RAY ILLINGWORTH, who is considered by some reasonable judges to have been the most astute Test captain England ever had, must some days feel he is now operating in his own private dust bowl. The erosion of his reputation has been relentless over recent years.
Mike Atherton put the boot in on the pages of his acclaimed autobiography when he reviewed their always taut relationship during Illingworth's spell as chairman of selectors.
More recently, Illingworth has been lashed bitterly for his suggestion that the new England captain, and Michael Vaughan like hima Yorkshire player, is no doubt a wonderful batsman, but might not be a natural leader of men. This assessment, one critic claimed, finally cemented Illy's reputation as a "mumbling boor". That's as mebbee, as they would say in Yorkshire, but it could happen that the miserable old bugger might just be right.
Vaughan's defenders will no doubt argue that he faced a fiendishly difficult task after his predecessor, Nasser Hussain, walked out on the job so petulantly. They will also say that he deserves time to bed down into an assignment of terrible pressure. But I'm afraid they can keep on saying these things on the hour of every day until the final Test match at The Oval without dislodging for a single second a conviction which simply cannot go away. It is that England at Headingley were a leaderless rabble of quite shaming proportion.
No one is better able to analyse, both morally and technically, the debris left by the appalling debacle than my colleague Angus Fraser, for whom the wretchedness of the English bowling must have represented a shocking betrayal of everything he stood for as a Test player of great accomplishment and pride. But then it is also true that there were aspects of the performance which had to be dismaying for an Englishman with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the game.
In terms of body language alone, comparisons between Vaughan's team, and that of the 22-year-old Graeme Smith, were gut-wrenching. Yesterday, when the last rites of a Test match England at several points held by the throat were completed so massively in South Africa's favour, Vaughan, three Tests into the job, looked a broken man. He talked of bouncing back at The Oval as England had done at Trent Bridge, but even as he did so you could see in his eyes that he was discussing not just a leap of faith but also of practicality.
In one sense, Vaughan could only be seen as a victim. He inherited chaos, and now he has to make something of competitive attitudes which for five days had been utterly exposed as insubstantial. Illingworth's point that he might not have the force of personality to pull off such a huge challenge was perhaps, on reflection, not the aside of an irredeemable curmudgeon but a genuine …