Vaughan grooms England for battle: Injured leader waiting for his moment

With the defence of the Ashes imminent, Mike Rowbottom hears the captain's prospects for recovery - and how Flintoff and Co can come up smelling of roses

The milieu in which Michael Vaughan made his latest press appearance on Monday night said everything about the wider impact of last summer's historic Ashes win.

Sitting informally in a dining room on the first floor of Soho's Groucho Club, England's captain - he still holds the title officially despite struggling for fitness after this summer's latest knee operation - found himself in a wholly unfamiliar context. Peter Blake prints crowded the walls, other than the space given over to a Damien Hirst spot painting. While the capital's media movers and shakers chattered over drinks downstairs, Vaughan was able to reflect upon the upgrade in status his sport has enjoyed in the wake of his team's beer-bleary visit to 10, Downing Street, and their victory parade through the West End.

Vaughan was sitting in front of a moody black-and-white photo shot featuring himself and four colleagues (Andrew Flintoff, Andrew Strauss, Matthew Hoggard and Kevin Pietersen) advertising the England cricket team's latest sponsorship tie-up, with Hugo Boss.

Fragrance and skincare may not be top of the agenda for the men currently competing in the Champions Trophy, but Vaughan, prompted by the evening's compère - the former county cricketer and television presenter Simon Hughes - did sketch out a picture of how some of his erstwhile colleagues regarded such modish topics.

Pietersen, the only player posing without diffidence in the publicity shot, is apparently keen. "KP's cricket bag is about this big," Vaughan said, measuring a span with his arms and then narrowing the gap infinitesimally as he added: "His grooming bag is about this big." By contrast, one was left to infer that Flintoff's preferred version would consist of a plastic washbag containing a crumbly bit of old soap and a few used razors. "He is what you would call a reluctant groomer," Vaughan confirmed with a grin.

This may have come as something of a letdown for the numerous self-styled "grooming journalists" present. Their faces grew blanker still as Vaughan skirted most of the dutiful invitations offered by Hughes to expatiate further upon the sponsor's products and concentrated on the more pressing questions of the forthcoming Ashes series in Australia, and the less-than-ideal start England have just made to the Champions Trophy, in which they lost to the hosts India, on Sunday.

As so often happens, the discussion of England's prospects became intrinsically connected with the topic of "Freddie" Flintoff.

Vaughan believes the selectors made the right decision in choosing Flintoff as his stand-in rather than the "stand-in" stand-in, Strauss. And he revealed that the mighty all-rounder had sought his advice about the role.

"Freddie rang me up and said would I come up for dinner," Vaughan recalled. "I said I'd do lunch because I know where dinner leads to when it's with him." Thus Vaughan kept a relatively clear head for their chat during Geraint Jones's wedding. "He just asked the normal questions," he said. "There's no rocket science. You can have the best plans in the world, but they can all go to pot as soon as a match begins. Freddie and some of the senior guys are going to have to work it out for themselves when the Ashes get started. It comes down to a question of instinct."

That said, he is making it very clear to Flintoff and Co that they need to hit the ground running in the opening Test in Brisbane on 23 November.

"The first day is going to be absolutely crucial," he said. "We have to be a little bit ahead of the Aussies from day one, because I don't think they will let us get back into this series from one-down like last summer. We have to make the best of our opportunities, and to get 400 or 450 runs if we bat first. The Australians always play a very aggressive game, and that's what makes the challenge so enjoyable. It's an adrenalin rush, but we've got to make sure we don't have a dozy five minutes.

"I think we have a good chance of retaining the Ashes, but we will have to take our chances early. At 1-0 up after Brisbane we would have a great chance. At 1-0 down it could be very, very difficult. Our best opportunities will be in the opening Tests at Brisbane and Adelaide. By the time we get to the last two at Melbourne and Sydney I think conditions will favour the home team."

Vaughan believes Flintoff will have to hold his own endlessly combative instincts in check. "Freddie is a world-beater, but I can't see him being able to bowl 35 overs on the trot after the problems he's had with his ankle. He's one of those characters that likes to do everything, but he can't do that this time. That's going to be his challenge - the cleverness with which he manages himself.

"I always think he bowls better in short, sharp bursts anyway. It's best to say to Freddie: 'Give us four overs of your best.' But that means he is going to have to have a lot of support from the other bowlers."

Following Sunday's defeat by India, England need to beat Australia on Saturday to have a realistic chance of progressing in the Champions Trophy. Vaughan thinks that the team can rise to the challenge. Success might build confidence for the coming Test series in the same way that victory over Australia in the 2004 Champions Trophy persuaded England that they could earn the Ashes the following year.

The abrupt departure from the Champions Trophy arena of Pakistan's fast bowlers Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif following positive tests for the banned steroid nandrolone is something which clearly dismayed Vaughan.

"It's the first time I can remember in my career that cricketers have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs," he said. "It is usually recreational drugs that come up. It is bad news for cricket."

The good news for Vaughan is that he is now no longer experiencing the "clicking" in his left knee, although he was at pains to emphasise that his rehabilitation had so far only encompassed gentle jogging, and that much work was needed over the next few months before he could announce himself as match-fit.

Having been out of Test cricket since last November in Pakistan, he is now targeting a return to action early in December for the England Academy in Perth. "I have to get through that stage of playing normal cricket and only then will I be able to ring David Graveney or Duncan Fletcher and tell them I'm available for selection again," he added.

"Since I've had the operation and I've been out, I've found it difficult to watch the game, but I've been watching the Champions Trophy because I know I'm nearing the time when I may be able to play cricket again."

So, the indefatigable Hughes interjected, might we yet see Vaughan play in the final Test at Sydney and helping England seal an Ashes victory? "You want to get out more," Vaughan responded with another wide grin. We shall see.

Top bat: What England will miss Down Under

In 2002-03, during the last Ashes contest in Australia, Michael Vaughan was named the Man of the Series after becoming the first visiting batsman for 32 years to top 600 runs.

FIRST TEST (Brisbane) M P Vaughan 33 & 0

SECOND TEST (Adelaide) M P Vaughan 177 & 41

THIRD TEST (Perth) M P Vaughan 34 & 9

FOURTH TEST (Melbourne) M P Vaughan 11 & 145

FIFTH TEST (Sydney) M P Vaughan 0 & 183

Matches: Five

Innings: 10

Not outs: 0

Runs: 633

Highest score: 183

Average: 63.30

Hundreds: Three

Catches: 0

Series: Australia 4 England 1

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