Wednesday 23 May 2007 

Enigmatic Harmison At The Crossroads

Who is the real Steve Harmison?

Wisden Cricketers Almanac presents both sides of the world's most enigmatic fast bowler in its accounts of the opening tests in the last two Ashes series.

The first is from the Lord's test in the unforgettable 2005 series.

"Before the first drinks break Harmison, bowling from the Pavilion End, struck Langer painfully on the arm, dented Hayden's helmet grille as he tried to hook, and drew blood from Ponting's cheek."

The second records the Brisbane test last year.

"Rarely can an Ashes defence have begun as pathetically as this. All the mouth-watering tension of the build-up seemed to be channelled in Harmison's opening delivery which went straight to Flintoff at second slip and was signalled wide by umpire Steve Bucknor."

England won the first series 2-1, Australia subsequently exacted full revenge with a 5-0 victory at home with Harmison taking a mere 10 wickets at an exorbitant 61.40 runs each.

Harmison announced his retirement from one-day cricket, missed the World Cup and returned to the fray for the first test against West Indies last week apparently restored to full health and vigour after 24 wickets in three matches for Durham.

But one wicket, that of tailender Jerome Taylor, at a total cost of 132 runs with consecutive wides from the first two balls of West Indies' second innings, has reopened the debate.

Commenting on new television technology designed to assist the viewer, Giles Smith wrote in The Times: "The machine has yet to be invented that can track the full flight of a session-opening loosener from Harmison and then render the gathered information in a graphic form that the viewer at home can quickly grasp."

TECHNICAL PROBLEMS?

Technical problems have been advanced. Harmison's front-on action, it is said, can quickly go awry if his wrist is in the wrong position. But West Indians pioneered the front-on style and Malcom Marshall, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose were remorselessly accurate and consistently fast.

Harmison's acute home sickness when abroad has been well chronicled and it was understandable that he wanted to get home from Australia as soon as possible.

Less forgivable was his response when asked what training he planned to undertake when he returned home. England's leading strike bowler shrugged his shoulders and said he would wait to be told by coach Duncan Fletcher.

He also told an incredulous interviewer that he had not read an Ashes diary published jointly under his name and that of Australian opener Justin Langer.

Fletcher resigned after England's lacklustre World Cup campaign to be replaced by Peter Moores. The latter was asked repeatedly after the drawn first test on Monday what he thought about Harmison's performance and, in particular, his persistent inaccuracy.

"With any player you have good games and games you would liked to have done better," Moores replied.

"Batters do and bowlers and fielders do. Steve would have liked to have had a better game but we all know in sport we have to take good games and bad games.

"It's a long summer and he's got a great chance over that summer to go out there and do his stuff. We'll keep doing the work and support him and I think we'll see the best of him."

Harmison's supporters cite his wonderful 2004 when he became the world's top-ranked bowler and say he is a rare talent who needs to be sensitively handled.

Those who thought he was lucky to be picked against West Indies believe he is too passive and content to go through the motions when either his rhythm is out or the conditions unfavourable.

At 28, Harmison's career is at the crossroads. Clearly he is not a driven personality like Dennis Lillee or Bob Willis who would change the course of a match through bloody-minded will power however their bodies felt and whatever the state of the pitch.

When body and mind are in harmony, though, he can still be as fast and hostile as any bowler in the world. Whether or not he again reaches the heady heights of 2004 and 2005 is the great imponderable of English cricket.

© Reuters 2007.