Michael Vaughan on the Ashes: ‘You end careers in Ashes cricket’

England’s former captain tells James Fisher about cricket’s present, future and Strictly.

As Jofra Archer turned to deliver the final ball of the World Cup, up in the Test Match Special (TMS) box, Michael Vaughan held his palms together in almost frantic prayer, looking upwards. It wasn’t only a World Cup on the line, but potentially English cricket’s future. In Michael’s words, this was the best One Day team England had ever put on the field and here, at Lord’s, on the radio and free-to-air TV, was their chance to be not only world champions, but to inspire a new generation.

Could this be England’s next 2005 Ashes moment? As Michael said: ‘Nobody remembers my 18 centuries or when I was the number-one batsman in the world – they remember me winning the 2005 Ashes.’

Jonathan Agnew and Michael Vaughan of Test Match Special talk before the fifth Specsavers Test Match between England and India at The Kia Oval on September 7, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Philip Brown/Getty Images)

A run-out and the rest is history. ‘This is exactly what cricket needed,’ Michael howled into the radio, above the roars of jubilation from the stands. ‘In five or six years’ time, there’ll be kids in the street who were inspired by Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler.’ England are the world champions and on August 1, they begin their campaign against their oldest rivals, Australia.

‘Ponting was the best player I ever played against. Whenever the Aussies needed something, whether in the Ashes, the World Cup, whenever, he’d deliver.’

A month before that fateful Sunday and we’re sitting at the bar at Alderley Edge Cricket Club in Cheshire. Michael is understandably calmer than he was at Lord’s, but the message is the same. ‘This is a great opportunity and the game can’t miss it. This is England’s opportunity and, if the team – if the game – doesn’t grab it, we’ll be talking for many years about how cricket in England lost a huge chance to sell itself to the public.’

He knows what he’s talking about. Who can forget that Ashes series in 2005, against the all-conquering Australian side of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting? ‘He [Ponting] was the best player I ever played against. Whenever the Aussies needed something, whether in the Ashes, the World Cup, whenever, he’d deliver.’

Photograph by Alex Bradbury for Country Life magazine

That Ashes series was a spark that brought the game out from the wilderness and made the England team household names.

Although, he admits, even winning the Ashes was nothing compared to the fame of Strictly Come Dancing. He says he was approached three times before deciding to do the show. ‘I remember looking at my wife and saying “you know what, I think I’m going to regret it if I never do something completely out of my comfort zone”. I loved it, but it made me realise how un-famous cricketers are – when you do that show, then you become really famous.’

‘it doesn’t matter what state the Aussies are in. They play a different brand of cricket. They’ll always come at you as hard as they can’

Turning back to cricket, I wonder again about the impact the game can have this summer. ‘I hope this can be as big as 2005,’ he says. ‘We achieved something then that I called the “cafe syndrome”. The cricket was the forefront of conversation as people were having their full Monty – not Line of Duty, not Love Island. We were the conversation. We owned the buses, the cafes and the pubs.’

He reiterates his point: ‘The most important thing about this summer is people who aren’t cricket fans hearing about, and watching, cricket. The everyday person has to get involved.

They called us heroes at the time. This England side needs to be the heroes now.’

Former captain Michael Vaughan hugs England captain Alastair Cook after winning the 4th Investec Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Trent Bridge on August 8, 2015 in Nottingham, United Kingdom. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

The World Cup is secure, but with the Ashes around the corner, the job is only half done. ‘I fancy England to win,’ he says when I ask for a prediction, ‘but this Australian team is a lot closer to winning over here than we are to winning over there.’ He warns: ‘Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood: they’ve got good players.’

And, lest we forget, David Warner and Steve Smith, playing their first Test series since returning from their ball-tampering ban: ‘Australia have the bit between their teeth and they’re going to take some beating. They easily have good enough players to win here.’

I ask him what playing in an Ashes series is like, what makes it special. ‘You end careers in Ashes cricket,’ comes the dry reply. ‘There’s more profile, there’s more finger pointing and the journalists from both sides will come after you.’ It’s irrelevant that England are favourites, he says, as ‘it doesn’t matter what state the Aussies are in. They play a different brand of cricket. They’ll always come at you as hard as they can and get in your faces’. But, he says with a wry smile, ‘they were my favourite series’.

‘I just love seeing players play the game.’

Is he worried that the Test format is dying? Attendances are falling and, in this age of decreased attention spans and social media, a five-day game has a lot of work to do to keep the viewers interested. ‘If you like cricket, even T20 cricket, you’ll find you like Test cricket, too. The game just needs to be simplified and made more relevant. There needs to be more consequence on every game, every series. It’s too complicated.’

The Test championship, a world cup of sorts for the format, has started. A direct competition, rather than ‘meaningless bi-lateral series’, will make it more digestible for new fans, he hopes.

Speaking of involvement, retirement hasn’t kept Michael away from the game. At the microphone on TMS is where you’re most likely to find him now. It’s surely the dream job for any cricket fan and Michael admits that he barely sees it as work: ‘I just watch the game as if I were sat here at Alderley Edge on a Saturday afternoon. I’m so lucky, watching the game I love for a career.’

Photograph by Alex Bradbury for Country Life magazine.

Known for his withering commentary on air, Michael’s a lot more affable in the flesh. He laughs a lot and has a habit of answering my questions before I’ve finished asking them. There’s no doubt cricket is his passion and the criticism that he can be too harsh seems inaccurate. In his own words, he just ‘says what he sees’. He’s not a journalist, he’s a fan, and the only difference between him and the rest of the punters listening is that he has the microphone and 82 Test caps.

First a fan, then a player and now a broadcaster. ‘I just like watching cricket. I’ll come down here on a random Saturday and watch it, even if my lad’s not playing,’ he laughs again. ‘I just love seeing players play the game.’

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