Harmison a bereft shadow

Tourists' poor preparation left their spearhead too far off the pace
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Stephen Harmison looked a forlorn figure as he slowly limped off the Wanderers with a calf strain yesterday afternoon. The full extent of the injury will become apparent over the next couple of days, but there must be a distinct possibility of the England fast bowler taking little part in the remainder of this series.

Harmison is no shirker, and it would be wrong for people to question the size of his heart. On the field he never gives anything less than his all, and in 2004 he bowled 111 overs more than Matthew Hoggard, England's next most productive bowler. The fact that he returned to the field of play later in the day, in the hope that the injury might disappear overnight, shows he is prepared to play though pain.

But the 26-year-old does not enjoy touring. He openly admits that he suffers from homesickness, and he could see this as an opportunity to return to the bosom of his family in Ashington, Northumberland. The vision of Harmison trudging off encapsulated his disappointing tour of South Africa. England's spearhead arrived here rated as the No 1 bowler in the world. It was a position he thoroughly merited after the outstanding contribution he had made to England's success in 2004.

After a well-deserved two-month break everybody expected him to give Graeme Smith's batsmen as rough a ride as he gave West Indies and New Zealand. But this has not materialised. Harmison has looked a shadow of the bowler we saw last summer. His seven wickets in South Africa have cost him more than 65 runs apiece.

His figures yesterday - 12.5 overs for 25 runs - appear very respectable. He may not have taken a wicket, but they suggest he consistently put the ball in the right area and made the batsmen work for runs.

But in truth Harmison was the least dangerous member of Michael Vaughan's attack. In the eight overs the lanky paceman bowled before lunch, the batsmen had to play at only 50 per cent of the deliveries he sent down. On a pitch where it is vital for a bowler to make the most of the new ball, this was unacceptable.

Harmison is quite a complicated character, and this makes it difficult to diagnose his problems simply by analysing his technique. Off-the-field issues will affect his performance on it, and even something as minor as Andrew Flintoff having his family in South Africa for the entire tour could alter his mindset. Flintoff is Harmison's closest mate, and in the West Indies 10 months ago they were inseparable. But without the Lancashire all-rounder to relax and have fun with, there is a distinct possibility that Harmison's focus has altered.

Nor have England's preparations for the Test series helped his cause. He found the rhythm which made him the most feared fast bowler in the world through bowling regularly in 2004, and one three-day match does not supply a cricketer with enough time to get his game in order.

Yes, Harmison deserved a decent rest at the end of the summer, but by not bowling off his full run-up until 10 days before the First Test he was taking a huge risk. It meant he was attempting to find form during a Test match - again unacceptable.

In an effort to make up for a lack of rhythm, technical errors have appeared. When the ball is coming out of the hand well, bowling is effortless. But when you have no rhythm, it is hard work. At times like this it is brute force that gets the ball down the other end at 90mph. But in trying to reach these speeds Harmison is falling away just before he releases the ball, causing it to angle into the right-handers.

In the summer we saw Harmison shape the ball away from these batsmen, but on this tour everything has come into them. Troy Cooley worked hard to help him stay tall at the crease, but the England bowling coach is now at the National Academy in Loughborough, not in South Africa.

England's tactics have not helped, either. Harmison has been instructed to bowl short at South Africa's batsmen, which has had a detrimental effect on his control. The bouncer is a dangerous ball when it is used sparingly, but by bowling it as often as he has, Harmison has forgotten what it feels like to bowl a good length.

Bowling is a sensation, and you only become used to what it feels like to bowl a good length by trying to do it regularly. A bowler can make this task very difficult if he mindlessly throws the ball into the dirt two or three times each over.

Watching Harmison yesterday, there was a distinct difference between deliveries. When he ran up cautiously he pitched the ball somewhere close to the right spot, but when he tried to bowl quickly the ball flew all over the place. In the summer this did not happen, because he had trained his body to bowl a length that now feels alien.

It also has to be accepted that the South African batsmen have played the lanky paceman well, and that bowlers are not robots. Thierry Henry goes through periods when he does not score goals, and even his confidence will be low at times.

Despite what has taken place in the past month, Harmison remains a class act and he will continue to win Tests for England.