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A question of honour for England's captain.

Byline: Alan POOLE

AS OF any day now I will have been a professional journalist (or, as one of our less enamoured readers would have it, "a second-rate hack on a provincial rag") for 35 years.

During that time I have worked for a dozen editors, one for over a decade, another for barely a fortnight, and it's fair to say that they have encompassed the full range of managerial personalities - from the nicest man you could hope to meet to one of the nastiest pieces of work God ever let live.

In the gulf between those two extremes were great blokes promoted way beyond their distinctly average ability and hugely talented operators you'd avoid like the plague outside office hours.

There were also, needless to say, those who contrived to be engaging company as well as good at their job and, sadly, those who were simultaneously useless and thoroughly unpleasant - no names, no pack drills, you understand, although I feel compelled to confirm that the current incumbent at Corporation Street fits snugly into the former category!

Some relied on a metaphorical stick to impose their will, others favoured the carrot. Some insisted on personally approving every dot and comma that appeared in their paper, others (the best sort) laid down general guidelines and trusted their staff to get on with it.

Different strokes for different folks, indeed, but I can promise you, hand on heart, that I gave every one of them exactly the same level of commitment in terms of quantity and quality of work. And I don't think that makes me remotely unusual, let alone special: anybody with a shred of self-respect and professional pride sets their own standards and sticks to them rather than raising or lowering the productivity bar depending on how they get on with whoever happens to be in charge at the time.

That's certainly the attitude you'd expect from any sportsman worth his salt, but this time last week we were being asked to believe that England's cricketers don't aspire to that badge of personal honour.

Their wretched first-day display at Edgbaston, apparently, was all down to the change at the top. Having been mentally cuddled and cosseted by Michael Vaughan's relaxed style of leadership in the one-day internationals, their fragile self-confidence was brutally shattered when perpetually frowning martinet Nasser Hussain reclaimed the helm for the Test series.

It was a ludicrous theory, an insult to the players who were, by implication, being branded as shallow, soft-centred and stupid. But those commentators who had been busily spinning the captaincy issue into a personality clash, if not an undeclared power struggle, pounced on the 'evidence' that Hussain's Spartan regime had become counter-productive and it was time to usher in a new happy-smiley era under Big Easy Vaughan.

One particularly snide hatchet job even made capital of the fact that it was Vaughan's occasional off-spin that finally broke South Africa's mammoth opening stand. The heavy-handed innuendo was that Hussain's muted celebration was fuelled by pique that his 'rival' had provided the breakthrough - as opposed to the rather more obvious explanation that a score of 338- 1 scarcely merited an ecstatic group hug.

It's difficult to know to what extent that kind of sly, spiteful criticism (some of the worst and, doubtless, most hurtful from former England captains who used to take great offence when their own leadership qualities were questioned) pushed Hussain towards his sudden resignation. If nothing else, it surely must have hastened the decision.

But the irony, of course, is that many of those selfsame analysts once praised Hussain's authoritarian approach as a welcome step towards developing the ruthless streak that has helped Steve Waugh establish Australia in an ultra-professional class of their own.

And it's not too long ago that some of them were condemning David Gower for the relaxed, carefree demeanour that they now find such an admirable attitude in Vaughan.

Gower, like Vaughan and Ian Botham, was essentially given the captaincy not because he seemed a natural candidate for the role but because he was our best player at the time the vacancy arose.

But Gower proved, at best, an indifferent leader while Botham's tenure was an out-and-out disaster - proving conclusively that leaders are conceived, not manufactured by press campaigns and selection panel negotiations.

Vaughan will quickly find that the captain of England is given precious little leeway for failure even when his calculations are undone by circumstances out of his control (as last Thursday when Hussain lost a crucial toss and then watched his two key attackers, the raw James Anderson and the rickety Darren Gough, bowl like drains.

And, once the knives are out, the skipper is also denied any real credit for success - Hussain, for instance, apparently had nothing to do with the stirring fightback that saw England escape Edgbaston with a draw despite that monumentally miserable opening day.

To add further insult to injury, he then picked up some pointed criticism for jumping ship three days before the second Test at Lord's, arguably throwing Vaughan in at the deep end.

But this seems entirely in keeping with the way he has conducted himself throughout his spell in charge. He realised that the concocted controversy about his position was threatening to disrupt his side's concentration so he shelved his personal ambitions and stepped out of the equation.

If only all gaffers could find it in themselves to act so honestly and honourably...

CAPTION(S):

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW: Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain prepare for the second Test at Lord's yesterday
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Jul 31, 2003
Words:929
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