Fletcher and Shine get to work on fragile Harmison
Decision to send England's maligned paceman for an impromptu practice session upon the team's arrival in Adelaide yesterday highlights his importance to the Ashes cause, writes Angus Fraser
Wednesday 29 November 2006
It is hard to believe that Sir Isaac Newton studied the art of fast bowling while formulating his third Law of Motion, but in the case of Stephen Harmison an action has most definitely produced a reaction.
During Duncan Fletcher's six years as coach England have rarely, if ever, practised on a travelling day, let alone the day after a Test, but yesterday, within hours of the team's arrival in Adelaide, Harmison was to be found at the Adelaide Oval having a one-to-one, behind-closed-doors training session with Kevin Shine, the England bowling coach.
The unprecedented move highlights the plight of Harmison, whose bowling during the first Test in Brisbane was dreadful, and stresses how desperate England are to get him firing. A lesser bowler would have been banished to the sidelines by now and given time to sort himself out, but England realise that their enigmatic fast bowler still provides them with their best chance of retaining the Ashes.
Following Monday's humiliating 277-run defeat to Australia England need to win at least one of the four remaining Tests and, despite all the speculation surrounding him, Harmison remains the bowler Ricky Ponting's side fear most.
Initially, there were no media restrictions in place for the much-needed session. Yet once the England management realised the attention that Harmison's worrying form is receiving, it was deemed inappropriate that he was witnessed bowling at a solitary stump. The stance protected Harmison from the pressure of being scrutinised closely but the protection will not be there should he be asked to bowl on Friday morning.
"Kevin and Stephen wanted to work on a few drills that help him technically," said Fletcher, explaining the decision. "There will be no batsmen involved and Kevin is confident that these drills will help Stephen with his bowling."
With the second Test starting in two days' time England's coaches have little time to get Harmison right, and the remedial work began on the final morning of the first Test when the 28-year-old had his first emergency session with Shine. The first issue Shine and Fletcher need to work out is whether his problems are technical or mental. Television analysis has shown that, technically, Harmison's bowling action is unsound but Fletcher seemed to imply that the Durham bowler's problems have as much to do with his grey matter.
Fletcher yesterday put a positive spin on England and Harmison's predicament at the team hotel overlooking the Adelaide Oval, yet deep down one could sense that he is anxious about his team's welfare. Fletcher is the man who decided how much cricket England should play before the first Test, and Harmison's withdrawal from the tourists' final warm-up match has highlighted how exposed and vulnerable a player can be should his plans be hijacked. Shine and Harmison are not the only members of the England set-up that are under pressure.
"Stephen has bowled pretty well in the nets but he has not been able to transfer these lines and lengths in to the middle," said Fletcher. "He was very nervous on the first morning, everyone was nervous. If you look at the first hour of play in the Test and the way the Australians batted to some degree, even they looked nervous.
"We started the match with the intention of being aggressive, that is why we opened with Harmy. We hoped that he would hit a good length but he didn't. It is not easy, they are not machines. Stephen has quite a complex action and he finds it difficult to control it at times, and on that occasion he was unable to control it.
"Bowlers bowl bad spells and you don't really worry about it. These guys have got to the top and you believe they can get there again.
"I don't think he is too down, but I'd expect everyone in the team to be a little bit down. Indeed, I am pleased that they do feel a little bit down because I would not want to see them happy about the situation. Harmison is a key player and he needs to sort himself out."
There has been no shortage of advice coming England's way but Fletcher believes that it is the role of the coaches in Australia to get Harmison back to his best. Rightly, he feels that taking in the views of Ian Botham, Dennis Lillee or any other former bowler that airs an opinion would only add to his confused state of mind. But perhaps Shine and Fletcher should read Newton's fourth Law, which deals with unbalanced forces.
Despite his problems it would be a major surprise if Harmison was left out on Friday, but Fletcher refused to rule out the possibility. "Steve is not the only bowler who has had problems and we have to look at some of the other bowlers as well," he said. "A couple of the batsmen got out softly too, but if we go in with two spinners we will have to reassess the situation and one of the seamers will have to be left out. But we have also been told that the seamers do quite well here too. We need to pick the side that is best equipped to beat Australia."
And defeat Australia, even if it was by the narrowest of margins, is just what England managed to do at Edgbaston following the heavy defeat in the first Test of the 2005 series. England are keen to compare their situation with last year, when Australia won the opening Test by 239 runs, because the tale has a positive outcome, but the only similarity, really, is the result.
At Lord's England's bowlers rattled the Australian batsmen. Harmison hit Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Ponting with short-pitched balls in the opening exchanges and Australia were bowled out for 190 in their first innings. The game then went away from England but those early blows had a huge influence on the series. In Brisbane there was nothing to suggest that this ground would be revisited. The only real positive was the batting of Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen, but they will not win a Test for England here unless the bowlers take 20 wickets.
Fletcher, however, does believe in drawing a parallel. "We had a pitch at Lord's that suited Glenn McGrath ideally. There were cracks on the length that McGrath hits on a regular basis and we have had the same here. We have been in this situation before and the challenge is the same as it was in England. It is a huge challenge but we bounced back at Edgbaston and we need to do it here."
Hussey expects Adelaide pitch to suit England as Warne goes solo again
Michael Hussey has predicted the problems England suffered on the fast, pacy track in Brisbane may not resurface at the slower Adelaide Oval in the second Test which starts on Friday.
The Australia batsman explained that despite the gulf between the sides at the Gabba, the Australians remain cautious of the Ashes holders. "We've got off to a great start - but it is just a start," Hussey said. "I think England can definitely bounce back. There's definitely no complacency from our point of view.
"The conditions in Adelaide might suit them a little bit more than the pace and the bounce of Brisbane. It's very difficult to come from slow pitches and adjust to faster conditions. But the pitches in Adelaide are going to be lower and slower - so it's going to be a much closer Test and a lot tougher."
Despite Hussey's pitch report, the Australian selectors have resisted the temptation to recall the back-up leg-spinner Stuart MacGill - instead preferring to retain the pace bowlers Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Tait in their 13-man squad. Australia did play both Shane Warne and MacGill in tandem in their seven-wicket win over West Indies in Adelaide last year, the former finishing with 6 for 80, but they look like using the same XI on Friday that won at the Gabba.
Should England call in an extra spinner, Hussey has backed his former team-mate at Northamptonshire, Monty Panesar, to make an impact. "I loved the way he went about his cricket," Hussey said. "A few of my team-mates used to say that we were a marriage made in heaven. He used to like to bowl all day in the nets, and I used to like to bat all day. We used to have plenty of battles in the nets together. I was really impressed because he was such a young spinner, yet knew his game and the importance of discipline. I thought he would get better and better tactically the more he played."
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