Anthony McGrath: I won't be ruling with an iron fist

What a difference two years make. Anthony McGrath almost left Yorkshire in 2007, now he is the county's new captain as they head into the 2009 season. Chris Waters spoke to him.

TWO years ago, Anthony McGrath was on the brink of quitting Yorkshire after growing disillusioned with life at the club.

Now he is preparing for his second stint as captain and savouring every minute as a Yorkshire cricketer.

The wheel has come full circle for the popular 33-year-old, who was persuaded to stay in 2007 by the return of Darren Gough and Martyn Moxon as captain and director of professional cricket, respectively.

Like many a good marriage, McGrath and Yorkshire have had their ups and downs but worked through their differences and kept themselves together.

"Looking back, what happened a couple of years ago was very unfortunate for all concerned and I did come very close to leaving," said McGrath, whose efforts to break the final year of his contract almost resulted in a tribunal hearing.

"It was only at the last minute really, when Darren and Martyn were reintroduced to the club, that I decided to stay after they'd made their intentions clear on the cricketing side of things.

"Prior to that, I just felt that, as a club, we had taken our eye off the ball in terms of the cricket.

"Yes, there were lots of changes going on behind the scenes in terms of the Headingley ground and what we were doing financially but, first and foremost, we are a cricket club and I didn't think the main focus was on the cricket.

"That was the crux of it really – and I wasn't the only one unhappy because several players left the club around that time.

"Michael Lumb left because he wasn't happy; Darren Lehmann would probably have stayed on under different circumstances; Mitchell Claydon left; Richard Dawson turned down a three-year contract, and so on.

"A lot of the lads weren't happy and, being one of the senior players, I felt it was my responsibility to speak out and stand my corner.

"Since then, it's been plain sailing really and I've really enjoyed the last couple of years. I'm delighted to get the opportunity to be captain again and I'm determined to make a success of the job."

McGrath previously undertook the role in 2003 – only to be called up that summer by England.

He was restricted to just a handful of Championship appearances as the team failed to win promotion from the Second Division.

"I only did the job for a short space of time and it was difficult because of the international clash," he said.

"I think it's important for a county captain to be there all the time and to play the majority of games; otherwise, it's very difficult for the vice-captain to make his mark on the team and for the team to have the right continuity, because you need a settled captain and a settled side.

"Of course, when you're picked for the first time internationally all your efforts are put into playing well for England and trying to make the right impression in that area.

"I was away for most of the season and only led Yorkshire every now and then.

"It's different now because I'll be around for the whole summer and, although I'd love to play for England again, I don't seem to be in line for any kind of international selection.

"I think I'm a better player now than when I played for England back in 2003, and I feel that over the last five years I've been as consistent as anyone apart from Mark Ramprakash in most forms of the game.

"It's definitely helped being vice-captain to Goughie for the last couple of years and also being involved in the management side of things.

"I'm older and wiser now since I was last in charge and I'm really looking forward to taking on the role."

McGrath's biggest challenge could be to juggle the demanding roles of captain, leading batsman and 2009 beneficiary, but he is confident he can cope with the extra burden.

"I sat down when I was appointed captain and planned it all out so that I did a lot of work on my benefit between October-December before concentrating solely on my cricket," he said.

"I've tried to arrange most of my benefit events out of season and, although there will obviously be some during the course of the summer, the one thing I didn't want to do was take my eye off the ball in terms of the cricket.

"My total focus will be on the cricket and trying to score as many runs as possible for Yorkshire.

"I've got lots of good people helping me with my benefit, so I'm very confident the extra workload won't be a problem."

As one of county cricket's most affable characters, McGrath has never been a sergeant major-style figure. He promises a relaxed and positive approach to the captaincy.

"I'm a laid-back kind of guy and someone who likes to encourage," he said. "To play for Yorkshire – or any county – you've got to have a certain amount of ability, so it's not my role to say to people what they can and can't do if they fancy playing a particular kind of shot, for example. You've got to give players their head and let them express themselves because, when the pressure moments come along in a game, players have got to be able to think for themselves and stand on their own two feet.

"If something needs to be said then I'll certainly have no problems saying it, but I want to encourage people as much as possible.

"To be honest, I don't think you can rule with an iron fist in this day and age anyway because people don't listen or respond to that kind of attitude.

"You can't have a robotic approach where you treat everyone the same because the art of good management and good captaincy is knowing how to treat different players in a different way and knowing what each individual player needs.

