In a Hit for Six fast bowling special, former England fast bowler Steve Harmison talks producing genuine quick bowlers, potential England seamers in 2018, Mark Wood’s return to fitness and who from world cricket he enjoys watching run in…
Much has been made of the lack of penetration in England’s attack this winter, especially with the fast bowling. What does English cricket need to do to produce genuine fast bowlers on a consistent basis?
STEVE HARMISON: The first thing to say is that fast bowlers do not grow on trees. Fortunately for Australia, all three of their genuine quick bowlers were all fit and firing on the field at the same time.
Whenever we lose an Ashes series we always get the rhetoric that county cricket is not very good. There are people that think ‘we’ve got to change this, we’ve got to change that, we’ve got to find fast bowlers, we’ve got to find a world-class all-rounder, a spinner’- but a lot of it is nonsense.
I’m not going to sit here and downgrade country cricket. It could certainly do with a bit of tinkering because, currently, it’s good for the counties but I’m not sure it’s great for the England cricket team. I’ve never really had too much of a problem with it, though, because it’s never stopped players coming through to play for England before.
Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton reflect on England's Ashes defeat, while Steve Harmison picks his players to watch in 2018
From a fast bowling point of view there needs to be a few changes and I’d like to see some games played in the middle of the summer rather than in a big chunk at the start and a big chunk at the end and nothing in between other than one-day cricket.
Like I said before, they [fast bowlers] don’t come around every day. They’ve got to be identified and nurtured. There are five or six out there who are aged under 23 and we’ve got to find a balance between making them play, understanding the game and keeping them fit. That is a fine balance.
I’m not a big believer in Loughborough. I don’t think the academy is a great place because in the summer, when it is warm, you are with your county and not at Loughborough. I don’t think you can produce a fast bowler indoors and the only time Loughborough is really used is in the winter.
You are not going to produce a fast bowler in those kind of conditions. They have to be playing away from England, bowling on flat wickets and bowling in countries where we are struggling to pick up wins at the moment.
That’s the challenge of the ECB bowling unit to make sure that these young bowlers are getting enough preparation time and game time in overseas conditions, on overseas wickets and with the overseas ball to make sure they enhance their cricketing education and get better.
However, you can’t get an 80mph bowler to bowl at 90mph. It’s just not possible. It’s physically impossible. You’ve got to try to nurture them, educate them and make sure they are at the peak of their powers for when you need them. Australia did that and that’s why they won the Ashes.
With that in mind, who are the bowlers England should be looking at in 2018? Is there one name that stands out?
SH: I think Liam Plunkett is out of the equation form a red ball point of view. If you are not going to use him in the Ashes it tells you that they just do not fancy him in that form of the game.
With that in mind there are still a dozen names out there from young Olly Stone at Warwickshire to George Garton down at Sussex. There’s also Jamie Overton, Craig’s brother, who hasn’t played for a while because of injury, and Tom Helm.
There’s a batch of young seamers there that have got to play for their counties. Unfortunately with the wickets that are produced at the start of the year they don’t play. If you go to places like Kent and Essex early in the season and they have a quick bowler, he doesn’t bowl because Darren Stevens or David Masters are more effective.
That’s what I mean when I say county cricket is good for the counties but not so good for the England cricket team. A county coach or captain is not going to play Stone on a wicket where he could potentially go at five-and-a-half runs an over when they’ve got a Stevens or Masters type that will go at two an over.
From an England point of view, sometimes we need the counties to devalue their team and it’s just not going to happen. That’s where playing games in the height of the summer is beneficial, because it will get these fast bowlers playing and it will give them the chance to develop their skills.
If you’ve got pace then you’ve got the potential to go for runs and if you go for runs at the start of the summer, counties are reluctant to pick you because of the pitches they play on.
I’d like to see Stone get properly fit. I saw him bowl live in the T20 competition, in front of a big crowd, and his temperament looked good. His pace was also very, very good but you’ve got to remember he’s only bowling a four-over spell. You want to see them develop and bowling longer spells before we make a judgement.
I also don’t want to sit here and single someone out. I’ve seen it before when a former England fast bowler, who has played over 60 Test matches, pushes a player. I can see the headline now, saying: ‘Harmison pushes Olly Stone’. All of a sudden, Stone’s name is pushed into the lights and it puts pressure on the young kid.
