Michael Vaughan's swaggering cameo in the first Ashes Test of 2002-03 confirmed his view that Australia, in particular, Glenn McGrath, not only could be attacked but had to be attacked. © AFP

Michael Vaughan's swaggering cameo in the first Ashes Test of 2002-03 confirmed his view that Australia, in particular, Glenn McGrath, not only could be attacked but had to be attacked. © AFP

The greatest trick Michael Vaughan ever pulled was convincing England they could beat Australia. As brilliant as England’s 2005 side were, they had no real place beating one of the greatest sides of all time. Yet by convincing them they could win the Ashes, Vaughan kickstarted a series of events that enabled them to do just that. You can see why Steve Harmison called Vaughan “the best liar I’ve ever played with”.

The most important part of England’s win was not Andrew Flintoff’s cartoon superheroism, or Glenn McGrath treading on a cricket ball, or even Gary Pratt. It was one man’s relentless conviction that it was possible to challenge two intimidating opponents: Australia, and the entrenched caution of English cricket. Vaughan did not quite change the DNA of English cricket but, for a few beautiful years, he empowered the most exhilarating England side many of us will ever see. It is why he is the most important English cricketer since Sir Ian Botham.

England’s symbolic victories in the Champions Trophy semi-final of 2004 and the one-off T20 international at the start of the 2005 summer were very important, but the most significant backstory to the 2005 Ashes is the evolution of Vaughan from underachieving, defensively-minded county batsman to the world’s best attacking batsman, which in turn enabled him to become, as England captain, a kind of arrogant visionary who waged war on the received wisdom surrounding Australia.

A key moment in that development was Vaughan’s breezy 33 at Brisbane in 2002, the magical little acorn from which England’s 2005 Ashes win grew. Vaughan’s swaggering cameo in his first Ashes innings confirmed the view he had formed in the previous six months – that Australia, and particularly Glenn McGrath, not only could be attacked but had to be attacked. That attitude informed everything he did for the remainder of his Ashes mirabilis in 2002–03 and, even more importantly, what he did once he became Test captain the following summer.

England had a number of unlikely heroes who helped them win the Ashes in 2005, from Pratt to Ricky Ponting. We should probably add Darren Lehmann and Sachin Tendulkar to the list; maybe even give them MBEs. Lehmann started playing for Yorkshire in 1997 and began to broaden Vaughan’s mind. When Vaughan came into the Yorkshire dressing-room in the early 1990s, he says he found a culture in which you were slaughtered for “batting like a millionaire” if you got out playing an attacking shot. He thus grew up as a classical, defensive batsman who batted time. It was all he knew.

Lehmann was only four years older than Vaughan, yet in many ways he was his mentor: worldly, streetwise, ceaselessly positive and with the sharpest cricket brain. “Darren Lehmann really taught me how to play the game properly,” said Vaughan. “He gave me so much advice and made me into the player that I ended up being – and made me into a thoughtful, aggressive captain.”

When Vaughan returned from a promising first tour as an England player – to South Africa in 1999–2000 – Lehmann suggested he was hiding his light under a bushel. He encouraged Vaughan to play more shots and especially to always be on the look-out for quick singles – not to bat time, but to bat runs. “I loved Boof,” wrote Vaughan in Time to Declare. “He was everything an overseas player ought to be and a huge influence on me.”

That influence continued when Vaughan became England captain. He had two men “outside the England bubble”, as he put it, to whom he turned for advice on a regular basis: Lehmann and an unnamed businessman who “never played top-level cricket but always challenged me and came from a different angle”. Vaughan was always keen to pick as many brains as possible; crucially, he was extremely decisive at sifting through observations and advice from others.

He almost always listened to Lehmann’s counsel, never more importantly than when Lehmann told him to bring a one-day mindset to his batting in four- and five-day cricket. It was such a fundamental change in Vaughan’s batting philosophy that it took him a couple of years to fully retrain his brain. But his strike rate in his first four years of Test cricket, from 1999–2002, told a clear story: 27 runs per 100 balls in 1999, then 41, 42 and 64.

