England face gamble in rushing return of Harmison

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The Independent Online

England's cricketers have predictably rallied behind their captain, Andrew Flintoff, after the team's failure to defeat Sri Lanka in the first Test at Lord's. Flintoff received some criticism at the conclusion of the drawn match but he will be hoping to call on Stephen Harmison, his closest friend and staunchest ally, during the second Test which starts at Edgbaston this Thursday.

Harmison has not played for England since the remarkable victory over India in Bombay two months ago. He finished the Test with shin splints and returned home, missing the seven one-day international series against the same opponent. The injury, along with the birth of his third child, kept the fast bowler out of action for seven weeks and he returned to action only in last Sunday's Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy match against Lancashire.

Poor weather and determined Durham batting has reduced the number of competitive overs Harmison will bowl before the second Test but it would be a surprise if the England selectors omit him from the 13-man squad announced tomorrow.

Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett did well at Lord's but a fully fit Harmison is an automatic pick in the England team. The selectors will have watched him closely yesterday at Nottingham, and again today, in order to gauge whether he is ready for action.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, suggested that the selectors should not rush Harmison back if he is not quite ready, and he is right to be wary. Without him, England should win the series. But the same cannot be said against Pakistan, who arrive in England at the end of June and offer much sterner opposition. England will need Harmison fit for the four-Test series against Inzamam-ul-Haq's side, and if that can be guaranteed by giving him an extra week of practice here it should be taken.

England are unlikely to make any further changes to the squad and rightly so - if they had held on to their chances at Lord's they would be 1-0 up.

The return of Harmison will probably lead to Jon Lewis's exclusion. This is hard on Lewis, who took 5 for 36 for Gloucestershire after being omitted from the starting XI in the first Test, but the decision does make sense.

There is no better bowler in England than Lewis at this time of the year. But his bowling will not suit the conditions England will encounter in Australia in November. Australian pitches reward big, strong fast bowlers who hit the pitch hard. Medium- pacers who pitch the ball up tend to get carted.

The England team will have one concern when they gather in Birmingham on Monday, and that is that the pitch turns. Edgbaston offers more to spinners than Lord's, and if this is the case Muttiah Muralitharan becomes a potential match-winner. England claimed an unforgettable two-run win over Australia there last year, but in the euphoria people forgot that Shane Warne took 10 for 16, and Muralitharan is capable of matching him.

Steve Rouse, the head groundsman, will be under instructions to produce a hard, fast, green pitch so the home team's pacemen can bully the Sri Lankans. The recent weather may have made it impossible for Rouse to provide Fletcher with the initial two items on this list, but it should have ensured the pitch does not start dry.

If the sun comes out it is to be hoped that Monty Panesar gets more of a bowl than at Lord's where his longest spell over the last two days was four overs.

Meanwhile, England yesterday announced their 25-man Development Squad for this summer which highlights their wealth of seam bowlers. The squad, which includes the 12 players on central contracts, will come under the control of Fletcher for the rest of the year and is regarded as the cream of talent in domestic cricket. Included are the highly rated Leicestershire fast bowler Stuart Broad, son of the former England opener Chris Broad, and James Anderson.

Probable England squad for second Test v Sri Lanka: A Flintoff (Lancashire, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), A J Strauss (Middlesex), A N Cook (Essex), K P Pietersen (Hampshire), P D Collingwood (Durham), G O Jones (Kent), L E Plunkett (Durham), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), S J Harmison (Durham), M S Panesar (Northamptonshire), I R Bell (Warwickshire), S I Mahmood (Lancashire).

England and Wales Cricket Board 2006 England Development Squad: Vaughan*, J M Anderson (Lancashire), Bell, I D Blackwell (Somerset), S C J Broad (Leicestershire), R Clarke (Surrey), Collingwood*, Cook, Flintoff*, A F Giles* (Warwickshire), Harmison*, Hoggard*, Jones*, S P Jones* (Glamorgan), E C Joyce (Middlesex), J Lewis (Gloucestershire), A G R Loudon (Warwickshire), Mahmood, Panesar, Pietersen*, Plunkett,C M W Read (Nottinghamshire), O A Shah (Middlesex), Strauss*, Trescothick*.

*Players in receipt of 12-month ECB central contracts.