When Michael Vaughan was asked, back in May, whether it would be a good idea to split the England captaincy, he said he thought not. Five months later, I ask him the same question. "No," he says, looking me straight in the eye, "it's not ideal. It's not ideal, but at the minute it's the best thing for the team."
Vaughan's departure as one-day captain in June, a few weeks after that interview, came after not just a pretty miserable World Cup for his team but a bad run for him personally. He remembers his position in the team " becoming doubtful and that was very difficult to deal with as well. So it was the right thing to do. Certainly, I needed to step down from the one-day job. Mentally, I'd given it the best that I could."
Paul Collingwood took over the one-day reins, an appointment that met with Vaughan's approval at the time and continues to do so. "If it's going to work, it's going to work with something like me and Colly. Colly seems to be getting a lot of negative press from some people. I haven't a clue to explain why he gets that press – I think he is, and has been, a tremendous cricketer. You have a one-dayer and you want him in your team: bats, bowls, fields, gives you absolutely everything."
Vaughan's take on Collingwood's standing is a little surprising, given that the Durham all-rounder has been widely praised over the last year or so, even if the compliments tend to concentrate on his determination and spirit rather than the beauty of his cover drive. His press has certainly improved of late, mainly because after what seems like years of failure under his predecessors (including Vaughan), Collingwood's one-day side have surprised most of us by winning their first two series – at home to India and then, last month, in Sri Lanka – with some confidence and style.
But doesn't that in itself create a problem for Vaughan, in that it at least presents an alternative to his continued leadership of the Test side?
He looks ever so slightly pained. "It does, but..."
His answer trails off. It's not a problem, then?
"I honestly don't think so. It created a problem for Nasser because Nasser had mentally had enough," he says, recalling the confusing summer of 2003, when a world-weary Nasser Hussain first handed the one-day leadership to Vaughan then, a couple of months later, passed on the Test armband too.
Vaughan is confident this is not about to happen again. "I haven't had enough. I'm very enthusiastic and very experienced in the Test game and as a captain. I think I'll know – I'm sure we'll all know – when the time is right. I said at the time when I handed it on, if Colly comes in and does a great job, there might be a stage when he does both. I'm sure that stage will come eventually. Whether it's in a month, whether it's in a year, in two years, who knows?"
We are talking on the balcony of Vaughan's villa in Barbados. Vaughan is in dress-down holiday mode: knee-length shorts, T-shirt and slip-on shoes. He is tanned, relaxed and looks younger than his 33 years. The knee injury that kept him out of the game for 11 months and seriously threatened his career is, he says, finally under control, so long as he is vigilant with the rehab. He loves Barbados and was coming here long before the celebrity of the England captaincy made it seem a natural holiday destination.
He now owns a property on the beautiful Royal Westmoreland development on the west coast, his time divided between a stunning golf course and his young family – "If you're on the course by seven you can be back with the family at 10." The evidence of an enjoyable holiday is strewn everywhere – the toys, the drying swimming stuff and so forth. But in less than 24 hours the Vaughans return home and England's Test leader will begin the serious preparations for the tour to Sri Lanka, which starts when the team fly out from Heathrow tomorrow.
Vaughan remains convinced that the key to making a split captaincy work is his relationship with Collingwood and the respect they have for one another. Certainly, Vaughan could hardly be more effusive about the qualities of the man he expects to succeed him. "I really believe he's going to make a good captain," says Vaughan. "I really do. And we can switch to the Test captain. If you can do one, you can do both."
The endorsement sounds warm and genuine, but you wonder how Vaughan will feel if England lose the first two Tests in Sri Lanka. Not that his appreciation of Collingwood would be altered, but how it might change perceptions of himself.
He meets that one head on, too. "If in four weeks or in six months someone says the captaincy of the team should go to Colly, that it is in the best interests of the team that we have one and Colly leads both sides," he says, then that's OK by him.
"That's the way it's going to go eventually. It's the best job in the world for me and I love every single minute of it. And, hopefully, I can take us on and on and on. But these things come to an end eventually and it's not something I worry about, or think, 'Oh shit, I'm not going to be England captain one day.' I mean" – there's a smile – " I mean, that's life."
You wonder whether such sangfroid has anything to do with some of the difficulties Vaughan has experienced since his return from injury. He missed the disastrous Ashes defence in Australia, of course, returning to see England through a less than spectacular campaign at the World Cup and then find himself embroiled in a public spat concerning comments he made about Andrew Flintoff. The controversy, which seems even dafter now than it did at the time but which dominated the cricket news agenda for a day or two, hinged on whether Vaughan had actually used the word "Fredalo". Vaughan insisted he hadn't, then had to make a public apology when it was shown that he had.
Perhaps naturally, he is not keen to rake over the coals. "I don't want to go over that. It's been gone over, a lot of crap written, twisted, and it's all got blown out of all proportion. I don't even think it's worth revisiting that. It's had its week of, of..." – he hesitates for a moment to find the right word – "of crap."
When you meet him, Vaughan is as impressive as he usually sounds, assured rather than arrogant, friendly but not eager to please. He says of life as a top batsman that "you have to back yourself" and you sense that self-belief extends beyond simply playing the game. He seems to have the confidence in interviews to pretty much say it how he sees it and the sophistry that plagues much of modern sport is kept to a minimum.
He's not stupid, so any further Flintoff controversies are off limits. He is equally circumspect when asked about Steve Harmison. The Durham fast bowler has been a strange and frequently frustrating figure since playing such a key role in the Ashes victory of 2005. His form has dipped alarmingly, but there seems to have been a wider problem, one of heart and application.
Vaughan is having none of that and limits his reflections very deliberately to the question of form. "Everyone goes through a time when their form just goes away from them, a little bit," he says, sympathetically. "And I guess as a bowler it's a lot harder. Because if a batter's out of nick, you get to 10 or 15 and you get out, you go and sit in the dressing room. If a bowler's out of form you've got to spend the whole day out there."
Injuries have been a big problem for Harmison, and having missed the India Test series in the summer he was asked to prove his fitness in some South African club games before being asked to join the Test party for Sri Lanka. This has been done with a certain conviction, but Vaughan also draws encouragement from some of Harmison's bowling earlier in the summer, against the West Indies.
"I remember at Durham he had 10 or 11 overs. I just kept on bowling him because it was the first time in a long time that I've seen Steve with the eyes. Which I've seen before: he was just loving bowling and he felt he had a perfect rhythm. Hopefully, he can memorise that day."
That Harmison is by no means an automatic selection for the first Test, which begins in Kandy at the start of next month, is a reflection not just on him but on the performances with the ball of a newish group whose talents have emerged in the last 12 months or so.
When England won the Ashes two years ago it was possible to construct an optimistic long-term vision of an England side based on the qualities of a relatively young quartet of speed merchants: Flintoff, Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones. In fact, largely because of injuries, it is possible that none will be there when the Ashes are played for again in 2009. Yet such optimism remains just about credible because of the likes of Ryan Sidebottom, Chris Tremlett, Stuart Broad and a reinvigorated James Anderson. Vaughan is clearly relishing the chance to marshal their talents.
"I'm really excited by the prospect of leading a few new guys and a new-look side," he says. "There's a lot of young players pushing. They're all breathing down the senior players' necks and that's the kind of environment you want."
There is a widespread view that the advancement of the likes of Sidebottom and Tremlett has been down to a change in selection policy, that under England's new coach, Peter Moores, those who have learnt their trade at county level are given a chance. This contrasts with Duncan Fletcher's approach, which was to identify the talent at an early stage, then virtually ignore what happened in the county game.
Vaughan is not convinced.
"You've got to be quite cautious," he says of drawing such conclusions. "If you think back to the time of the Headingley Test match [against West Indies in May] when Ryan was first picked, there were many, many guys out. There weren't many other guys fit and Ryan took his opportunity brilliantly. It was in the nets, actually. Ryan went straight in the nets and hit us all. I thought, 'Jesus. Very consistent, swinging the ball, decent pace.' He took his chance."
Vaughan is careful not to go overboard about the new boys, however, whom he sees as still having a lot to prove. "The key to it is them being consistent. In a year's time, after 18 months' Test cricket. Being successful for a long period."
Regarding Fletcher, as with Flintoff, Vaughan is careful with his comments. It was said that their relationship grew strained when an injured Vaughan was kept at arm's length during the last Ashes tour, but there seems to be no animosity and without prompting Vaughan describes his former boss as "the best cricket coach I've ever worked with".
Quite where England's Test team is now is a little hard to judge. Vaughan returned as captain last summer with the wounds inflicted by the Ashes humiliation still fresh. There followed a routine victory over a dreadful West Indies side, then defeat in an absorbing but frustratingly short series against India.
Vaughan takes an upbeat line on the latter series and, in particular, its final day at The Oval, when England batted out to hold on for a draw in the third Test, though the series was lost. "I remember speaking to the side on the fourth night, saying, 'Look, we can't win this game but it's so important we get a draw in terms of where you are playing next, in Sri Lanka.'
"The cricket I've played in Sri Lanka is very much a long game. You really have to bat well, you have to be very disciplined in the field and you have to play [Muttiah] Muralitharan very, very well. So that day at The Oval against India, on a turning wicket – it was a good little test for us, to see if we came through it. I was delighted we did."
That there should be any doubt about Vaughan's captaincy is, in one sense, very strange. After all, he has the most Test victories and best winning percentage of any England captain of the modern era, including Mike Brearley. Yet he goes into the Sri Lanka series with questions being asked. Does he feel underappreciated, given what he has achieved?
He pauses a moment, and it seems he finds the question surprising, rather than awkward. "I honestly don't know. If I am under pressure, I haven't felt it. I don't read the stuff."
What, you never read what is written about the England cricket team?
"Well I do, I do. But I haven't read anything for four weeks. I've been on a stag do, I've been on a golf trip, I wouldn't have a clue about what's been written. In the summer, when I played for Yorkshire, I read The Sun. I look at the headlines..."
You read The Sun?
"I read The Sun."
He notices my slightly puzzled look. "I don't read cricket. I just read The Sun." There is a funny moment. It would be wrong to say he looks embarrassed but there is a sense of him wondering whether he feels the need to explain himself. He decides to. "I think if you start reading papers, and the columns, you start getting confused. But The Sun and the Star, I just find it's quite fun reading the crap that's on the front pages.
"If I'm under pressure, you've just told me now. I don't feel it. I'll go out there, I'll try my best. It's a tough tour. England won 2-1 under Nasser, we lost 1-0 last time with a very experienced side. We go in there with a relatively inexperienced side so we'll see how it goes. I certainly won't lose much sleep over it. The fact that someone's written I'm under pressure, well you're under pressure when you play for England anyway. You're under pressure when you're England captain."
He sounds, for the first time, ever so slightly flustered. I wonder for a second whether the question has exposed a nerve. That discovering he might be under pressure in Sri Lanka – can he really have learnt that from my question? – has irritated him. Does he have any sense when he might not want to be England captain? Surely he'll want to lead the side when the Aussies return in 2009?
"Without any question." His poise has returned in an instant. "I'd love to have a go at them. But sometimes things change. I might arrive and think, 'This isn't my role any more, it's time for Colly to take over' – and I'm probably speaking out of turn from the selection there.
"I don't know what'll happen until I get in that environment, until I get on tour and see what happens. I'm sure that Nasser knew within a split second of arriving in the dressing room at Edgbaston, he knew that 'This is different'. But it's not something I've thought about, not something I've worried about. I've always said what happens, happens."
'I know what's wrong in one-dayers but I'm not telling you'
One of the mysteries of modern cricket is the contrast in Michael Vaughan's performances as a batsman in Tests and one-day internationals. In the longer form of the game he has an average of 43.94 and an impressive range of technically precise shots, proving on his return from injury in the summer that he remains a formidable force.
At one-day level, however, an average of 27.15 betrays a player of steadily declining authority. Can he explain this?
"I have an idea, a pretty good idea, but I don't want to say now what it is," he says. "That comes when I retire from one-day cricket."
So, could there be a return to the one-day England side some time in the future? Vaughan will not rule it out.
"If I play incredibly well and the opportunity arises – at the minute I don't think there is an opportunity to even consider putting me back in the side. It would take a few injuries and a real loss of form. But I don't want to say I've retired from one-day cricket."