A series of annoying injuries – calf, finger, hand and knee – as well as Duncan Fletcher’s desire to give Graeme Hick a chance and the need to play five bowlers in India meant that Vaughan, despite a promising start to his England career, played only three out of 14 Tests between November 2000 and December 2001. At the age of 27, he could not afford much more lost time. Graham Thorpe’s personal problems allowed him back in the side in India, and then Vaughan was pushed up to open for the first time in the 1–1 draw against New Zealand in 2001–02. It did not start well; on some dicey pitches he made 131 runs in six innings. But he demonstrated his new approach. In the first Test, England were 2 for 2 when Vaughan hooked his second ball of the series for six. The death of Ben Hollioake during the second Test was “a decisive moment in my life” and made him even more determined to remember that cricket was sport and should be enjoyed.

At the start of the 2002 English summer Vaughan averaged 31.15 from 16 Tests. Before the first Test against Sri Lanka he sensed something wasn’t right against left-arm seam – of which he would be facing plenty that summer – and asked Duncan Fletcher to have a look in the nets. After four balls, Fletcher spotted that Vaughan was too open, with his shoulders and body facing towards midwicket rather than between mid-on and the bowler. “The subtle change paid instant dividends… defence and attack all clicked.” He made a century in the first Test of the summer against Sri Lanka, and then three more against India. In New Zealand his problem was getting out in the 20s and 30s; against India it was getting out in the 190s. It was life-changing stuff. Vaughan ran with the mood of that summer and kept on running until England had won the Ashes three years later.

As the summer developed, with the following winter’s Ashes in mind, Vaughan became sufficiently emboldened that he decided to attack Australia. “I was not intending to be totally gung-ho, slash and bash, but to be nothing other than positive.” It was his eureka moment.

When Vaughan returned from a promising first tour as an England player – to South Africa in 1999–2000 – Lehmann suggested he was hiding his light under a bushel. He encouraged Vaughan to play more shots and especially to always be on the look-out for quick singles – not to bat time, but to bat runs. “I loved Boof,” wrote Vaughan in Time to Declare. “He was everything an overseas player ought to be and a huge influence on me.”

If you mention Vaughan, Tendulkar and 2002 then people will think of the wonder ball with which Vaughan bowled Tendulkar at Trent Bridge. Far more important, in the long term, was the postscript to that delivery. At the end of the series, Vaughan asked Tendulkar to sign the ball and stump from that wicket. Tendulkar asked him to sit down and chat cricket, which they did for half an hour. The conversation inevitably moved on to Australia. Tendulkar told Vaughan of the Adelaide Test of 1999–2000, in which he and Dravid allowed McGrath to bowl a spell of 8-7-1-0. After that, Tendulkar decided he would never again show McGrath and Australia too much respect. “That confirmed to me what I had already been thinking about the winter to come: that I would not be holding back in taking them on,” said Vaughan. “It turned out to be one of my better resolutions in life.”

Every time Vaughan said he was going to attack McGrath, teammates looked at him as if he had said he was going to break into the Bank of England. He has having a coffee in Chelsea with his captain Nasser Hussain, who asked him what he planned to do against McGrath. “I won’t die wondering,” said Vaughan. “Oh, right,” said Hussain.

Vaughan remembers other players saying: “No chance; he just won’t give you anything to hit.” It irritated him to the point where bloody-mindedness started to kick in. “There was too much of the wrong mentality about,” he said. “The defeatism was plain to me.”

Even allowing for Vaughan’s great form in 2002, it was quite a conceit. He had never played an Ashes Test but he was going to take on McGrath, the king of individual contests, and Australia in their own manor, and in their own manner. Who the hell did he think he was?

Vaughan even went so far as to say in the press that he hoped McGrath would target him. Before he started predicting that every Ashes series would end 5–0, McGrath made a point of publicly announcing his target in the opposition team. It was pretty much a death sentence. McGrath called it “mind over batter”. He would identify his targets in an unnerving, matter-of-fact manner, with a couple of pertinent, indisputable facts and just a smidgen of smartarsery to get under his opponent’s skin. It was textbook mental disintegration.

