Vaughan: 'I won't let this job be a burden'

England tour exclusive: Now for the ultimate test as a tired but relieved captain puts his role into perspective
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All roads now lead to the Australians. In an odd way, it is probably a huge weight off Michael Vaughan's shoulders. Obviously, they were always going to be a handful who could make or break a few careers and generally whip up a frenzy, if not total panic, in England this summer.

All roads now lead to the Australians. In an odd way, it is probably a huge weight off Michael Vaughan's shoulders. Obviously, they were always going to be a handful who could make or break a few careers and generally whip up a frenzy, if not total panic, in England this summer.

But at least he can now start to give them and the greatest prize in English cricket his full attention, instead of having them as an interfering omnipresence. After today, for instance, no pesky South Africans in the way to clutter his mind. No disrespect, but Bangladesh in May hardly count.

This has been the toughest tour for Vaughan, one that has been essential for him and his team. He has had to contend with poor form, both collectively and individually. There have been times over the past two months when he has wondered what to do next. Since, from 25 July onwards this year, this could well be a perpetual state of affairs, it can only have been invaluable experience.

"From the moment I arrived from Zimbabwe at the game in Potchefstroom I probably haven't had a day off," he said. "There were six days between Cape Town and the Wanderers, but I was struggling with my form so I worked on my batting.

"There was an odd game of golf where sometimes you could switch off for four hours, but that was it. We were nowhere near our best in the first three matches of the series and my brain was thinking overtime of how to get us there, what was wrong, when was the right time to speak to the team, or to individual players, then going to work on my own game.

"I was probably spending so much time thinking about the team and how we were going to get better that I was probably coming to my batting quite tired. When it comes to batting, the important thing is mental freshness."

This is the nature of captaincy. Nor can it be said to be a modern phenomenon. How to beat Australia consumed Douglas Jardine's every waking moment nearly 75 years ago. Vaughan is the most relaxed of men - which means neither casual nor lacking in ambition - but he has looked tired these past two or three weeks. The Test series drained him.

He readily admits to the fatigue, but he is shrewd enough to grasp a contradiction. His view of playing cricket for England and being England captain falls squarely into the just-a-game category. "We try to practise intensely, we work our knackers off," he said. "I don't see this as the fifth most important job in the country as some people say; no job involving sport can be, it's not life or death. I always believe an NHS nurse has got a far tougher job than I've got.

"I can make decisions which win or lose us games, but they're only games. But we understand the position we're in, that we can make people happy and change the atmosphere of the country when we do well. I'm aware we must have made a lot of people's lives that bit better in the last year or so."

A bit better indeed. Vaughan succeeded Nasser Hussain as the England captain. Hussain, through the sheer force of a driven, dedicated and obsessive personality, ensured that English cricket stopped being a laughing stock and made it respectable again. In a little under two years, Vaughan has taken it a huge stride further. Under his stewardship, England have won five Test series out of seven, including their first in the West Indies for 36 years and in South Africa for 40 years.

The one-day side are more of a work in progress, as this seven-match series against South Africa has amply demonstrated, but they reached the Champions Trophy final last September, beating Australia en route for the first time in 14 matches.

The job has clearly affected Vaughan - "Of course it changes your life" - and some aspects of it have bemused this essentially straightforward Yorkshireman, who was born in Lancashire. "Yeah, people look at you differently. You get recognised wherever you go, though not to the state I guess where a footballer would. But even on holidays people know who you are. And I'll tell you what they do as well. People will ring you from business and other networks of life I know nothing about and ask for your opinions, and they actually go on your word if you have one. I just laugh.

"I suppose it's having success at the highest level and being under so much pressure, with all the media and having to make decisions on the pitch. If they go right, people automatically think you've got the balls to make decisions for everything." Making the hard decisions appeals to Vaughan. Not decisions like whether to bat on a flat pitch - which anybody could do, as he observed - but those when it might go horribly wrong. "It makes me chuckle." This chuckling and laughing malarkey is where he might differ from Hussain and other predecessors. The job will not wear him down to the point where it ceases to be enjoyable.

He reads the pundits, of course ("Show me a player who doesn't read the media and I'll show you a liar," said Michael Atherton recently), but only intermittently, and his favourite remains Dear Deidre, the agony column in the Sun. "Dear Deidre, How can I get some one-day runs? Yours, The England Captain."

There was a period of media angst when he fell out with the match referee, Clive Lloyd, during the recent Test series. Lloyd later said he had been "rude and dismissive" at a disciplinary hearing, but Vaughan has risen above it by saying nowt, or at least saying it bland. That is one trick he must have picked up from his predecessor but two, Atherton.

"I want to see players enjoy playing for their country, I can't understand the idea of it being a burden, whether that comes from the Eighties or Nineties or what," he said. "But I thought when I first came into the team that some of the senior players saw it as, 'Oh we're touring again, it's much easier being a county player'. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, how are you going to perform at your maximum?

"It is very hard, but you've got to under-stand that if I'm the captain and I'm portraying an image of, 'This is hard work, it's travel, play, travel, play', then how's the team going to feel? And I'm tired, I'm knackered. I'm trying to draw on every last drop of energy for every one of these one-day games, but the last thing the players want to see is me thinking this is a big burden. Especially the young lads, I want them to think this is fantastic."

It is a source of immense pride to Vaughan that Graham Thorpe, one of the old sweats, came up to him after the epic Test win at the Wanderers - where the tourists turned things round on the last day and in effect clinched the series - and paid handsome homage. Thorpe said it was incredible playing for England now because all people thought about was winning the game. It is above all a team.

Vaughan is tactically cuter than many might suppose. He devours graphs of where a batsman's shots have gone and packs the field accordingly. He is also usually ready with a Plan B. It has not come easily. Vaughan's tiredness has been matched by stress. There have been times when he has taken it home, and with an eight-month-old daughter, Tallulah, it will not always have been easy.

"I still have moments where I get very stressed with the job. There are times when I sit in my room and worry. Of course, everyone worries, but what I'm quite good at is that I can wake up the next morning and forget about it, tackle it afresh. I always sleep; well, the only time I don't actually is when I've batted a lot that day and you end up going through your innings till three in the morning."

There has been rubbish written lately about Vaughan being a changed man because of the captaincy. He is an unbending adversary, but he is the most approachable of captains. He defended Stephen Harmison robustly and was not at all deflected by a tour which has failed to live up to expectations for the fast bowler. "I wouldn't even consider him not being in the team," he said.

And now for Australia. Ah, Australia. "It's a summer I'm looking forward to because we're playing against the best team there has ever been. I shall certainly tell my team that if you can't go into that looking forward to it you shouldn't be there. Only one team is under maximum pressure and that's them.

"We will have to play at our maximum against them to win, far better than we have on this tour. But what excites me is that I'm going into an Ashes series with a young team, one that will be around in 2006-07, whereas they openly admit they will lose some players, maybe as many as four or five. What we have done this winter is show character, and you need that, and guts above all, against the Aussies. We'll have to be quite shrewd cookies." They might have to be much shrewder than cookies, but Vaughan would have it no differently.

He's off now to see his girls at home in Sheffield, to watch Manchester United in the San Siro, for a brief holiday in Barbados, to the Masters in Augusta. But one thing will never be far from his mind, and we know what it is.

Michael Vaughan speaks to Stephen Brenkley in 'The Wisden Cricketer', on sale from next Friday