"Hopefully, I've got a good grasp of that and will be able to get the best out of everyone."

McGrath believes there is no reason Yorkshire cannot enjoy a successful 2009.

The team certainly have plenty to prove after only just avoiding County Championship relegation last summer.

"There's no reason we can't be challenging in the Championship; I really believe that," said McGrath.

"I honestly think anyone can win it and that anyone can go down; it's that kind of league.

"The County Championship isn't like the Super League or the Premier League where you can say who's definitely going to be in the top two or three; I think it's impossible to predict.

"It just depends on who puts together the most consistent performances and that's something we didn't do enough of last year.

"Some games last year that we should have won, we completely threw away, and if you add all those up, I honestly don't think we're that far away.

"It will depend a lot on injuries and things like that, and we need to have Adil Rashid for the full year because when the wickets are dry and turning there's no better spinner in the country.

"It's also important that our younger players continue to develop as they did last year because there's an excellent crop of youngsters coming through the ranks."

McGrath is targeting a significant improvement in his own form after managing only 728 first-class runs last season at 34.66.

In 2007 he amassed 931 first-class runs at 46.55; in 2006, 1,293 runs at 61.57; and, in 2005, 1,425 runs at 59.37.

"I was really disappointed with my four-day form last season," he admitted.

"Over the last five years I have been consistent but, for some reason, it didn't really click last summer.

"As captain it's important to lead from the front in terms of performance and it's something I've tried to address in pre-season. I managed to get some runs during the pre-season tour of Abu Dhabi and it's important I keep that going when the serious stuff starts."

Yorkshire have a strong squad on paper but are unsure how much they will see of international hopefuls Rashid, Michael Vaughan and Matthew Hoggard.

Further international opportunities appear likely to elude the talented McGrath, who surely deserved a recall at some stage or other during the past five years. But his No 1 priority now is captaining Yorkshire.

There is no greater testimony to the esteem in which he is held than the fact that, in spite of what happened in 2007, his popularity with the supporters has never waned.

They appreciated his frustration and shared his concerns – and they have recognised him always as Yorkshire through and through.

Anthony McGrath's 2009 benefit year

After a successful opening dinner in Bradford, the Anthony McGrath benefit year has been going from strength to strength.

Here are the remaining dates for your diary:

MAY 1 - Scarborough Sportsman's Dinner at Scarborough Rugby Union Club, The Show Ground, Scalby Road, Newby, Scarborough.

MAY 21 - Mags 2009 Golf Day at Crosland Heath Golf Club, Huddersfield.

JUNE 25 - Lunch With Sir Michael Parkinson at York Racecourse, York.

JULY 7 - Six-A-Side Corporate Cricket Tournament at Headingley Carnegie Stadium.

JULY 18 - Mags 2009 20/20 Match - Yorkshire CCC v Darren Lehmann All Star XI at Scarborough Cricket Ground, North Marine Road.

JULY 20 - Mags 2009 Golf Day at Northcliffe Golf Club, Scarborough.

AUGUST 5 - The Ashes Dinner - featuring Mark Nicholas, Freddie Flintoff, Adam Gilchrist and Darren Lehmann at Saviles, Armouries Square, Leeds.

AUGUST 17 - Mags 2009 Golf Day at Headingley Golf Club, Leeds.

AUGUST 23 - 20/20 Day at Brighouse CC - Yorkshire CCC v Brighouse CC - at Brighouse CC, Brighouse Sports Club, Russell Way, off Bradford Road, Brighouse.

AUGUST 25 - 20/20 Match at Hornsea CC - Yorkshire CCC v Hornsea CC - at Hornsea CC, Hollis Recreation Ground, Westwood Avenue, Hornsea.

SEPTEMBER 13 - 20/20 Match at East Bierley CC - Yorkshire CCC v East Bierley CC - at East Bierley CC, South View Road, East Bierley, Bradford.

SEPTEMBER 21 - Mags 2009 Golf Day at Strensall Golf Club, York.

NOVEMBER 18 - The Darren Gough Dinner 'A Question of Sport' and Dance Extravaganza - at Saviles, Armouries Square, Leeds.

DECEMBER 17 - Mags 2009 Christmas Lunch at Brio Italian restaurant, Great George Street, Leeds.

For further information on how to get involved in Anthony McGrath's benefit year, contact the benefit office on 01274 879509.