PAUL NEWMAN: No-nonsense Steve Harmison has fast become one of the best pundits in cricket… his criticism of Ben Stokes and England’s lack of preparation for next month’s India tour speaks volumes

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Steve Harmison has become one of the best pundits in cricket, in part, because he is unafraid to criticise even those he is closest to.

So, one of England’s greatest fast bowlers had no qualms in taking his friend and former Durham team-mate Ben Stokes to task over what he sees as woefully poor preparation for one of the toughest assignments in Test cricket, their forthcoming tour of India.

There are no agendas and certainly no nonsense from Harmison. He says it as he sees it even if that means calling Stokes and England out for planning to arrive in Hyderabad, something of an unknown destination for them, just three days before the first Test.

But what should be remembered is that Harmison will not criticise anyone, let alone someone he admires hugely in Stokes, just for the sake of it.

He cares passionately about English cricket and admits he wants the England team to win more now even than when he played in 63 Tests and became one of the heroes of the fabled 2005 Ashes triumph.

Steve Harmison has become one of the best pundits in cricket thanks to his no-nonsense style

His criticism of friend and former Durham team-mate Ben Stokes shows nobody is exempt

His criticism of friend and former Durham team-mate Ben Stokes shows nobody is exempt

That is why he regrets saying England would ‘deserve’ to lose 5-0 in India early in the new year in what was a long and balanced discourse last week during the latest episode of his excellent talkSPORT Following On podcast with Neil Manthorp.

Harmison certainly doesn’t want that. Not when he, like so many of us, has been thrilled by ‘Bazball’ and the methods of Stokes and Brendon McCullum that have inspired the exciting transformation of the England Test team.

It is just he does not think they are giving themselves the best chance of pulling off what would be a huge upset in winning in India and avenging the 3-1 defeat the last time they were there which came immediately after two ‘warm-up’ Tests in Sri Lanka.

The point is, while a cricketing genius like Stokes may not want or need any warm-up games or long preparation ahead of a major Test series other than the nine days England plan to spend in Abu Dhabi, ‘one size,’ as Harmison puts it, ‘does not fit all.’

That is why he is concerned about players such as Jack Leach and Ollie Pope, who will be thrown into a huge series which will be played at venues with little previous history of Test cricket with no proper red-ball match practice after recovering from serious injuries.

Harmison criticised England's woefully poor preparation ahead of their five-Test series in India

Harmison criticised England’s woefully poor preparation ahead of their five-Test series in India

England's lack of preparation in the 50-over format hurt them dearly at the 2023 World Cup

England’s lack of preparation in the 50-over format hurt them dearly at the 2023 World Cup

And, as far as I’m concerned, Harmison is right. We saw what a lack of 50-over preparation did for England ahead of the World Cup and, while the Test methods of Stokes and Harmison worked in Pakistan on flat pitches last year, India is a very different kettle of fish.

Yes, times have changed and the modern cricketing calendar is jam packed to such an extent that it is near impossible now for players to have long periods of acclimatisation at the start of any tour, even one as demanding as India.

But one of the most pertinent points Harmison made is that England would never dream of arriving in Australia just three days before the start of an Ashes series and it is worth remembering how they pulled off their greatest overseas triumph of modern times.

In 2010-11 England under Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower made a point of treating their three warm-up games ahead of the Ashes as a mini-series in its own right.

They played all of them as if they were Test matches, inventing the ‘sprinkler’ dance that was to become a symbol of their subsequent success during a rain break in a warm-up game in Adelaide, and went on to win three Tests by an innings in a 3-1 victory.

England's Test side will need to be at their very best to beat India in their home conditions

England’s Test side will need to be at their very best to beat India in their home conditions

Harmison (left) lifts the Ashes Urn in 2009 next to fellow England great Andrew Flintoff (right)

Harmison (left) lifts the Ashes Urn in 2009 next to fellow England great Andrew Flintoff (right)

And when they last won in India in 2012 they again played in three competitive warm-up games ahead of the series, drawing all of them but, more importantly, seeing all the members of what was an experienced England side gaining proper match practice.

Stokes and McCullum have achieved their success with very different ideas to Strauss and Flower and that is to be applauded. ‘Bazball’ has not only revitalised England but has the potential, despite the protestations of Australia, to save Test cricket.

But, fact is, while England’s love of playing golf and enjoying a healthy social life away from the game under Stokes and McCullum can be considered integral to their free and attacking approach, they could easily be held against the players if things go wrong.

Nobody wants England to win in India more than Steve Harmison. He was just passionately and eloquently putting into words concerns that are shared by many.

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