Retired England pacer Steve Harmison talks to IndiaBetting

Steve Harmison, who represented England in 63 Tests, taking 263 wickets and was a key figure of the famous side that won the 2005 Ashes, talked to IndiaBetting about the upcoming Ashes and how the series will play out.

Steve Harmison: My XI’s for the first Test in Brisbane

My England team that I think would be best suited to go and play against Australia for the first test at this moment in time is:

Burns, Crawley, Stokes, Root, Pope, Bairstow, Buttler, Woakes, Robinson, Anderson, Broad

“This is because it is going to be a green, seaming wicket. Mark Wood had a little injury scare, so I’d use him on the two surfaces that I think is going to be the flattest because you need something different. If the Gabba is going to be flat, with plenty of pace and a good batting wicket, Brisbane has been warm and sunny, then Mark Wood plays at the expense of Broad or Anderson, probably Broad. If there is going to be a green wicket and the ball is going to do a bit, I’d go with the four bowlers that are suited to English conditions and I’d leave Wood until definitely Melbourne and Sydney.

“I’d play Ben Stokes as a batsman at three. He’s got the temperament as long as he isn’t bowling and he’s barely bowled. If you put Stokes at three, I can get Bairstow as a specialist batsman and Ollie Pope in my side. I have nothing against Dawid Malan at all, he’ll average between 30-35, and I think Pope will do better. I think Ollie Pope is a better batsman. The minute you introduce his bowling, you can’t have Stokes at three, it’s too big of an ask, but I would just use him as a batsman initially.”

My Australia team for the first test would be:

Warner, Harris, Labuschagne, Smith, Khawaja, Green, Carey, Cummins, Starc, Lyon, Hazelwood

“There’s only one place in the Australian team up for grabs, I think they’ll pick Carey as the keeper, but I would go with Josh Inglis, I think he’s a talented boy and has something about him. If Khawaja had scored a few more runs, there might have been an outside chance of him captaining Australia, but they have to choose between him and Travis Head. But we know Khawaja performs on Australian wickets. Cameron Green will bat at six, if he can add his bowling consistently then Australia will have a very good all-rounder.

“Starc I’d worry about a little bit, I don’t think he’s had a high volume of bowling and he might be a little under-cooked. But on flat pitches, that bowling unit is better than Englands. However, if there’s two day-night matches and the potential of some moisture, then England’s bowling unit comes back into the game. Australia’s big dilemma is having to choose between Usman Khawaja and Travis Head and who has the gloves.”

Cricket ball

Harmy: The two things do each side need to win the series – luck in the toss and top order runs

“Firstly, the toss is going to be crucial. In Brisbane if there is any movement in the surface and the air, you need to win that toss. And in Adelaide it’s a day-night game – you dictate when you’re bowling with the pink ball moving at its most – it’s massive. You then have got the best chance of dictating what happens in the game. To win any series, you need a bit of luck, the toss, DRS, decisions like umpire’s call. All these things need to go in England’s favour because it’s so hard to win in Australia. 

“For both sides, the single biggest thing is top order runs. Big runs from your 1-2-3, that’s the main one. Both bowling units will take 20 wickets on any surface. England in the past have won in 1986, when Chris Broad got a boatload of runs and in 2010/11, when Cook, Stauss and Trott got a load of runs opening the batting. It’s no coincidence that Australia dominated world cricket with Hayden, Langer and Ponting all playing over 100 Test matches each and they were formidable at 1-2-3 – that for me is where this series is going to be run, top-order runs.”

Harmy: England need to score big top order runs to make Pat Cummins think outside the box, which will drain him mentally

“For me, Cummins is the best bowler in the world. If it starts overwhelming and overloading on him and he gets a niggle or loss of form, it could spell trouble for Australia particularly given his former injury problems. He can’t afford to miss every third or fourth test if there is a problem. But he’s respected in the game and inside the dressing room and that means he will be a good leader of men. Captaincy is simple, you are only as good as your team and often only as good as your bowling attack of which the skipper is one of them. Both bowling units will take 20 wickets, it’s whoever can bat for longest and score the most runs.

