Steve Harmison has tipped Kevin Pietersen to return triumphantly to the Test arena and win the Ashes for England. But he warns the hierarchy not to “rein in” the maverick batsman following his reintegration with the team after last year’s controversy.
Pietersen was dropped for a Test match after he allegedly sent derogatory texts about the England captain Andrew Strauss to the South African tourists last summer. He returned to the side for the successful tour of India but then picked up a knee injury in New Zealand which put his international ambitions on hold again. Pietersen is now fit and will return for the first Test against Australia in Nottingham on Wednesday.
“He had a problem with Andrew Strauss and I think they’ve cleared the air now,” said the former England fast bowler, one of the heroes of 2005 when Pietersen ensured that England won back the Ashes after 16 years with a remarkable century in the final Test. “Kevin’s 150 at The Oval, to this day I still don’t know how he did that. At the end of the day he’s a fantastic cricketer and you have to just let him play.
“You’ve let him go so far to be like he is, so you can’t rein him in now. You have to let KP be what KP is, and that’s a showman. If he steps out of line then you have to tell him. He will make mistakes but he’s also someone who fronts up when he does.”
Harmison realises that Pietersen’s future after the back-to-back Ashes series is unclear. “If he doesn’t want to play then let him go and do what he wants. No one man is bigger than any cricket team. Hopefully, this side will prove that because they have a great 18 months to come and many of them have still got to hit their peak.”
Strangely, it was as a batsman that Harmison helped Pietersen to find his feet in Test cricket when he made his debut at Lord’s at the start of that epic 2005 series. “In the first Test, KP got two fifties and I batted with him both times to help him get to his fifty. I knew he was special from playing against him before, but you never really know until you step up and play international cricket.
“But I knew then, standing 22 yards away, that this bloke was made for the big-game occasion. Even with that ridiculous haircut,” he adds, referring to the badger-like dyed mohican the new boy sported that first summer.
“And I do believe this summer he will write another chapter in the Kevin Pietersen book, which has been a topsy-turvy one, but it will be a good chapter this time. He will play a massive part, be a big contributory factor and he will bat well to win the series.”
Harmison’s own international career was defined by the Ashes. He played his second Test in Adelaide in place of the stricken Simon Jones, whom he had helped to carry off in the first match of the series. In that Lord’s Test of 2005 Harmison set the tone for England’s aggressive approach with bat and ball when he struck Justin Langer on the arm with the second ball of the series, then hit Australia’s captain, Ricky Ponting, on the head with a bouncer, drawing blood from a cut on his cheek.
And it was Harmison who grabbed the last wicket, bowling at the death in the nerve-shredding second Test at Edgbaston, which England won by two runs to level the series.
Harmison famously sent down the first ball of the disastrous 2006-07 series Down Under, bowling it so wide that it went straight to Andrew Flintoff at second slip. Then he appeared in his fourth Ashes series when he was recalled for the last two Tests of 2009. Victory was clinched at The Oval again, which was to prove Harmison’s last Test match for England.
He was part of a four-man pace attack in 2005 that is regarded as one of England’s best ever fast-bowling units along with Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard and Jones. This time around he believes it will be the batsmen who will make the difference between the two sides because, although England’s bowling is undeniably stronger for the presence of off-spinner Graeme Swann, the Australians have also arrived with a powerful pace attack.
“I can see England winning the Ashes both here and abroad,” Harmison says, though he believes this summer holds the stiffer test for Alastair Cook’s side. “I actually think it will be a lot harder here than over there because Australia have the potential to take 20 wickets. If they get conditions that favour them and the toss goes their way on an overcast morning, they’ve got the bowlers to exploit the conditions. But in Australia, where conditions are very similar on all five days, the best team normally wins. And England are the best team.”
Stephen Harmison was talking in association with Laithwaite’s Wine, an Official Partner of England Cricket. For more information visit www.laithwaites.co.uk