Vaughan reborn


“I was so keen on enjoying batting again and that helped me play in the manner I have. I’ve not felt any pressure at the crease. I hope I can continue in that mentality for a few more years. Maybe I recognised it was a bonus to be playing again,” says England Test captain Michael Vaughan in this chat with Vic Marks.

It is the day after England have lost their first series at home under Michael Vaughan’s leadership. But the England captain is far from downcast. In fact he will declare: “I’m more optimistic about this England team than I was four weeks ago.”

He is also remarkably relaxed. He smiles when I ostentatiously station my tape recorder in front of him. We don’t want any mishaps about whether he has been misquoted. (In June he denied using the word ‘Fredalo’ to describe Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff’s World Cup escapade in a newspaper interview, only to be proved embarrassingly wrong.)

It is debatable whether England have made any progress over this summer, but there is no doubt that Vaughan, who will be 33 in October, has. He is back for the foreseeable future as England’s undisputed Test captain and as a key batsman in the side. Only Kevin Pietersen scored more heavily in the three-match series against India, with Vaughan’s 295 runs being scored at an average of 49.16.

In May all the talk was about his fitness: would the right knee, which has been such a worry to him over the past three years, stand the strain? And his form: was he ready to jump straight back into the Test arena with such a limited amount of first-class cricket behind him?

Well, he has answered both questions in the affirmative; one reason to appear so at ease with the world. “It’s been a very productive summer for me,” says Vaughan. “I’m amazed that I haven’t had trouble. The knee has swollen up a couple of times and needed some ice and that’s it. If you had offered me that a year ago I would have ripped your hands off.” Vaughan has seldom been so sure-footed in the field and it can’t be just a consequence of his footwear (he is now an ambassador for Asics).

“And I’ve felt as good batting as I have in my career,” he says. “It might be the fact that I’m so relaxed. Because cricket got taken away from me for a year, I told myself that when I came back I couldn’t be too desperate because sometimes when you are so desperate to prove people wrong it all goes awry. I was so keen on enjoying batting again and that helped me play in the manner I have. I’ve not felt any pressure at the crease. I hope I can continue in that mentality for a few more years. Maybe I recognised it was a bonus to be playing again.”

After a finger injury delayed his return at the start of the summer, Vaughan hit a hundred against West Indies on his home ground of Headingley. “All those hours in the gym were spent visualising getting a Test hundred again, but to do that at the first attempt was beyond my dreams. It was just great to be back in that environment. I love the preparation for Test matches: the way we have the opportunity of analysing the bowlers we’ll be facing, getting a feeling of what the wicket will be like; then practising and visualising accordingly. I always find if you work hard on Tuesday and Wednesday you can go out and enjoy your batting in the match. If you leave a stone unturned and you go into the game thinking, ‘Why didn’t I spend that extra half-hour? Why didn’t I have the bowling machine on at that angle?’ then you are in trouble. Before the game at Headingley I knew I was in good touch and mentally I felt very strong.”

Vaughan’s century against India at Trent Bridge was a classier affair. The bowling was of a higher quality and England were under the cosh. “India, and Zaheer Khan in particular, deserve a lot of credit for the angles they created and the variety of their bowling,” he says. “On the last day at The Oval, Zaheer was still swinging the ball both ways.

“Using the traditional method he should have been bowling over the wicket, but he came around to the left-handers. He was changing the angles again. The guys would not have seen that before and I guarantee they would not have practised that. Zaheer — and I think he was the man coming up with all the ideas — kept doing the unexpected. It was fascinating to watch and something we can all learn from. That’s why the series was hard. We never really knew what was coming next. I can’t remember so much swing, not even from Chaminda Vaas or Wasim Akram. Sometimes when R. P. Singh was bowling around the wicket it felt as if the ball was starting at third slip.”

India managed to surprise England without the benefit of a coach in overall charge; England had a new one in Peter Moores. So the old captain had to forge a new relationship. Vaughan started his Test career on the same day as Duncan Fletcher in 1999. Within 20 minutes England were two for four in Johannesburg, which tested the phlegm of both men. Fletcher at least exuded calm; and so did the greenhorn Vaughan, who made an impressive 33 in two hours.

“The relationship with Peter is different because it’s new. Duncan and I became very close as we tried to drive the team forward. The captain/coach combination is crucial. Of course there can be debate and disagreements behind the scenes. That’s healthy in any environment. But you really do have to be singing from the same hymn sheet when talking to the players.

“I’ve found Peter great. He’s got fresh, different ideas and goes about the job in his own way. Fletcher was very successful, did a brilliant job, and I see no reason why Peter can’t be as successful. He is so enthusiastic. I just love coaches when they come up with new ideas. I’m still in contact with Duncan and he always comes up with something. He’s a very clever man. These coaches have to think outside the box — as Zaheer did.”

Vaughan bases his optimism for England on the increased depth of their bowling resources after this series and their resolve at the end of the Oval Test. “The final day was a big one for us. I really did not want us to lose. With a relatively young side you have to instil that fighting spirit before you can go on to win games. Fighting spirit can take you a long way.

“We have a reputation as an attacking and flamboyant batting side, who like to score fast. At The Oval different questions were asked: could we occupy the crease in an old-fashioned way? I’m really pleased we did. Against Pakistan a few years ago we were two down well into the last afternoon (at Old Trafford in 2001) and we lost the game.” Vaughan’s batsmen all have a fair amount of experience now; not the case with his bowling attack against India when Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison and Flintoff were absent in the Tests. (We must regard Simon Jones as a permanent absentee.)

