Stephen Harmison knows better than most the importance of the first morning of an Ashes series. But he thinks Michael Clarke may have lost the opening battle of this winter’s contest before the coin even goes up in Brisbane tonight.
During his time as England’s most fiercesome fast bowler, it was Ashington-born Harmison’s job to set the tone. For better and for worse he did.
In 2005 his brutal roughing up of Australia’s top-order at Lord’s sent a clear message England were not going to be bullied by the best team on the planet. Fifty-three days later Michael Vaughan was lifting the famous urn that had been out of England’s possession for 18 years.
In 2006 Harmison again had the honour of opening the bowling in the series, infamously sending the ball to second slip Andrew Flintoff. It was the precursor to a 5-0 hammering.
But Ashes series are not only contested inside the boundary ropes. The PR battle normally starts long before the cricket. As is usually the case, an Australian has fired the first shots.
Captain Clarke’s unguarded comments about England’s “negative” style were a clear attempt to unsettle the visitors, as was his cheeky pronouncement ten days ago that he already knew the XI England will announce at 11.30pm tonight.
Harmison thinks Australia’s one world-class performer has set himself up for a fall.
“England will be looking to really put the pressure on Clarke,” warns the former Durham player. “You live and die by the statements you make, so this will be a big Test for him.
“Naming England’s team in front of the cameras could blow up in his face.
“It looked a bit like desperation from Clarke. He’s got to get on with being what he is – a fantastic captain and a world-class batsman.
“He’s probably the only thing standing between Australia and humiliation. He needs to have the kind of series Alastair Cook had the last time the Ashes were in Australia.”
It is not the only way Cook can be an example to his opposite number despite an uninspiring 2013 series with the bat.
“I’ve got no concerns Alastair Cook will keep his head down and his mouth shut,” Harmison says. “I know Alastair really well – better than most – and he’s unflappable. He will go about his daily work in his own way.
“Whether they’re the right ones or not, Alastair Cook and (coach) Andy Flower will make decisions calmly.
“England are a team unit with a massive togetherness, which is not easy when there’s about 50 of them! The Press conferences, their demeanour, even the way they play is predictable. They just want to win.
“Cook’s not bothered by slow pitches that doesn’t suit his game as long as the team’s winning. Him, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen are probably licking their lips at some of the pitches he’ll play on this winter after others cashed in on the slower surfaces of the summer.” Clarke’s biggest problem, according to Harmison, is he does not have the players to back up his words.
“Australia have got some good players but they haven’t come up against consistent, hard Test cricket when the ball bounces,” he adds. “That’s the big differ ence between playing in England and Australia.
“Steve Smith and George Bailey could make the lower order look a bit vulnerable if they struggle against the bouncing ball. I can only see England’s bowlers putting the fear of death into the lower-middle order.
“England’s three seamers are much better than their Australian counterparts and Nathan Lyons is not a frontline Test spinner – you can see that from how many times Australia have dropped him.
“Australian batsmen are used to facing the bouncing ball and a lot of bowlers in their First-Class cricket are six foot-plus. The difference is the pace and accuracy of Test bowlers.
“The Aussies have got to take England on on good batting wickets. If there’s anything in it for the bowlers, England will murder them because their bowlers are far superior.
“England will be looking to pick weaknesses in the Australian batsmen. They will be looking to drag Chris Rogers forward because he plays a lot from the crease.
“They will be trying to get into Shane Watson with bouncers and back-of-a-length balls. I would imagine they will set defensive fields because Watson wants to score runs. If England defend the boundaries Watson will go looking for them, and he’s an lbw candidate.
“I’m painting a picture of doom and gloom for Australia but if England under-estimate them the Aussies have got some talented bowlers. If England’s top order are focused they can overcome everything thrown at them.
“Mitchell Johnson can either win or lose this series for Australia, but he might not even feature at Adelaide or Perth if England see him off. Kevin Pietersen will have a good gauge of which Johnson has turned up when he comes out to bat, and if he’s showing any weaknesses, KP will punish them.
“I actually think England are in a better position than in the last Ashes.
“Better pitches mean the better players shine through, and England have more of them.
“The Aussies were hard done by at times in England last summer but I expect England to win more convincingly this winter.”