which could have been a result of knee problems and the pressure of captaincy; but he scored when it mattered, and when he got going, like he did when he scored a regal 166 in the epic 2005 Ashes series, he was a pleasure to watch. He had wanted to play for England again and had withdrawn from the lucrative IPL (Indian Premiere League) in order to concentrate on his return to the test squad. However, his form deserted him; playing for Yorkshire, he managed 159 runs in eight innings, and Newspapers began speculating whether he would retain his place in the Yorkshire team. In the press conference, announcing his retirement Vaughn was brutal in his own assessment. ‘I guess two weeks ago in the garden with my little lad Archie, he bowled a ball that hit a weed and it knocked my off-stump out of the ground. I think that was the time. If a three-year-old is bowling me out, it's time to move over.’ When asked how he would liked to be remembered, he replied, ‘As a nice player on the eye, and an intuitive captain with an attacking style.’ He certainly was that.