Michael Vaughan: 'All I have ever asked for from the England team is honesty'

In the second of our series of interviews with major sporting figures, Michael Vaughan talks Angus Fraser through a year of historic achievement for England's cricketers
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Considering the team he captains has won 11 of the 12 Test matches it played in 2004, and on Tuesday became the first England side to win eight consecutive Test matches, it was not the most apt of questions. But I thought I would ask it all the same.

Considering the team he captains has won 11 of the 12 Test matches it played in 2004, and on Tuesday became the first England side to win eight consecutive Test matches, it was not the most apt of questions. But I thought I would ask it all the same.

"So Michael, have you made any mistakes in the last 12 months?" I inquired. If he had ended the interview there I could not have complained but Michael Vaughan is not that sort of chap. The England cricket captain is too pleasant a man to be rude to a bitter and twisted old bowler who used to get him out before he started shaving. And after a year of unprecedented success he knew that this line of questioning would not last.

"Yes, quite a few actually," he said, after a gentle chuckle. "The biggest was probably at Old Trafford when we bowled a barrage of short balls against the West Indies on the fourth day. I allowed it go on for too long and it could have cost us the game. It was a mistake but I think I have learnt from it."

But as in every Test bar one in 2004 - the drawn match was when Brian Lara scored 400 in Antigua - England managed to recover their composure and walk away as worthy winners.

And it has been the cool, calculated and consistent way in which England have played their cricket this year which has made them such an impressive unit. Vaughan is quite shy about the role he has played, but a team reflects its leader.

"All I have asked for from the team is honesty," he told me. "In Potchefstroom [England's warm-up game before the first Test] we weren't honest with each other because we hadn't worked as we had done during the rest of the year and this was why we lost.

"A lot of the players in this team know their own game and they don't need captaining. They work things out with the coach, or in their own minds and take it out on to the pitch. And when they do something wrong it is because they have not prepared in the right manner. I can ask them to do something, but the player is the only person who knows what is going through their head at that given moment of the game."

The gym at the Pan Pacific Sonargoan Hotel in Dhaka is, in every way, far removed from St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, but it was here in October 2003 where the foundations of England's year were laid.

Vaughan had been thrown in to the job during the summer of 2003, when Nasser Hussain surprised everyone and announced his resignation after the first Test against South Africa. The timing of this decision, and the busy itinerary made it impossible for Vaughan to put any of his ideas into practice during that series. England came back well and drew the series 2-2. But the tour of Bangladesh gave Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, the perfect stage on which to instil their principles into the side.

"I wanted to make sure we were fitter," Vaughan said. "There are a lot of things in cricket you have little control over but fitness isn't one of them. I had noticed we had picked up a lot of injuries in the year before and put this down to a lack of fitness.

"I also liked the idea of the team training and sweating together. I thought that the one place where you could get the whole team together was in the gymnasium. And it did bring us closer together. Some people questioned it but the harder you work on the training pitch and in the gym, the more successful you are in the middle.

"I'm a big believer in hard work, whether it takes place in the gym, the nets, bowling to a keeper or doing catching practice. If you put in the hard work the rewards are there for you. If you just think you can sit back and ease along, and not work on every aspect of your game, there will be a stage when the game comes back and bites your arse."

The rewards for this investment did not become immediately evident. England defeated Bangladesh comfortably, as they should, but then lost 1-0 in Sri Lanka just before Christmas last year. Two fighting draws showed the character of the side but nobody would have predicted that this team were about to embark on the greatest winning run in the history of English cricket.

"I would never have thought we would win 11 of our next 12 matches when we left Sri Lanka," Vaughan admitted. "I thought we had put a lot of pieces in place to develop a good side in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. We worked very hard and started to develop a good team base and a very good work ethic. Sri Lanka is one of the toughest places to tour and we were lacking a couple of our key bowlers, but the fighting spirit we showed in Galle and Kandy, when we batted out for draws, was something we took into 2004.

"Stephen Harmison came back into the side in the Caribbean. I knew it would be pretty tough. We did not know too much about their side, barring the Laras, the Chanderpauls and Sarwans, and we felt we had a decent chance of creating some history."

And boy did they create history, starting at Sabina Park, one of the most intimidating cricket grounds in the world. It is here in Kingston, Jamaica, on this quick, bouncy and at times uneven pitch that Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson used to terrorise English batsmen. It was while playing a Test match at this venue in February 1986 that several England batsmen resorted to slogging because they felt it was the best way of scoring runs before a killer ball came along.

But it was England who arrived in the Caribbean in February 2004 with the greater firepower. Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and James Anderson were not the biggest names on the international cricket circuit, but they were far more imposing than those Lara had at his disposal.

The match will be remembered for Harmison's second innings figures of 7 for 12 and the West Indies being bowled out for 47. But Vaughan does not feel that it was Harmison who started this unbelievable run.

"If I am being honest it was Nasser Hussain and Mark Butcher's partnership at Sabina Park that kick-started it all," Vaughan said. "The West Indies scored about 350 [it was actually 311] which was about par on quite a good pitch. But then Fidel Edwards and Tino Best came at us. We were aware they had a bit of raw pace but we didn't expect anything like this. They bowled with hostility and the noise of the crowd made it a very special period of play. We were 30 for 2 with me and Tres gone.