“So if England’s top order can pile on the runs, it’ll put pressure on Cummins to perhaps bowl when he doesn’t want to or more than he should. If a bowler is not hitting their stride and England start putting on a partnership, where is the next wicket coming from? He may need to think outside the box and deviate from his game plan if we start to get on top of them in the runs. It will put pressure on Pat Cummins the bowler and Pat Cummins the captain because then he has to start thinking a lot more and it’s mentally draining. When you are mentally tired and physically tired, you start making mistakes, as a bowler and a captain. That is going to be Cummins’ challenge over the next few weeks in an Ashes series if England start getting runs in the top of the order.

“He needs somebody alongside him to tell him that he cannot do it all by himself. If he gets caught up in the emotion of Ashes cricket, he could bowl far too many overs which in turn puts him and his team in jeopardy and ultimately better for England. England may be thinking that Cummins as captain helps them, because there’ll be extra strain on him even more than a fast bowler would have anyway. Can he play five tests? If he breaks down, there might be multiple captains in an Ashes series and that could play into England’s hands.

“If it wasn’t for the scandal of Tim Paine, the natural choice would have been Steve Smith. If Paine sat there in that press conference with an injury, I am sure they would have gone back to Smith. But because of the sandpaper affair followed by Paine’s scandal, they had to go with somebody new.” 

Harmy: England will be licking their lips at any sign of greenness. The weather definitely plays into our hands

“England will be licking their lips at any sign of greenness if the bad weather persists. It’s not too dissimilar to England at this moment in time, and that plays into our hands. If there is cloud cover in Brisbane or lateral movement in the surface, England have the two greatest bowlers of all time to exploit those conditions in Anderson and Broad, along with Chris Woakes. It’s easy to write Broad and Anderson off as a bowling duo overseas these days, but with a pink ball test and potentially dodgy weather, England will be thanking their lucky stars to have them in their squad for this series. If the first two pitches play more like English wickets and Joe Root wins the first couple of tosses, I truly believe we can make some early inroads and get on top quickly in the series.”

Harmy: Regardless of the scandal, Australia didn’t need Tim Paine’s leadership anymore… Joe Root may have a chuckle, but the issue won’t be on England’s mind

“Joe Root might have had a little chuckle after what Tim Paine said about him before the scandal emerged. But truthfully, I don’t think the England squad will care too much or think too hard about the whole Tim Paine saga. His absence probably makes Australia’s batting stronger and perhaps their fielding weaker as Paine is a fantastic gloveman. Alex Carey is a ready-made replacement who has been knocking on the door for a while and it won’t alter matters on the pitch too much – although personally I’d have chosen Josh Inglish who looks like a superb prospect.

“Whether he will be as miss or not, time will tell, but what it means for. him to not be involved won’t have crossed their minds too much. The truth with Tim Paine in terms of his captaincy is that Australia didn’t need his leadership anymore, regardless of this scandal. He came in after Cape Town and galvanised a group on its knees, making sure they were both performing and behaving to the best of their ability and code of conduct. He did that very well. Now, at the end of 2021, Australia have come out of the other side of that and are back on their feet. They have to move on without him.”

Harmy: Australia have the better top order, England have the better middle order. But I worry about England’s lack of pace

“Australia’s 1-2-3 are better than England’s 1-2-3, whichever way they go. But looking at the middle order, Smith, Khawaja and Head or Green against Root, Stokes and Bairstow, then you think England’s middle-order is more-suited, and then you have Buttler over Carey. From a batting perspective, if England can knock over Australia’s 1-2-3 and expose that middle order, then they have a chance of winning. England need their top order to fire in respect that their middle order can put enough runs on the board to give their bowlers a chance to win the Test matches.

