Steve Harmison comes off his long run when he ponders the future of the England captain in the middle of another nightmare Ashes.
‘If England do lose the series, 3-2, 4-1, 5-0, whatever it is, there will naturally be question marks over Joe Root,’ says the former fast bowler turned no-nonsense pundit. ‘That’s the world we live in. You take those positions and you’re there to be shot at.
‘But if people think it’s as simple as replacing him and Chris Silverwood they want their heads shaking. We’ve got a system problem in this country. When we lose the Ashes we say county cricket’s crap. It’s not crap, it’s just played at a crap time.
Steve Harmison (left) has given his verdict of England’s Ashes performance so far Down Under
Harmison claims questions should be asked of Joe Root’s captaincy if England lose the series
‘The 2005 Ashes winning team and the side that won over there in 2010-11 were built on the county game. But in 2015 we pressed the re-set button for white-ball cricket and I think that button has to be pressed again now for red-ball.
‘It needs some strong characters, some big people with big shoulders, to take on the counties and the financial men and say ‘do you know what? Our red-ball cricket is suffering, We need to start playing it at the right time of year again’. That’s the only way we can give Joe and the England team the best chance to compete.
‘Because if this carries on Joe will be looking in the mirror and saying “what’s the point? I’ll go back to being a batsman and averaging 50 every year. But I want the IPL on my CV too. I want to be England’s best multi-format player”. Which I believe he is. I wouldn’t blame the boy if he’s thinking ‘I’ve had my go now, it’s somebody else’s turn’.
‘The ECB would be running for the hills if he packs up at the end of this series because who on earth is going to do that job next? It’s scary for this England Test team. There’s no-one. They will be rock bottom if they lost their captain because if you then start rest and rotating Joe Root who the hell is going to score runs for us?’
Harmison (back row, fourth right) says England must start prioritising red-ball cricket again
It is a typically forthright response from a man who fell out of love with cricket towards the end of a career that saw him become one of England’s very best fast bowlers but who has seen his passion for the game re-ignited by his second career in radio and TV.
And there’s more when Sportsmail suggests Harmison’s fellow man of Durham Ben Stokes is the only viable candidate to replace Root should the worse happen and the Ashes go downhill from here for a captain having his third stab at lifting the fabled urn.
‘Make Ben captain? That would be the worst thing they could do,’ he says over a Zoom call from his home in Ashington. ‘That would be as bad as anything that has happened at Brisbane. Nasser bowling first, my first ball and then Joe batting first this time.
‘I’m sorry. Ben Stokes can’t play for the England Test team, 50-over side, T20 team and Rajasthan Royals and be Test captain. You can’t ask him to do all that.
Naming Ben Stokes (left) as England’s new captain would be a mistake, says Harmison (right)
‘He’d do the job and he will have a go at me for saying this but even though he’s superhuman at times that would be too much.
‘When Ben decided to take some time away from the game that was the lightbulb moment. We have to protect our superstars and putting too much pressure on Ben would be the biggest mistake of all.’
They are the words of a man who has recovered from his own lows to become one of the best voices in cricket.
‘I love it. It’s great,’ says Harmison, now 43, of his life as a pundit. ‘I resented the game for the last three years of my career. If I’m honest I should have retired after the 2009 Ashes. It took a while for me to regain that enthusiasm after I eventually retired and I went into football management for a while which I really enjoyed.
Harmison (left) who won two Ashes series, admits he should have retired after the 2009 win
‘Then I got my love for cricket back when I started working for talkSPORT and now I’m doing this series for BT too. As everyone knows I can rabbit for England and I like to say it how it is. But It does break my heart when players I know well are going through troubling times so I do try to be balanced.’
The bowler who took 226 wickets in 63 Tests with genuine pace resurfaces when the subject moves to Root’s criticism of his attack for bowling too short in Adelaide and urging them to be ‘braver’ in Melbourne in the Boxing Day Test.
‘When Joe made those comments my ears did prick up,’ he says. ‘It was like “really? You get 236 and 192 on a flat one after your No7 has just faced more than 200 balls on a fifth day pitch. And you’re criticising the bowlers?”
‘I’ve said this a few times in the last couple of days, admittedly a bit tongue in cheek, but if Michael Vaughan had said that when we played, Harmison, Hoggard, Jones and Flintoff would have been waiting for him by the time he got back to the dressing room door.
Harmison has defended England’s bowlers Down Under ahead of the Boxing Day Test
‘Then it turns into a batsmen versus bowlers contest and it worries me that’s where this team are at. Hopefully they’ve all had their say, will clear the air over their Christmas lunch, and then they can move on at the MCG.’
And Harmison, who will be in the BT studio tomorrow night along with Moeen Ali for the third Test, knows crunch time has arrived. ‘I don’t think England have helped themselves,’ he adds. ‘You can’t help but criticise some of the decisions they’ve made.
‘Some have been baffling and some of the comments they’ve made have been even more baffling. Australia are two up but they haven’t had to work as hard as they should have. That’s what would concern me most if I was Joe Root or Chris Silverwood.
Harmison believes some decisions made by Root and Chris Silverwood (right) are baffling
‘But I don’t think they will lose 5-0, I really don’t. I think England will win a game in this three-match series they’ve got now. They have to think ‘right, we’ve been here long enough, we’re prepared now and we’ve just got to make the right decisions’. I think we saw signs in Brisbane and Adelaide that if England can do that and take Australia into a deeper contest they are fallible and can crack.
‘You can talk about the lack of runs, the dropped catches and the lack of preparation but there’s nothing they can do about that now. It’s come down to making the right decisions on Boxing Day.
‘If England can win this Test, who knows? You’ve got to believe and hope you can create history. But if Joe loses the toss, the pitch is a bit green and England are 40 for four on the first morning then the Ashes have gone.’
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