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March 26, 2008
You couldn't pretend that Michael Vaughan was bursting with pride at the achievement of his new-look side, but a quiet satisfaction was detectable in his voice nonetheless, as he reflected on an eventful victory in Napier that secured England's first series win in three attempts. They hadn't won abroad since the trip to South Africa three winters ago, and they did it the hard way as well, slipping to defeat in a wasteful performance at Hamilton, before clawing back the ascendancy with increasingly confident displays in the final two Tests.
"We've still got work to be done, but don't underestimate what we've achieved here," Vaughan said. "We were 1-0 down, we've not won a series for a long while, and we've beaten a New Zealand team that's quite difficult to beat at home. It's been a real hard-fought series. We've had to show an immense amount of character to come back, and a lot of individual players have had to show their strength of character as well."
Victories against New Zealand can be written off all too easily as commonplace - England have now lost only three series against them in 31 attempts since 1929-30 - but there's no question of how hard they were made to struggle for this victory. At crucial stages of every Test, key members of the team were asked searching questions of their personal resolve. In Hamilton, they were collectively found wanting and two very high profile members paid the ultimate price; in Wellington and Napier they looked deep within themselves, as their captain had demanded, and found the necessary pluck to haul England across the line.
The seeds, therefore, of a renaissance have been sown, and if Vaughan was resisting the urge to get carried away, it's only because he appreciates how far England have fallen in recent months, and how long and arduous the climb back to the summit promises to be. "The character we've shown has been fantastic and that's one thing that you do need at this level," he said. "But there are areas we need to improve on, and we have to keep improving if we've set our sights for the top of the world, which is a long way off."
Wellington in particular was a scratchy win, marked by a first-innings batting implosion and diabolical fielding. But it was a vital win - a defeat, or even a draw, would have left the team thinktank out on a limb after their decision to jettison Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, and undermined the credentials of both Vaughan and the coach, Peter Moores, in their attempts to inject their team with young blood.
With that in mind, Vaughan nominated Tim Ambrose's innings-rescuing stand with Paul Collingwood as the defining moment of the series. With Ambrose taking the lead with a fearless maiden hundred, the pair transformed a first-day scoreline of 136 for 5 and added 164 for the sixth wicket. "That partnership got us to 291 for 5 on the first day, and gave us a huge boost after losing the first Test," said Vaughan. "Who knows how it could have ended up."
Such are the tightropes that England cricket teams are prone to walking. Vaughan, an old sweat, has seen it all before, but until Wellington, even he had been powerless to persuade his lethargic team to dig that little bit deeper for the cause. The dismissal of Hoggard and Harmison, and the shockwaves it sent through the squad might just have been the pick-me-up they'd so desperately needed. When asked if this series marked a changing of the guard, Vaughan didn't deny that the pair might now struggle to fight their way back into the set-up.
They'll certainly have to wait in line behind Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad, whose starring roles were especially pleasing for Vaughan. "Sidebottom's a good old honest pro, he does his work and he does his bowling, which he believes is down to his fitness," Vaughan said. "He swings the ball, puts it in the right areas and at a decent pace, and just gets on with it. These are all the attributes for becoming a good bowler, and he's got the angles of being a left-armer from over and around the wicket, which is a huge advantage. He's leading the attack and leading it well."
If Sidebottom was the stand-out performer with 24 wickets in the series, Broad was the quiet achiever. The strides he made on the penultimate day of the series, when he bowled 23 overs in back-breakingly flat conditions, were arguably the most significant for England's long-term development. After all, Harmison was forever being selected on the assumption that he, and only he, could keep the attack venomous when the bite went out of the surface. Broad, in only his third Test, proved otherwise.
"Stuart Broad is a massive talent," said Vaughan. "Yesterday was a proper spell of bowling, on a pitch that was very, very flat. Monty [Panesar] and Stuart provided that spell that put New Zealand under pressure. I don't have to speak to him much, just a word in the ear now and again, and that's very impressive, especially for a 21-year-old, which you don't really get very often. It's always nice to captain someone who knows his game and gets on with it, and he also fields well and bats. Expect him to be around for a long time."
Vaughan was also happy for Panesar, who for once was given enough runs by England's batsmen to settle into a proper attacking spinner's spell, and responded with a career-best six-for. But most of all, he was pleased for the development of his new-look team. "We had to get back to winning ways sooner rather than later, because the longer you leave it the harder it becomes," he said. "When we went 1-0 down, that was asking a lot of questions, but we've shown a huge amount of character and a real will to want to go out there and win.
"That was important," he added. "Hopefully it can continue with a win at home to set the series up against South Africa [in July], which will be a real test for a young team." The implication was clear in those final two words. England believe they have turned a corner on this trip, and the time for building for the future is now.
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