In this case McGrath played on Vaughan’s abysmal record against Australia. He got a golden duck in his only innings against Australia, when he was bowled by Jason Gillespie in an ODI in 2001; he was also dismissed by the only delivery he had ever faced from McGrath, this time in a county match. “He’s obviously their form player if you look at the last season,” McGrath said. “I have had quite a lot of success in the past against guys I want to target. He hasn’t really got the form on the board against Australia, so we’ll see how he goes.”

Vaughan admitted that the reactions of other players to his intention of attacking Glenn McGrath irritated him to the point where bloody-mindedness started to kick in as the defeatism was plain to him. © Getty Images

Vaughan admitted that the reactions of other players to his intention of attacking Glenn McGrath irritated him to the point where bloody-mindedness started to kick in as the defeatism was plain to him. © Getty Images

Vaughan took it as a compliment. “I just thought, ‘this is a bit of all right, not bad at all. I’ve been picked out by the best in the world’… McGrath called me a grinder who could bat for long periods but who could be suspect to the short ball. It was my intention to alter this thinking.”

If you go at the king, you best not miss. “This will sound arrogant but I really quite fancied facing McGrath,” said Vaughan. “If the ball was seaming he was a bit of a nightmare, but if it was swinging I found him quite juicy.” Arrogance, like bacteria, is instinctively perceived as a bad thing but also comes in a good form. Throughout Vaughan’s career, that arrogance – and even entitlement – facilitated so much of what he and England achieved.

Before the 2002–03 tour, Vaughan didn’t so much cope with fear of failure as ignore it. He changed his mind about watching videos of the Australian bowlers as preparation because he was worried if he did that he would start playing the bowler, not the ball. His tour did not start well, however. He missed the first three matches because his knee took longer to heal than expected, though he struck 127 against Queensland in his only innings before the first Test at Brisbane. On the first day of the series he had a nightmare in the field; he let the second ball of the day through his legs, the usual depressing tone-setter, and later dropped a dolly at extra cover.

England eventually came to bat on the second afternoon after Australia posted 492. There was a hush of anticipation. “We were very interested in seeing Vaughan,” said Adam Gilchrist in Walking to Victory. “We’d heard a lot about him. He was the big name that Glenn McGrath had decided to target this summer.”

There were umpteen reasons for Vaughan to ease his way carefully into the series. He’d had a terrible time in the field. His knee was sore. There were only nine overs to tea. His fledgling record against both McGrath and Australia was awful. He averaged 27.94 in overseas Tests. Vaughan didn’t get a toss about any of it. That was then and this was now.

In many respects Vaughan was winging it. He was 28, but had only been opening for England for seven months. Yet he had the unshakeable conviction of a man who had recently had an epiphany. His state of mind was perfect. So was his state of gut; Vaughan has always been an advocate of gut instinct, and his kept telling him that, on an individual level, he could conquer Australia. His mind was fresh and uncluttered: “Keep things simple – eye on the ball, hit and look to run.”

Vaughan knew that first impressions are important in sport, which has a habit of perpetuating itself. One look at Shane Warne would have reminded him of that. Steve Waugh greeted him with six men in the cordon as well as the wicket-keeper Gilchrist. Vaughan saw the consequent gaps in front of the wicket, not the men behind him. He faced only a single ball in McGrath’s first two overs, which he pushed through mid-on for a single. During that time McGrath got into his usual groove and had Marcus Trescothick dropped in the slips. Vaughan then faced every ball of McGrath’s third over – and hammered it for 12. The second ball, fractionally short of a length, was pulled impatiently through midwicket for four. As Vaughan ran past, McGrath used the side of his mouth to scold him for his impertinence. The fifth ball was driven gorgeously through the covers for four.

He took nine more from McGrath’s next over, including a savage back cut for four, an extravagant, mis-hit pull into the open spaces for two and a back-foot drive for three. This time McGrath said nothing, just licked his lips. Even Vaughan’s leaves were aggressive, a last-minute decision to abort an attacking shot. It was the sporting equivalent of the head-turning arrival; he had the instant respect of the Australian commentators on Channel 9, who were fascinated to see somebody attack McGrath, and also the Australians on the field. “I sensed immediately that we were up against quality,” said Gilchrist. “There was something about Vaughan’s balance and composure.”

More than anything else, England won the Ashes because Michael Vaughan kept asking why. Why couldn’t Glenn McGrath be attacked? Why could Australia not mentally disintegrate like all other humans? Why couldn’t England win the Ashes with an inexperienced team? Whenever he was questioned, or had slight doubts himself, he kept returning to one simple point: that the alternative hadn’t worked for 16 years.

McGrath was taken out of the attack after that, with figures of 4-1-23-0. Vaughan said he got carried away with his attacking mood and was even more aggressive than he intended. He was playing the bowler not the ball – but in a good way. He slammed another exhilarating boundary off Andy Bichel, clouting a short ball over cover. McGrath returned to the attack after tea and got his man with a fine delivery that jagged back off the seam to take the inside edge as Vaughan shaped to pull. Vaughan had made 33 from 36 balls, within which he scored 25 off just 19 from McGrath – an unimaginable strike rate of 132. “A lot of people called it a ballsy effort to get after them,” said Vaughan. “I just called it positive.”

That, more than his eventual dismissal, was what Vaughan took from the innings – especially when Warne congratulated him after play for being the first Englishman he had seen go after McGrath. Such positive reinforcement was vital, and kept coming throughout the series. We didn’t realise at the time, but it was all crescendoing towards Vaughan creating a culture that would allow England to win the Ashes.

Vaughan got a golden duck in the second innings, with McGrath dismissing him again, but it was a poor LBW decision and he was able to rationalise it as irrelevant. “I am sure he thought he had a psychological edge on me, but he was mistaken,” said Vaughan in A Year In The Sun. “I looked at the positives. I had played well in the first innings and been unfortunate in the second.” Two weeks later Vaughan hammered 177 on the first day of the second Test at Adelaide; this time he attacked McGrath judiciously, with 50 from 87 balls. He should have been given out on 19, but the third umpire gave him the benefit of what doubt there was when Justin Langer claimed a low catch at cover. Had he failed then, maybe he would have started to have doubts or rethink his approach. Steve Davis, the third umpire, is another man who unwittingly helped England win the Ashes in 2005.

“That innings had a real impact on me,” said Gilchrist of Vaughan’s 177. “I remember thinking: ‘This is a class act.’” At the close of play, Gillespie came into the England dressing-room specifically to congratulate Vaughan. Yet more positive reinforcement. He had confirmed the promising impression of the first Test and achieved one of the most worthwhile things in cricket: the respect of the Australians. He had steel and skill or, in the parlance of our time, ticker and tekkers. This was not just another Pom to the slaughter.

When Vaughan became the captain, he transmitted the same attitude of standing up to the Australians, without which England would have had zero percent of winning the Ashes in 2005. © AFP

When Vaughan became the captain, he transmitted the same attitude of standing up to the Australians, without which England would have had zero percent of winning the Ashes in 2005. © AFP

Steve Waugh later said Vaughan was “the only guy I’ve ever seen succeed after Glenn McGrath made his annual declaration of intent upon the opposition’s key batsman”. Vaughan went on to make three huge centuries in the series, and ended it as the world’s No.1 batsman in the ICC rankings. Seven months earlier he had been 44th, behind, among others, Habibul Bashar and Mathew Sinclair. “He batted like the best player who had ever lived,” said his opening partner Trescothick. “I remember thinking they could not bowl at him, and the ‘they’ were bloody Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.” He ended with 633 runs in five Tests; the manner of the first 33, in that first innings at Brisbane, made the other 600 possible.

“I can’t remember an opener playing McGrath, Lee and Gillespie the way Vaughan did that summer,” said Lehmann. “At times he was treating them with contempt… dare I say it, he was batting like an Aussie.” Vaughan’s geographical identity is different to most: he is a Lancashire-born Yorkshireman and an Englishman with the attitude of an Aussie. There was an infectious swagger about Vaughan which, along with the sheer beauty of his batting and the runs he scored in industrial quantities, gave England fans considerable pride despite the side suffering another 4-1 Ashes defeat. We had no idea that his performance would also inform the ultimate high in the next series.

