14 September 2003

England’s captain says he is aiming to add further chapters to his success story this winter

The strength is what strikes you. Not just the leathery catch a cricket ball at a hundred miles an hour strength of his handshake, nor even the tall, barn door-shouldered physique that the city suit at the book signing cannot begin to cloak. It is the strength of the words. They sound as if Michael Vaughan has thought this captaincy thing through.

“I have learnt a hell of a lot in four games,” he says of his time since Nasser Hussain’s abdication pitch-forked him into the hottest of sporting hot spots at Lord’s in July. “Obviously the first match was hard for everyone, and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ever since. I am only four Tests into the job, and the one area I must improve upon is to get more runs. I accept that and I will.”

There is solidity, not stridency, in the statement. “To be honest I have not felt in great touch all season,” he adds with the lack of false modesty to which 2002’s Test seven centuries and Wisden’s Cricketer of The Year accolade entitles him. “But I am taking a month off now, I will work on my fitness, I have a honeymoon in Dubai and when we get to Bangladesh I will look at all the videos of my innings and then spend the first week working harder than anyone to find the certain aspect that is missing. It might come in the first hour of the first day, it might not come until the fifth day, but it will come.”

The reassurance in the words doesn’t remove the thought of how great is the sporting burden that the 28-year-old Manchester-born but Sheffield-domiciled Vaughan has taken over from the redoubtable Hussain. In rugby and football, for all the inspirational individual commitment of Martin Johnson and David Beckham, the extent of their captain’s role can never be much more than leading by example and giving a modern version of the old Edwardian jingle, “Play up, play up, and play the game”. The cricket captain takes on not just the leader’s role but the tactical switches and strategy, too, not to mention the full weight of media scrutiny when things do not go to plan.

“Yes, the pressure on the cricket captain is greater than other sports,” says Vaughan, tousle-haired but clearly spoken. “You are taking the football manager’s decisions as well as playing and being an ambassador for the sport. But that’s why it’s really important to build a good partnership with Duncan Fletcher. As for the rest, well, I have a good sense of humour so I am ready for the turnip pictures, but I have talked to many people, to business friends, football managers. I will try and pick plenty of brains but I will do it my way.”

On the pitch Vaughan may have a less intense demeanour than his predecessor. His book, A Year in the Sun, may speak of not replicating Hussain’s turf-kicking “antics” of displeasure, but it was no laid-back Goweresque character who was talking last week. He is still pretty new to this whole fame thing off the pitch, and for all his sharp suit and stylish open-neck shirt, there was an element of fish out water, as he was lead off to do his round of interviews.

At times he still shakes his head a touch awkwardly as if an innate shyness has not yet been overcome, but there is directness enough when it comes to answering questions. “It is very much a job where you look after the troops,” says Vaughan, who was captain of England Under-19s (in front of Marcus Trescothick) before this year’s accession to the leadership of first the one-day and then the Test team itself. “Obviously going out and scoring runs is the greatest satisfaction, and if I get 150 or 200 much of the captaincy will take care of itself. But I must motivate players, drive them on, keep them as honest as possible. Individuals must know that you are captain and that you care.”

Which might raise the question, already freely ground out on the rumour mill, of just how keen Vaughan was on having all three “old lags” of Butcher, Graham Thorpe and Hussain included in the touring party. The young man whose Test debut in Johannesburg 3½ years ago saw him walking out to face Allan Donald under the unhappy scoreline of one for two (and soon to be two for four) takes this one right in the middle of the bat.

“It’s great to have these guys for their experience,” he said. “Over the years I have earned their respect for the way I have played, the way I have managed my life and my cricket. I will try and challenge these guys to help run the team as well. You need players to challenge each other. It’s not just the captain who sets the tone for the team.”

The new king is making his own Agincourt speech. Even if the ideals have all been said before, there is – at the moment – the thrill of a new conviction here, and the pledge of “honesty” extends to dealings with the press – but with a heavy proviso. “I will be totally up front about everything that happens on the pitch,” he said. “If we bowl badly, bat poorly, or I make the wrong decisions, I will put my hands up. But what I say in the dressing room, or in the huddle, will remain private.” For the first time the tone becomes almost aggressively firm, “absolutely private”.

Half-an-hour earlier in the gleamingly busy atrium of Canary Wharf tower, two Asian girls walked past the queue of young, middle-aged and elderly fans all getting their own little printed piece of England’s captain. “Look,” said the first, “there’s Michael Vaughan.” “Who’s he?” said the second. Listening to him suggests that she and the rest of us are soon going to be happy to answer.

It won’t be easy either on the pitch or off it. “Those who the Gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly wrote, “they first call promising”. It’s a brutal warning and the early signs are that Vaughan has heeded it well. But while his honeymoon period with the press will hopefully last a bit longer than his own in Dubai, relations can sour quickly, and keeping his regular newspaper column can set traps of its own.

Yet this is no faint heart. “Ten years on,” he says, “I hope to have had a really successful spin as captain and, whether I am still playing or not, I hope to make sure that English cricket has progressed. “That we have a really great team and a nation which is respected around the world. To do that is going to take a lot of hard work but I believe that the country has enough resources to try and make us into that.”

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