"But Nasser and Butch got us back into the game. They took plenty of blows and came back to the dressing-room battered and bruised, but if we had lost another wicket then I think the result of the series could have been a whole lot different. But once we got up to and just beyond their total we gained the psychological advantage. The West Indies realised they had missed an opportunity when they had us by the balls.

"I'm not saying that it allowed Harmison to take 7 for 12, because he bowled unbelievably well and it started a great year for him, but that partnership was one of the key reasons why we were successful in the Caribbean."

The following two Test matches followed a similar trend to the first. The West Indies batted first, scored a competitive total and England battled to reach parity. But once there they then steamrollered their opponents and walked away as comfortable winners. Lara, in Antigua, reclaimed the world record but Harmison was the star of the show, taking 23 wickets in the series at an average of 14.86.

During the home series against New Zealand and West Indies, Harmison increased his wicket tally for the year to 61. The Durham paceman took one wicket in the first Test against South Africa but these are still remarkable figures for a bowler whose international future was on the line this time last year. Vaughan does not like picking individuals out for special praise, but he had to admit the performances of Harmison were special. "It is brilliant to have Stephen up your sleeve," he said. "Any captain in the world would love him in their side. The key now is to keep his consistency and form as it has been in the last 12 months.

"There are bound to be little periods when he doesn't bowl quite as well and the opposition play him a bit better. But with a bowler like Steve you know that sometime in the series he is going to bowl a spell where he will change the game for you. Stephen's individual displays have been outstanding. But what has impressed me is that when something has been required by the team it has not just been one individual that has kept putting his hand up.

"Throughout the whole year every single player has contributed. They have all helped us through tough sessions. There was [Andrew] Strauss and Simon Jones here this week, Butch and Nasser in Jamaica. You look at a couple of Hoggy's spells, Simon Jones's five for 57 in Trinidad, Geraint Jones's 100 at Headingley, Tres's two hundreds at Edgbaston, Robert Key's 93 at Old Trafford - the list goes on and on.

"Every single player has, at important times, put his hand up - and this is the sign of a team working together, not a team that is reliant on a couple of individuals. We are lucky to have outstanding individuals like Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison but throughout the year different players have produced the goods at crucial times."

Flintoff, of course, has also had a wonderful year, averaging over 50 with the bat and under 25 with ball. "Despite what people think Andrew is not the noisiest player in the dressing-room," Vaughan said. "In the last 18 months I have seen a real focus to his cricket. Before that he probably was the song-and-dance man. But he now sits quietly with his headphones on listening to music. It has become part of his preparation and it helps relax him before he bats."

New Zealand arrived in England as a highly-rated and well-led side. The Kiwis had just drawn a three-Test series at home to South Africa and Stephen Fleming, the New Zealand captain, fancied his chances of causing an upset. England's cricketers had eight days' rest when they returned from the Caribbean but the confidence of Vaughan and the team was high.

Vaughan's evolution as a leader could be seen in the Caribbean. The Lancastrian was never going to lead a team in the style of his predecessor, Nasser Hussain. Tactically, Hussain is far more astute than Vaughan. But he was passionate, unpredictable and intolerant.

Without his four years in charge England would not have reached the heights they have. The national side were undisciplined and unprofessional when Hussain took over. They needed a kick up the backside. But England would not have climbed to No 2 in the world rankings under Hussain's leadership. His dogmatic approach prevented the likes of Flintoff and Harmison playing cricket with freedom.

When Vaughan took over as England captain he told his players that he wanted them to work hard and have some fun. This statement immediately released the shackles from Flintoff and Harmison, and the results are there for everyone to see. "The New Zealand series gave me the most satisfaction," Vaughan admitted. "I know the win in the West Indies was our first in 36 years, and the support we received there was fantastic, but I honestly expected us to win that series.

"But I wasn't sure about the series against the Kiwis because I thought they were a really experienced side with plenty of depth. I knew they were lacking Shane Bond [their leading bowler] and the firepower he brought but going into that series there were a lot of people questioning whether we could match them. So it was a great effort to beat them 3-0."

In a year like this it must be hard to pick out a special moment. But Vaughan had little doubt as to which victory gave him the most pleasure.

"This victory in Port Elizabeth is special, and it is obviously fresh on the memory, but the win against New Zealand at Headingley was, to me, the best of the year," he said. "To win after watching the Kiwis score over 400 in the first innings was a top effort. Everybody knows how hard it is to bat last at this ground so it was hugely satisfying. The fact that my daughter, Talullah, was born during the match made it a pretty special week."

England then trounced the West Indies 4-0 and are currently making South Africa look a pretty ordinary side. But is the weight of expectation becoming daunting?

"Not at all," Vaughan said. "It really excites me. I always like to raise my own game and the performance of the team to the next level, and this is a challenge. In 2004 we have shown the standards we can reach and the next 12 months are going to be a little bit harder. We are playing South Africa now and this is not going to be an easy contest. And then there is obviously the big one next summer - the Ashes. And following that there is a trip to Pakistan. These are three of the hardest series of them all. We will have an even better idea of how good we really are in a year's time."

Sporting Asides From A Memorable Year

What was your favourite non-sporting moment of 2004?

Simple, the birth of my daughter Talullah.

What was your favourite sporting moment of 2004, that did not involve cricket?

Europe's win in The Ryder Cup. My agent looks after Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, who I know quite well. It is the sporting event I enjoy most, bar none.

What are you looking forward to most in 2005?

The Ashes. I always look to raise my game and that of the team, and beating Australia is still the ultimate challenge.