“There was a huge amount on that trip that got stored away at the back of my mind for the purposes of tackling Australia in the future,” he said. “The basic lesson was that, if you were going to stand up to the Australians, you could not have anyone in the team who had this fear about them.”

When he later became captain, Vaughan transmitted that attitude to his team; without it, they would have had approximately 0.00 per cent chance of winning in 2005. “It’s amazing how once one player excels, his teammates find the leap from good to excellent to be not so difficult,” said Steve Waugh. “It suddenly becomes real rather than a dream.” It also made Vaughan one of the world’s leading authorities on how to play against Australia, which made the players listen to his every word.

More than anything else, England won the Ashes because Michael Vaughan kept asking why. Why couldn’t Glenn McGrath be attacked? Why could Australia not mentally disintegrate like all other humans? Why couldn’t England win the Ashes with an inexperienced team? Whenever he was questioned, or had slight doubts himself, he kept returning to one simple point: that the alternative hadn’t worked for 16 years.

Vaughan’s overall record against McGrath was not actually that good. Whose record was? In the 2002–03 series he scored 142 runs and was dismissed four times, a head-to-head average of 35.50; overall, including the 2005 Ashes, he made 205 and was dismissed six times. But in that first innings, he showed – to Australia, to himself and to all of England – that McGrath could be taken on. He had made his symbolic statement. There was a similar example during the 1997 Ashes: after his career-saving century at Edgbaston, Mark Taylor made four runs in the next four innings. But hardly anybody noticed, and those who did notice did not care. Taylor’s form was no longer an issue. So much of sport is about bluff, perception and symbolism, and Vaughan understood that better than most.

When he later became captain, Vaughan transmitted that attitude to his team; without it, they would have had approximately 0.00 per cent chance of winning in 2005. “It’s amazing how once one player excels, his teammates find the leap from good to excellent to be not so difficult,” said Steve Waugh. “It suddenly becomes real rather than a dream.” It also made Vaughan one of the world’s leading authorities on how to play against Australia, which made the players listen to his every word.

Vaughan’s approach in that 33 was a longer-term version of a tactic Steve Waugh employed in so many individual innings: take calculated risks to get to 20 or 30 as soon as possible so that you reverse the momentum and spread the field, and then you can settle in for the long haul. After taking on McGrath, he could then focus on easier targets (these things are relative) like Stuart MacGill and, in 2005, a flagging Gillespie.

Life is a complex, sprawling flow chart, in which apparently minor incidents usher us in a completely different direction, and it is fascinating – and a little terrifying – to reflect on all the little things that made Vaughan into the world’s best batsman, without which he probably would not have become an Ashes-winning captain: Lehmann joining Yorkshire, Thorpe’s personal problems, Hollioake’s death, Fletcher spotting that technical flaw, the ball to Tendulkar – and those injuries in 2001, which were so frustrating at the time but, with hindsight, were surely a blessing. Although Vaughan had started to modify his game, he was probably not quite ready to go after McGrath and the Australians that summer; a difficult series might have left him with mental scars like the other England players.

Even the timing of Vaughan’s ascent was perfect. Hussain, a man who was at his most comfortable with the feel of the wall against his back, was perfectly suited to dragging England out of the doldrums. Vaughan probably could not have done that, but between them, over a six-year period, they turned the worst team into a team who could outplay the best team in the world.

As Vaughan’s team developed in 2003 and 2004, everything he did was geared towards beating Australia. He became obsessed with mental scarring, and that Australia could only be beaten with aggression and fresh minds. It was reinforced when Lehmann, unprompted, made the same observation. When the 2005 Ashes started, England had five players making their debuts against Australia. Overall the team had made 25 Ashes appearances between them, fewer than Shane Warne on his own. In total Australia had 129.

“I wasn’t 100 per cent sure we were ready for them, wondering if perhaps they were coming a year too soon.” Not that he told anyone. He was far too good a liar for that.


This article appeared in the tenth issue of The Nightwatchman. You can buy all copies here.