“I do know my best attack,” says Vaughan, “but it’s been clouded by the way the young bowlers have come in. Chris Tremlett surprised everyone with his control and pace. James Anderson is a very attacking bowler and that’s what excites a captain. You always feel he’s got wickets in him. Ryan Sidebottom was the old warhorse.” Vaughan had announced his resignation from the one-day captaincy in June.

“I did change tack on this one. But I actually made my decision during the World Cup. I knew Duncan was going and I didn’t want Peter coming in and having to deal with that situation straightaway and starting the summer with a split captaincy. So I delayed the announcement.

“I knew in my heart that I had to go. I had given it everything, but couldn’t see myself captaining the side in the next World Cup, so I felt it was right to let the new guy get as much experience as possible. It wasn’t that hard a decision. I let Peter and (chairman of selectors) David Graveney know very early. It was my decision. A lot thought I might have been shoved but because it was my decision I was comfortable with it.

“I have a good relationship with Paul Collingwood (his successor as one-day captain) but only time will tell how it works out. I’m wary of the split captaincy. In an ideal world you want one captain. That brings consistency. When we were really successful in 2005 we had a real nucleus of players in both forms. In the build-up to that series the team didn’t change. We won together, came through tough games together, we lost the odd game together. If you look at the one-day series in 2005, it was basically the Test team; we got used to playing Australia together.”

Vaughan has not ruled out a return to the one-day side. He has four Pro40 games for Yorkshire as well as three Championship matches and “Darren Gough rings all the time to ask how the off-spinners are coming out.” If nothing else Vaughan’s off-breaks have been handy in one-day cricket. “I have to produce for Yorkshire to stake my claim. I’m in the ranks like other county players now.”

Had he been surprised by the flak his team received after the Trent Bridge Test? “To be honest I don’t read the papers a lot. When I know it’s going to be bad I tend not to read them at all.” They all say that, but in Vaughan’s case perhaps it is true. What is unusual — and impressive — is that he does not ‘write’ for a newspaper either, which has been an automatic and lucrative addition to the salary for his predecessors.

“But,” he says, “I got a sense of the criticisms because everyone in the street was coming up to me and saying, ‘Jelly bean’. You get criticised when you lose anyway. And when you come out and do what we did that week then you have to accept you are going to get more. In county cricket that episode might have been thought of as hilarious, but at the highest level you can’t get away with it. We are a young team and we just have to learn from all these experiences.” At Trent Bridge it was not just a stray jelly bean or two that prompted so much criticism. “There may have been more chirp at Nottingham than usual but it does take two to tango. I’ve been to Sri Lanka and Australia, where they are at you all day. There were bad incidents at Trent Bridge. There was bat waving and you don’t want to see that. We threw a jelly bean and you don’t want to see that. And a shoulder barge, which was nothing to do with us. I wish none of that had happened.”

How much of this is planned? “We talk about mental disintegration. We know the players. For example, we don’t say anything to some because that drives them to play better. But we don’t sit down beforehand and say, ‘When X comes out to bat we’ll give him a serve.’ There will be bits of gamesmanship, saying the odd thing. For (Wasim) Jaffer and (Dinesh) Karthik there was always the odd mention of Sehwag waiting to come back into their team.

“But I can assure you we do not pick a ’keeper because he makes a lot of noise, we pick him because he’s good. Some time back I heard everyone say that Matthew Prior was England’s Adam Gilchrist. Three games later they say, ‘Get him out of the team; he’s rubbish.’ His second innings at The Oval showed a lot of character. I hope that he can learn from the experiences of the Test series and become stronger for it. If he can learn he’ll be a real good player for us.”

It sounds as if Vaughan is happy with his ’keeper. So what are the main areas of concern before the Test tour to Sri Lanka? “The second spinner. We need Flintoff fully fit and playing well. The balance of the team without him is lost and you are bound to miss his expertise, experience, explosiveness and his character. We must make sure we get the strategy right. If you go out there and just play you’ll get murdered.

“Murali, Malinga, Vaas and Fernando make up a very good attack. If that means backs-to-the-wall cricket and getting men behind the ball then we’ll have to do that. This was the approach on the last two tours. We have to decide whether to be a bit more attacking or not.”

I doubt Vaughan — or any of the selectors — knows who that second spinner will be at the moment, although the England captain is adamant that his side cannot continue with a tail as long as it was in the series against India. I mention Adil Rashid. “I’ll be playing with him soon, so I’ll have the best opportunity to see him.

“There is also the chance we might not play a second spinner in every Test. In the past we have seen help for the seamers, in Kandy in particular.”

Vaughan’s appetite for playing is not yet sated this summer. “There’s no point complaining about the volume of international cricket. You just have to get on with it. My 18 months out of the game was much harder than playing.

“I think the constant one-dayers are the hardest to cope with. With Test matches there is always a build-up and an aftermath. At the highest level you should be allowed time to celebrate or feel the hurt after losing. But with ODIs you play so often. There is no build-up, you are on the coach and off to the next venue. It shouldn’t be just another game. And with so much cricket you have to have a bigger squad. So it becomes harder to develop the team ethic.”

For the moment he is spared the hullabaloo of the one-day international. He is off to Scarborough and the unusual experience of being in the ranks and doing precisely what Gough tells him. “I haven’t played there for years,” he says. “It should be fun.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007