I would like to see all of these kids get a chance but the reason I’ve mentioned Stone is because he struggled with fitness for the last bit of the season. I’d like to see him get fit but I’d also like to see all of the youngsters I mentioned before bowl well. It then does not matter who I say because England will have three or four options to choose from.
I just want to see them all fit and firing and educated in the right way to make sure they are at the peak of their powers to perform for England. If that’s the case then it can only benefit the England cricket team.
If Mark Wood can get himself fully fit, could it be a big year for the Durham seamer?
SH: It’s a huge year for Mark because of all the names that have been mentioned with England selection in mind, he’s proven at Test level. If he’s fit and firing on all cylinders, he’s proved he can take wickets at that level for England.
The question mark surrounding Wood is his fitness. The ability is certainly there and he proved that in the 2015 Ashes, he has proved it in one-day cricket and on the big stage time and time again. He is the one that if he can get fit, he’s England’s x-factor bowler.
He is England’s Pat Cummins and that’s why they’ve got to do the right things to get him fit and keep him fit throughout the next four to six weeks so he can be the difference in New Zealand and be ready for the summer.
Who is the fast bowler in world cricket that you enjoy watching the most?
SH: At the minute, I’m really enjoying watching the quick bowlers bowl. I loved watching Morne Morkel in the first Test against India. He has done it for years and years and years. It was a fantastic Test match to watch in Cape Town and Morkel was absolutely fantastic.
From Australia, I like Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. For me, Cummins is exceptional. I really enjoyed watching Cummins bowl. He ran in hard, hit the deck hard and bowled with real aggression. He also showed plenty of aggression with his body language.
I said at the end of the Champions Trophy last year that if he could stay fit he could go on to become one of the best bowlers in the world along with Wood. Wood hasn’t been fit and has dropped out of the reckoning, while Cummins has been fit and has put in the performances I expected him to do.
South Africa beat India by 72 runs in a thrilling Test match in Cape Town. It was the four South African quicks – Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn – that came to the fore, bowling the hosts to victory. Do you see similarities between that quartet and England’s quartet from the 2005 Ashes?
SH: You need different elements to your attack and with Morkel, Philander, Rabada and Steyn they have that. That’s why they are very, very successful.
It’s the same with Australia. The Aussies didn’t win the Ashes because they had one fast bowler, they won because of the unit. They had three genuine quicks and a world-class spinner and they all took over 20 wickets. It was a similar story in 2005 because Shane Warne took 40-odd wickets but it didn’t help them win the Ashes. It’s all about the unit.
Going back to England’s 2005 attack, when the team disbanded in 2006 we lost two players and the team collapsed. The two players we bought in are arguably the two best players that have ever played the game of cricket for England.
We lost Marcus Trescothick and got Alastair Cook in, and we lost Simon Jones and brought in James Anderson. If you look at the two of them now, one has got 12,000 Test runs and the other has over 500 Test wickets.
The problem was that Cook was very similar to Andrew Strauss and Anderson was very similar to Matthew Hoggard. It changed the dynamics of the team and it’s something England have got to try to solve now.
They have to build a pool of bowlers and a unit to make sure that at any one given time they’ve got skill factor with the new ball, an x-factor bowler that can get a wicket out of nothing and control. It’s not about names, it’s about components and it is something England need to identify.
If you go to Australia with four right-arm seamers bowling 80mph then you are going to get beat every time. They have to find a way of having different components all the way through from one to 11 to make them a team that can handle any situation. At the minute, I don’t see that and that’s why England lost the Ashes.
Finally, we’ve seen some brilliant fast bowling in the last few months and there’s more to come with South Africa taking on Australia in a four-match Test series in March, live on Sky Sports Cricket. Philander, Morkel, Rabada and Steyn v Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins – that’s a battle to get excited about?
SH: Watching the fast bowlers strut their stuff in the last few months has been brilliant and there is certainly more to come with South Africa v Australia. It’ll be a great series to watch. The thing with that series is the away team normally does well. Australia nearly always do well in South Africa and South Africa normally do very well in Australia.
I think I would back South Africa’s attack to come out on top because South Africa’s batting unit, even when factoring in Steve Smith, is stronger than the Australian line-up. There are a lot of questions as to how you get Smith out but if South Africa find a way, then there are a lot of vulnerabilities in Australia’s line-up, especially against South Africa’s attack.
With Hashim Amla, AB De Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock, South Africa’s batting is a lot stronger than the Aussies and that could be the difference. The one thing you can guarantee is that it will be a humdinger of a series and as a cricket fan, I can’t wait to watch.