Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Michael Vaughan, by Max Benson of Test Match Sofa

Max Benson, of Test Match Sofa, explains why Michael Vaughan is his favourite cricketer.  Max tweetst at @sofa_maxb.

Northern batsmen aren’t stylish. Northern batsmen are Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Atherton and Paul Collingwood. They are grafters and men of toil, hell-bent on building an innings by any grim means necessary.

All stereotypes are rooted in truth, but my favourite cricketer goes against that particular grain. He possessed a heavenly mix of balance, exquisite timing and sheer class at the crease - creating at will a thing of true beauty each time he unfurled a cover drive or square pull. Indeed, this smitten writer may well go to the grave believing there to be nothing finer in this life than a Michael Vaughan cover drive.

Born the wrong side of the Pennines it was fortunate that Yorkshire accepted him in 1993, just after relaxing their part-admirable, part-ludicrous rule that allowed only players born within the county to be considered for selection. It was Doug Padgett, a veteran of over 500 First Class games for the county who persisted in bringing Vaughan to the club. The thought of him enjoying the career he did with a red instead of a white rose on his chest sends a chill down many a Tyke’s spine. Never mind those that did get away before common sense prevailed.

I first saw Vaughan play for Yorkshire in a one day game at North Marine Road, Scarborough, in 1999. He top-scored with an understated 41, taking the Tykes to a seven-wicket win against Leicestershire, but it was the following summer where he began to shine on a bigger stage.

The first Test match I saw live was at Headingley in 2000. The famous two-day Test against the West Indies, in fact, as luck would have it.  ‘’Don’t expect them all to be like that,’’ my dad felt obliged to caution the ten-year-old me, beaming after Caddick and Gough had dismantled the tourists for 61 in their second innings and a deliriously boozed-up army of nuns and Elvises stormed the field from the old Western Terrace.

Amidst the chaos and tumbling wickets that day, one man personified calm. Vaughan’s expertly crafted 76 took England to what proved to be a match-winning score of 272. Graeme Hick had stayed with him for a neat half century of his own, but it was Vaughan who steadied the ship so ably from 93/4 in front of his expectant home crowd against the aging yet undiminished brilliance of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

His coolness under pressure was paramount in the decision to award him the England captaincy in 2003, the year in which he all-too-briefly topped the world batting rankings after racking up 633 runs and three centuries in yet another Ashes defeat Down Under. Allied to his superb man management skills and, somewhat paradoxically, his one-of-the-lads mentality; the decision to hand him the reigns was undoubtedly the right one.

The England side had improved steadily under Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain, four years on from when the latter was booed onto the Oval balcony after defeat to New Zealand left England bottom of the Test rankings in 1999. Central contracts helped transform a ragged and insecure bunch of county players into a cohesive unit, and Vaughan was the perfect man to take them to the next level.  He dealt instinctively well on a personal level with the self-destructive Andrew Flintoff and the fragile Steve Harmison, while his on-field demeanour and tactical nous made him by far the best all-round leader in world cricket at the time.

The defining moment for Vaughan’s captaincy came as he led his country in probably the greatest Test series of all time against the Aussies in 2005. Prising the urn from the enemy for the first time since 1987, a rollercoaster series captured the imagination of a football-orientated English press and public like never before.

But Vaughan was fallible, too. His batting suffered, perhaps inevitably, with the strains of captaincy and his final dozen innings or so for Yorkshire in 2009 were painful to watch as the magic – or at least the eyes and joints - appeared to have gone for good. We’re all human. We all get old.

He had always suffered more than most with injuries. The summer of 2006 was a complete write-off, as was the following winter’s whitewash in Australia, all due to a chronic knee problem. A serious hamstring injury followed, and Vaughan was cruelly destined never to regain the magic that had graced county and country for nigh on a decade.

That only adds to the reasons for him being a ‘favourite’. He played on for as long as possible because of a love and deep respect for the game, yet knew to bow out without losing too much dignity on the field. And besides, who would be so heartless as to deny such a player a bit of extra grace to play out a few more innings on the county circuit as the curtain came down on a sterling career? Well, Yorkshire, probably.

In a media-saturated world now awash with anodyne quotes straight off a script from most of our sportsmen and women, Vaughan’s departure from the England captaincy couldn’t have been further from the catatonic norm.

His tearful farewell in full glare of the world’s media was fantastic proof of his boyish love of the game. To see an Ashes-winning gladiator reduced to tears spoke volumes for his sincerity as a player and pride in his country. It was a single moment encapsulating what sport really is: blood, sweat, tears and hyperbole.

Vaughan embodied much of what I believe is great about the game we love. He could ooze style and class when at his work and read the game beautifully with a sound tactical mind. Most striking is that he remained ‘one of the boys’ – a hideous phrase - and someone whose raw passion and enthusiasm we simple fans could relate to. I, and I suspect many others, wanted to share a pint with him – the ultimate compliment for a Yorkshireman. No one in their right mind wanted to drink with Boycott.

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