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March 17, 2008
It's incredible to think how long it's been since Michael Vaughan was victorious in a foreign land. Last summer he became England's most successful Test captain of all time, and today he duly notched up his 23rd victory in 44 Tests. But he's not been able to sit down in an overseas press conference and reflect on the glory of his team's efforts since January 2005, when England overcame South Africa in an incredible final-day onslaught in Johannesburg.
Vaughan, as I recall, was incredibly peevish as he faced the press that day, berating the "so-called experts" who had written off England's hopes of saving the match, let alone winning it. That was the game when Matthew Hoggard came of age as an England stalwart, with 12 wickets in 52.3 overs, including seven in two sessions as England stole the series from under South Africa's nose. It was also the game that demonstrated the intensity of resolve that England would need to win the Ashes back later that year.
Fast forward three years and two months. Hoggard is not even in the side any more, England no longer possess a record to match the "Played 15, Won 13, Lost 1, Drawn 1" that they took with them from the Wanderers, and as for intensity, well, it's hard to imagine that a match tally of eight dropped catches and a missed stumping would have got them very far in those heady days.
And yet, it was enough to see off a New Zealand side that had themselves let their standards drop after the near-perfection of their performance at Hamilton, and as far as Vaughan was concerned, that was quite good enough for now. "We've answered Hamilton in a positive fashion, with a good Test match on a decent pitch," he said. "We couldn't give you the perfect performance, our catching wasn't as good as [last week], but overall things are a lot better than they were.''
They certainly are. England's victory brings to an end a barren run of seven games without success, dating back to the start of last summer's 1-0 series defeat against India. They've won overseas for the first time in almost exactly two years, since that outlandish victory in Mumbai in March 2006 which Andrew Flintoff marshalled with a bit of inspiration from Johnny Cash. And whatever the flaws they've shown in the series so far, they go to Napier tomorrow with a chance to complete a remarkable comeback.
"It sets the series up brilliantly now, at 1-1," said Vaughan. "We'll be trying hard [to win in Napier], but a week in cricket is a long time as this has just shown. What we've tried to do in this game is respect the game, play as well as we can and we've come out with a victory. We'll aim to do exactly the same over the next week."
First though, there are a few pent-up frustrations that England need to, and doubtless will, get out of their systems. "We've got to make sure we celebrate today - it's been a long while since we've won a game," said Vaughan. "We'll celebrate properly and then make sure we get our heads on and train very hard leading into that game in Napier."
It was an interesting priority for Vaughan to point out. There weren't many celebrations to be witnessed, for instance, when England won that Johannesburg Test, but back then the circumstances were entirely different for a settled and ruthlessly focussed side - the endgame was all that mattered. For this young squad, the bonding process is every bit as important. Stuart Broad and Tim Ambrose, both of whom had pivotal roles, have never before tasted success in Test cricket, and even Anderson has been waiting around since Mumbai for a slice of the glory.
|"I guess it proves bowling all those overs in the county game, and really knowing his game before he played at the international level can help"|
"We're only 1-1 with a game to play, so we won't go over the top, but it's just nice to be sat in the dressing-room with a victory under our belts," said Vaughan. "We were all desperate to win a game of cricket. We felt we were working hard, we wanted to get the series back on track, and I can only say how delighted I am for that set of players and the management. We've not won many games and we've all been working very, very hard, but there's still a long way to go before we can say we're a proper team again."
It's an "exciting" time to be around the England camp. That's Vaughan's buzzword at any rate, one that pops up with the same sort of frequency as "focussed" did in his previous incarnation as captain. Apart from telegraphing his continued enthusiasm for the job, the word describes both the erratic nature of England's recent results and the sense that, as yet, no-one is quite sure what to expect of the players at the team's disposal.
Take Ryan Sidebottom, for instance, who has currently taken 16 wickets at 17.50 for the series. He and Vaughan played together at Yorkshire, and for England at Lord's in 2001, but then their paths diverged until the Headingley Test last May, when an injury to Hoggard created an opening for a tight and hard-working swing bowler. He's not looked back since, taking 45 wickets in 11 consecutive appearances, including three five-wicket hauls.
"We've all been surprised," said Vaughan. "It's his pace which is very impressive. His control is exactly want you want, and I think he's got a really good cricket brain as well. You put that into a package as a bowler and you get a decent finish. He's getting all the rewards now for all the hard work he's put in over three years. Hopefully that will continue for a long, long while and he can have a sustained international career.
"He's our most experienced bowler," added Vaughan. "I guess it proves bowling all those overs in the county game, and really knowing his game before he played at the international level can help. He never needs telling, he always knows what's required in the situation, which is very handy for a captain."
Vaughan's former charges never needed telling either. They just got on with their jobs and did them to the utter limits of their abilities. A solitary victory proves nothing about the long-term viability of this new-look side, but small steps are all that England can hope for at this stage of their re-development.
"We're not going to get too excited about it just yet," said Vaughan. "But it was exciting to be out there with a young attack with a bit of pace." Now that they've got the bandwagon rolling again, you sense that England won't be harking back to past glories in a hurry.
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