“But I am concerned about England’s lack of pace. Before Ben Stokes became available, their game was to play four seamers and try and bore Australia out, be very attritional and bowl 25-30 overs more than you would in England – that was the only option they had. Jofra Archer is sitting with his arm in a sling, Ollie Stone has a back brace on. We don’t have quick bowlers and some of our options are quite samey, but you go with what you’ve got and the plan would have been to bowl one side of the wicket. I still think that will be the plan if and when it gets flat. It’s crucial to maximise the first 15-20 overs of life in the pitch with the assets they have. If they do that, then they have a great chance of winning.

“They’ll use Mark Wood on the right surfaces. On a flat pitch, Wood is a necessity, more than Robinson or Woakes because you need to make something happen, which needs pace. If Mark Wood is in the team for the first Test match, then England think it will flatten and not swing and seam as much as we are being told. If Wood is not in the team then England think it will do enough for long enough for England’s seamers to play around off-stump, and they can keep Wood for a surface that suits him and England better.”

Harmy: The Ashes is cricket ramped up to the max. As a cricketer, it’s the only series I ever wanted to play in and the only series you’ll ever be judged on.

“Everything is ramped up, from the media to the expectation level. In my first away Ashes in 2002, I didn’t know what it was all about until I touched down. And it became a real eye-opener into the passion and the hostility. Until 2005, it wore a bit thin for Brits due to Australian dominance, but 2005 reignited the series all over again. As an English or Australian cricketer, it’s the only series you want to be a part of and for me, the only series you are truly ever judged on and remembered by, despite the amount of T20 and white ball cricket played. You can make all the money in the world in franchise cricket, but when you retire all people will talk to you about is an Ashes series if you’re English or an Aussie. 

“When you tour Australia, you play a whole country, not just 11 men on a strip of grass. When you walk down the street, everyone spoke to us about cricket, from the baggage handlers at the airport through to a bunch of men in a bar. Although I found when a group of people dispersed into one or two individuals, everyone was lovely! This time around, given the detachment from the public due to the biosecure bubbles, that might help England focus their thoughts on the task at hand and not be distracted by outside noise, although in my day that kind of banter with fans was part and parcel and something we relished. It was just words.”

Harmy: I was woefully underprepared in 2006, I let my best mate Flintoff down. Our team wasn’t good enough

“When I bowled that first ball in 2006, let me tell you there were a lot of comments coming my way at third man. But I let it brush off me, the beauty of cricket is I had another chance to bowl again 15 seconds later for five more test matches, rinse and repeat. The truth is I was underprepared, nervous and tried to bowl too fast. I have a good laugh about it now. 

“During that 2006/07 series, it didn’t matter that Andrew Flintoff was skipper. It could have been Andrew Strauss or Michael Vaughan, we’d still have lost that series 5-0. The problem Freddie had was his team wasn’t good enough. I didn’t perform and was probably his biggest letdown. I tried my hardest, but it started badly with frankly shocking preparation ahead of Brisbane and went from there. I missed matches and when I played I was poor because I had very little build up, a bit like England’s team right now out in Australia. Teams these days though are used to going in underdone, in our day it made a huge difference and we weren’t good enough against that great Australian side. We missed Ashley Giles, Simon Jones, Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick, we were on a hiding to nothing. Australia were as formidable as they ever were in their back garden. We weren’t nearly as good as what we were in 2005. There’s not much that Andrew Flintoff could have done.”

Harmy: Hostility, or lack of it, doesn’t matter. The great cricketers put it to one side and perform regardless of outside noise

“It doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t hostile. The difference between the good and the great cricketers are the ones that can put things to one side and perform every minute of every day.

“One of my biggest achievements from a mental point of view, was I bowled that first ball to second slip in 2006, but didn’t miss a second of that tour. I played every day of that trip and that for me, when you talk about hostility and noise, can you imagine how much stick I got? It didn’t bother me one bit, I did everything else the same way. If people are saying nice things to the England team in Brisbane, that’s brilliant, if they snarl, shout and swear like they normally do then I don’t think it will bother them too much. If they prepare properly, stick together and score runs at the top of the order, get a bit of luck then they have a chance of winning.”