Vaughan backs Anderson to lead from the front
Michael Vaughan believes England's superior bowling attack will give them the edge in a hard-fought series, but has warned that Australia dare not be under-estimated as they prepare to take on England in the first Ashes Test of the post-Warne and McGrath era.
Speaking to Cricinfo on the eve of the Cardiff Test, Vaughan singled out James Anderson as the bowler whom England need to regard as the leader of England's Ashes attack, but added that Andrew Flintoff's role as a shock weapon would be critical in countering the naturally aggressive tendencies of Australia's main men.
"I think we do have to win this summer, and I think we've got a great chance," said Vaughan. "I look at our bowling unit and I see 20 wickets, I look at our batting and I see 400 runs, and in English conditions, that combination wins you Test matches. Australia's batting can also get 400-plus runs, but I haven't seen enough of their bowling to suggest that in this country they can get 20 wickets."
Anderson made his Test debut in the same 2003 summer in which Vaughan became England captain, but his role in the team has often been peripheral. He did not feature at all in the 2005 Ashes and was a marginal presence in Australia 18 months later, but over the past year his star has been in the ascendancy. At the age of 26, and with 128 wickets in 37 Tests, he could be set to peak at precisely the right time.
"Your time does arrive, and it's down to you to deliver," said Vaughan. "And I think Jimmy's time has arrived. He's turned out to be a wonderful bowler, very skilled, and he knows what he's doing with his wrist, and can do it late and change it at the last minute. He's got pace, bounce, and he's a great fielder as well, so this could be his summer, the one in which he goes from being an England player to a world-class player. He's not great yet, but he's on his way to being one of the greats."
Anderson's big problem in the past has been his lack of aura in the middle - Duncan Fletcher often remarked how difficult it was to communicate with one of the quietest members of the dressing-room - but Vaughan believes that beneath his often diffident character lurks a steely competitor and a thoughtful cricketing brain.
"Jimmy's got to prove he is the leader of the attack, and for me, he already is," said Vaughan. "I enjoyed captaining him, I used to stand at mid-off and have great conversations with him. He's not as extrovert as some, but he thinks about the game, and over the years we've been crying out for a bowler with a smart cricket brain. Goughy had it, but so many have played and haven't had it.
"Jimmy's an athlete, he's got everything. He bowls fast, he dives in the field, and his batting is getting better and better as well - he knows he's going to get peppered but he's got guts. He should be making decisions on behalf of the whole bowling unit, going up to them at mid-off and talking to them, and giving advice. Fred may be the go-to man, but Jimmy is your main man who will bowl the most overs. He needs to lead, so that Fred can just go out and play."
Flintoff's role, in Vaughan's opinion, will be crucial. "Strauss will need to use him at key moments, and as soon as certain batsmen come in," he said. "It's not for me to say which ones, but they'll know exactly the batsmen they want Freddie to bowl at. That's how you have to use the man, it's not ruthless, it's just planning properly. If a bowler gets a wicket there's no reason you can't take him off and bring Freddie straight on, because that's exactly what you have to do against good teams.
"You have to make it as uncomfortable as you possibly can," he said. "Australian batsmen for the first 20 minutes, like any batters, are very vulnerable, but more so because they have a very aggressive nature. They come at you hard to get themselves going and it creates opportunities. You have to nail them when they first come in, especially Ricky Ponting, because if he gets in he can hurt you and win the game on his own."
Ponting's role as a batsman has never been questioned, but as a captain, he has often come under scrutiny, never more so than when Vaughan got the better of him in 2005. But the criticism is unfair, according to his old rival, who believes he is coming into his own as a leader now that he has lost the services of the greats upon whom he had previously relied.
"I feel for Ricky because he seems to be getting a bit of pressure," said Vaughan. "He's had five years in the job, very similar to what I had, so people feel the need to give him some criticism. You're always going to get that tag of "oh, he had great bowlers, he's not a great captain" but he went to South Africa and won with an inexperienced team. Besides, if you've been managing great bowlers, you're doing well, because they usually come with big egos as well.
"What he's just started to understand is the role of this team is completely different to the role of the last team. I watched a lot of them in South Africa, and the old Australian umbrella fields of five slips and an intimidatory feel was gone. They can't do that any more because they don't have the armoury. They know they might have to bowl a lot more overs now, so they set a bit more of a negative field - men on the drive, men out, and so on. If you like, they've come back to the real world.
"In 1989 Allan Border brought the young side here, the worst team to arrive on these shores, and they won 4-0," said Vaughan. "There are two things England have got to be careful about. One, we've not won that many games, but we're suddenly putting them in a position of saying we should win - and I think we could win this series. Meanwhile, we're kind of writing Australia off, but they have just won in South Africa, and would we win in South Africa? That is the big question. We might do, but they've just done that.
"In an Ashes series, form goes out the window, it's like cup finals, anything can happen. We've got a lot of potential matchwinners, and I like the way they are playing their cricket, and their mentality, but they do have to start well. If they don't start well, there's not a lot of experience to draw back on in terms of playing together. The same goes for Australia. If we can win the first Test, they'll look back and feel that psychological effect. Whoever gets their noses in front, I think will win this series."
There is one added reason why England should be considered favourites, in Vaughan's opinion, and it concerns the series that the public and media seems to have erased from the memory. Barely a word has been spoken of England's 5-0 defeat in Australia three winters ago, but with seven survivors from that tour in the current squad, Vaughan is sure there will be vengeance in the air.
"The motivation of our lads who were involved in the whitewash is huge," said Vaughan. "I joined the team a week after [the fifth Test in] Sydney for the one-dayers, and that dressing-room was low. It was in a real bad state, Australia played brilliant cricket and bullied us. Everything they tried but weren't allowed to do in 2005, they did to us in 2006-07. Now, however, they don't have those players, but what we do we have a motivation to put that right."
England also have the right captain to lead the revival. Vaughan stopped short of suggesting that Andrew Strauss should have led England in Australia that winter, suggesting that no captain could have stemmed the tide in that series, but now that he's in charge, the signs for the side are positive.
"Everything happens for a reason, and Andrew Strauss has got the England captaincy at the right time for him and for the team," he said. "If he'd got it then it might not have been the right time. He's since worked his game out, he's mature, and he's got all the knowledge. He's picked on all the things that have happened, taken the good points and tried to put away the bad points. He looks like he'll be a good captain.
"He's played well against West Indies a few times, and he did well against Pakistan with the captaincy [in 2006], but this will be the ultimate test, because there is more pressure and a very different exposure. There are more big decisions to make, and times when you'll go to your room at night thinking 'I got that wrong'. It can affect you as a captain, but he's a solid individual and he's got a good working relationship with Andy Flower, and that's key.
"There's no point in kidding Straussy, it's a different pressure," said Vaughan. "Every little move you make is analysed, because it means so much, and he will go to bed a little more nervous than for other series, and that's why the Ashes is so special. But he's just got to be one step ahead of the game, especially against Australia. This side doesn't have that intimidatory factor of old, but they are still a very good side. It's important he doesn't give them any easy periods."
Michael Vaughan was speaking at the launch of Virgin Media's 'fifty50' charity initiative. The company has pledged to donate £1,000 to charity for every England batsman who scores a half-century during the Ashes to celebrate the national roll-out of the broadband provider's ultrafast 50Mb broadband service.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo