Back in the fast lane: Paceman looking to relight fire

At least, that is what Stephen Harmison is hoping. After two years in which his status as one of the world's best quick bowlers has diminished, he tells Angus Fraser why he is relishing taking on Pakistan in the Test Series which begins tomorrow
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It was not quite the comment England fans were looking for on the eve of the team's most important match of the summer, but Stephen Harmison is the type of character who rarely mixes his words. Like all fast bowlers Harmison can be stroppy and stubborn, and he often makes utterances without considering the consequences but, as with most big men, there is a soft, endearing side to him, and this was on show when I met him yesterday in the Coronation Garden at Lord's.

"I have never ever enjoyed bowling at Lord's," he told me, when I asked him whether he was looking forward to returning to the home of cricket, a venue where he took 5 for 43 against Australia last summer. "When I first played here for Durham against Middlesex in 1998 I didn't feel right, and I haven't since. I love everything else about the place. I love being here, I love the food, the whole lot - it's brilliant. I just don't feel right when I run in to bowl. Even against Australia last year I did not feel totally at ease. I don't know exactly what it is. It could be mental, it could be the slope but I have never slipped into the sort of rhythm here that I get at other grounds."

Before England supporters become too despairing about the team's prospects against Pakistan in the first Test which starts tomorrow, there is a silver lining to this cloud. Harmison took seven wickets for Durham on his first appearance at Lord's, a bowling display that caused Justin Langer, the Australian opener, to describe him as the most hostile bowler he had faced in his career, and in the six Test matches he has played here he has taken 26 wickets at an average of 27.

And how England could do with a vintage Harmison display this week. Ten months ago Michael Vaughan's side were being proclaimed by many as the best team in the world, but after failing to win any of their last six Test or one-day series they are about as close to becoming world champions as their football counterparts.

Harmison took only 17 wickets during the Ashes last summer but, even so, he helped shape the series. The hosts lost the first Test to Australia at Lord's, but in a hostile opening spell he signified England's intent. With the second ball of the match he struck Langer a painful blow on the right elbow. Matthew Hayden was then hit on the head by a bouncer and Ricky Ponting required six stitches in a gash to his cheek, created when another Harmison lifter hit him flush on the grill of his helmet.

It was also a Harmison bouncer that flicked the glove of Michael Kasprowicz in the second Test at Edgbaston, a delivery that took England to a sensational two-wicket victory and kept the series alive.

Yet these moments of inspiration have been few and far between since the summer of 2004, when Harmison was rated the No 1 bowler in the world. During this period he seemed to have the potential to become one of England's greatest fast bowlers, but in the last two years he has taken 53 wickets at an average of almost 38, figures that suggest he is only a good one.

Harmison believes his bowling has deserved better but the 27-year-old's Test wickets are now costing him eight runs more than Glenn McGrath and Curtly Ambrose, two bowlers to whom he was compared when he took 7 for 12 against the West Indies in March 2004.

"It is not through lack of effort," he said attempting to explain why his form has tapered off. "I try just as hard and I try to do the same things as before. In 2004 everything went for me. Catches went to hand and the ball stuck, but since then things have not gone my way. The pitches in Pakistan and India last winter were flat. I wouldn't say batsmen have found me out but they do tend to play me differently now. When teams look to come at me and take me on I take wickets but a lot of sides seem to sit on me now.

"I am looking forward to this winter because the Australians will come at me and this will create chances. I have recently been guilty of trying to make things happen and because of that I have strayed away from my strengths and the basics. It's frustrating but the selectors keep picking me so I must be offering England something."

Harmison's easy-going nature and lack of ego make him a pleasure to deal with. He did not go around telling everyone how good he was when he was No 1 in the world and he is not too bothered that he is now ranked 17th. But that lack of drive and - dare I say it - ambition may be the principal reason why he has not pushed on since 2004.

"The motivation is still there," he said. "I love playing for England and I love representing my country. My dislike of being away from home is well noted but I cope with it better now than I have ever done before, and it doesn't affect me once I walk out on to the field. There will be times when I hate it in Australia this winter and I will not want to be there, but when the bell goes England will get everything I have got because there is nowhere I would rather be."

I ask him about the shin complaint that has restricted him to only 32 first-class overs this summer. Injury is an occupational hazard to a fast bowler and unless you are hobbling around on crutches people do not believe there is much wrong with you. "The shins are not too bad but they still have their moments and, having bowled no more than 15 overs in a day this summer, it is hard to judge how they will react to a full day in the field," he said. "In India they were unbearable, fucking agony. In the middle of the night I would wake up feeling like my shins were about to explode. At times my feet felt they were on fire - that's when I could feel them - and I would spend three or four hours in the middle of the night walking around my hotel room. It was the last thing I needed in India and Pakistan, places where you try and sleep the tour away."

If Matthew Hoggard fails a fitness test on his lacerated right hand tomorrow morning Harmison will be the only member of England's Ashes-winning attack on show against Pakistan. But, after he conceded a record 97 runs in England's final one-dayer against Sri Lanka, it is hard to say that he is in good form.

"If Matthew fails to overcome his hand injury, there will be a little bit more pressure on my shoulders," Harmison said. "I am also not going to bullshit you and say that I didn't bowl that badly during the one-dayers - I did. There was no consistency to anything I did, whether it was the line and length or the spells I bowled. My action and run up wasn't right either.

"I have held my hands up to the team and I want to draw a line under it. I have been practising hard in the nets, I feel strong and fit, and I am ready to go. I feel in reasonable nick and, hopefully, when I get a red ball in my hand on Thursday morning, I will bowl like I can do.

"There are a number of players who are not here and we can make as many excuses as we want on the back of injuries but it is time we put them to bed. Every team has injuries but the best ones adapt to the position they find themselves in. This is the England side, from one to 11 with Andrew Strauss as captain, and it is a good team.

"We need to start nailing Test matches again and that means scoring more than 400 when we bat and taking 20 wickets."

Best and worst of English attack

1978 Born 23 October

1996 Makes Durham debut after joining from Ashington.

1998-99 Travels with England 'A' to South Africa aged 20.

2002 Makes Test debut against India at Trent Bridge.

2002 Makes one-day international debut against Sri Lanka.

2003 Selected for England tour to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Takes 9 for 79 in the first Test against Bangladesh.

2004 Takes record seven for 12 against West Indies.

2004 Tops ICC bowling ratings, the first time in 20 years an English bowler achieves this.

2004 Records English record 67 Test wickets in the year.

2005 Named as one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year.

2005 Regains Ashes with England. Sets tone on the first morning, injuring Justin Langer and cutting Ricky Ponting's face. Takes five wickets in the session.

2006 Concedes 97 runs in 10 overs for none in one-day international against Sri Lanka at Headingley, the worst by an England bowler in one-day cricket.



Overall 40/155/29.12

2002-2004 23/102/24.74

Since 2004 Wkts/Ave

2004/05 S Africa 9/73.22

2005 Bangladesh 10/20.10

2005 Australia 17/32.29

2005/06 Pakistan 12/32.42

2006 India 5/38.60

2004/05 - 2006 53 /37.57

Figures exclude Australia v Rest Of World match in October 2005