'You learn more in defeat than in victory'
Taking the step up
The year before, I was really questioning whether I was going to make it. I'd started at Middlesex in 1997 and was immediately given a rude awakening. I soon realised I was miles away from the standard required to be a professional cricketer. In 1998 I worked much harder and things started to go a bit better. I had become more professional and woken up to what being professional meant. I made my first-class debut at the end of the 1998 season and I scored a few runs. So, by 1999, I was very confident I could make a career out of cricket, but I had no idea how far I could go in the game. I was just trying to establish myself in the Middlesex first team. I was still on the periphery at that stage, but I was highly motivated and I had learned my lessons from a time as a student joker when I was just playing at the idea of being a professional cricketer.
I was very fortunate to be one of the early recipients of the MCCU scheme while I was at Durham University. The centre of excellence at Durham was a big step forward and had a massive impact on me. Graeme Fowler, who was the coach there, transformed a talented but drunken bunch of students into aspiring young professionals, with training programmes, developmental plans and access to sports psychologists. Our eyes were opened to what we needed to do, and it was a huge help to me.
Promotion and a role model
Justin Langer was very important early in my career. He was a great example. He was playing for Australia at the time, but he was at Middlesex, scoring runs every week. And he was training hard. He was doing things that the majority of players weren't doing. That was the key thing I took from him: I realised that if I wanted to play for England, I couldn't just do what everyone else was doing. I wasn't going to get better than them that way. I had to do more. I had to dig deeper, work harder and challenge myself more.
I was fortunate that I was made captain, too. That gave me the extra impetus to lead by example and push myself harder. I started to score runs more consistently as a result of that. I'm not sure whose decision it was to make me captain. John Emburey was Middlesex coach at the time. There were a couple of other senior players that might have been given the job: Paul Weekes was one; Phil Tufnell was another, though I suppose he was an unlikely captain. Anyway, Angus Fraser retired suddenly just a few weeks into the season and, as vice-captain, I was given the job. It forced me to grow up very quickly. I was only 24. I had no idea of all the demands that came with the job. I had no training in how to manage other players, how to deal with committees or anything like that, so I had to learn very quickly.
England humbled 5-0 in the Ashes and then eliminated early from the World Cup
That was a horrendous winter. We went to Australia full of enthusiasm and anticipation of what we thought would be a great series. We fell flat on our faces in Australia against a fantastic side. And then we never got going in the World Cup. It was devastating collectively and individually. I didn't play well and I was dropped from the ODI team for the first time during the World Cup. The whole experience really knocked the wind out of my sails.
Looking back, though, I'm convinced you learn more in defeat than in victory. And I'm sure that the seeds of our success in Australia in 2010-11 were sown in 2006-07. The things we did wrong helped us to approach things much better a second time around. As a batsman, it gives you great confidence to come through such an episode. I suppose nearly all players have had a spell like that. You either disappear back into obscurity or you find a way to deal with it. Once you have come through it, you know you can deal with it should it come again.
A career-saving century in Napier
I was in the last-chance saloon, wasn't I? I had been dropped from the side for the Sri Lanka tour, and, having been brought back, I hadn't scored many runs. I was fortunate, really: I came in to bat for the final innings of the final Test against New Zealand. The wicket was flat and I was able to concentrate hard. I scored a century. It concentrates the mind when you know your place is in jeopardy. There was no way that I was going to be caught at extra cover in that innings. There was nothing carefree or relaxed about that innings. I just battled.
I never really questioned my ability to play at that level. What people don't appreciate is the mental journey you go on as an England player. When you start you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. But then the pendulum swings, the expectations grow and you demand more of yourself. You are always faced with the best players in the world, too, and mentally things do grow harder the longer you play. I was stuck in a rut and I had to fight my way out of it.
England retain the Ashes in Australia
One of my great ambitions was always to go to Australia and win. So to achieve that, and to achieve that in such an emphatic fashion, was very special. I honestly felt very proud and fortunate to be part of such an outstanding group of cricketers. On the back of that Ashes victory, I felt we had the opportunity to go and create something special. We're a little way down the line now and there is a lot still to do, but I feel we're still progressing.
Our coach, Andy Flower, deserves a huge amount of credit. He has been instrumental in everything we've done. He has challenged the players, he has broken down the methodology of how we do things in the England set-up, and he has had an incredible drive and ambition to take the team somewhere new and exciting. He has great respect from all the players and it has been a pleasure to work with him as captain.
We didn't start in the best of circumstances. [It was the tour to the Caribbean in 2009, just after the previous coach-captain pair of Peter Moores and Kevin Pietersen had been fired.] But, in a way, it was helpful. Everyone wanted to move in a fresh direction, and after one game together [the Test in Jamaica where England were bowed out for 51 in their second innings] there was an acceptance of where we were and where we needed to go.
Andy is so valuable to us. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity at some stage for him to take a bit of a break. Of course, he would benefit from a rest as much as any of the players. But he is very much present in everything and he wants to be present in everything as much as possible. He still has a lot of energy and a lot of drive and ambition. I'm sure he will be around for a good few years yet.
The present day
The next 12 or 18 months are probably a defining period for us. We've done exceptionally well to get to No. 1 and the next period will determine how good we really are. I'm excited about it. It's just the sort of challenge - or the series of challenges - we need as a group. Our versatility will be tested. We are going to be tested in different conditions by the best cricketers in the world. And that's exactly what you want as an international cricketer. You want to be tested by the best in conditions that stretch you. I have faith in the group of players we have that we can come through all those tests and emerge on top.
The guys have achieved a lot. I don't take the credit for our improvement. The players have worked incredibly hard and I'm very proud of them. They have bought into everything that Andy Flower and I have tried to instil in the team and they have consistently performed under pressure. I'm very proud of the cricketers we have and I feel we're in a good place. We have further to go, but we are heading in the right direction.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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