Harmison: a bit of Curtly and a lot of Ashington

NatWest Series: England rejoice in the world's leading fast bowler but he will always remain a home-loving boy

There was deep concern not so long ago whether Stephen Harmison would make it as an international fast bowler. There isn't now. Fifteen weeks ago today in Jamaica, Harmison blew away West Indies and with them any doubts that persisted about the direction of his unquestionable talent.

Since that compelling exhibition - he took 7 for 12 in 11.5 pitilessly hostile overs - Harmison has become by fact, figure and reputation the best fast bowler on this planet, and probably any other. He has taken more wickets more quickly and at cheaper cost than his rivals. Only the Sri Lankan spin phenomenon Muttiah Muralitharan stands ahead of him in the Test world ratings.

In nine of the last 11 innings, Harmison has bowled the most overs for England, in 10 of the last 12 he has taken three or more wickets. In his total of 19 Tests so far, he has 88 wickets at 23.75 runs apiece, and this after his first 10 yielded 28 at 36.79. But it is more, much more than that: when Harmison has the ball in his hand, which is often these days, anticipation and expectation surge through the arena, enveloping spectators like a hypnotic gas.

In the next three weeks, it is likely that he will bring this conjunction of speed, skill and confidence to the one-day stage for the first time. Everything now suggests he will. The speed at which he propels the ball is the key, but allied to it are accuracy and hostility. No batsman at any stage has been able to find comfort in the storm. It is clear that he is the best English fast bowler since Bob Willis and that he now evokes comparison with Curtly Ambrose.

And yet none of this has changed him or his perspective. He remains steadfastly the lad from Ashington, Northumberland, for whom family and football have - and will - loom larger than cricket. Apart from several more Test wickets and the roughing up of several leading batsmen he could easily be the Stephen Harmison of the turn of the year, the one who was not a hero. He retains that peculiar combination of a man who is perfectly sure how good he is and the lad who is not quite certain.

"I'm desperate to keep the run going, to be honest," he said. "The team's going well and I am contributing to the team and as long as that continues I am not really fussed with stats. I know that there is going to come a time when I am going to have a barren spell. A football centre-forward can get 10 goals in 10 games and then go 10 games without a goal and all of a sudden everybody's thinking he's not very good."

Football is never far from Harmison's thoughts. It is football that is at least partially responsible for his current pre-eminence, one of two or three turning points in his career in the past 10 months that happily all took him to the same desired destination.

The first of these was at The Oval last September. He had been part of England's team for most of the previous year, almost but not quite an assured pick. In the second innings against South Africa he removed their middle order in short order. "That was where everything came into place, I realised I could bowl at this level," he recalled.

But there was to follow a difficult setback. After dismantling a hapless Bangladesh in Dhaka, he came home with a sore back. There were muted allegations that if Harmison had plenty to learn about how to swing a cricket ball he knew all about swinging the lead. These allegations turned out to be unfair.

The introduction into his life of Troy Cooley was also of immense help. Cooley is a bowling coach who listens so that his charges might learn. "He helps by not really saying a great deal, he doesn't baffle you with science and wave his arms in the air," Harmison said. "He's got a computer with everything on film and if he thinks you're doing something wrong he'll say, 'Look at that, you can see it'. It's just simple, little things."

But then came Newcastle United. They have not won a League championship since 1934, nor the FA Cup since 1955, but in six weeks earlier this year they might have given England one of their best fast bowlers. Harmison has been devoted to the Magpies since he was a boy, is a season-ticket holder at St James' Park, and when he was invited by their fitness trainer, Paul Winspear (who was formerly at Harmison's county, Durham), to train with the team he could hardly wait. For six consecutive weeks, five days a week he did heavy gym work aimed at building up his strength in the core area between waist and thighs.

But what might have counted as much was that he was with his sporting heroes, footballers who welcomed him as one of their own. Harmison looked on in awe as they worked. "You're standing in the gym, waiting for them to come in, these high-profile people are trooping through the door and they welcome you, take the mickey out of you, shake your hand, talk to you as if you were one of them." Harmison was in heaven.

He might even have thought of them as he ran in at Sabina Park on 14 March. What is certain is that he ran in with new purpose. "I am a lot stronger even when I'm running in. Look at clips from the past and my feet were wobbly, I was just flopping. In the West Indies I felt my body would last. Maybe it took somebody who isn't really anything to do with cricket to do it."

Harmison insisted that he has not changed, though his coach, Duncan Fletcher, has noticed differences. Once last winter, he was touched when Harmison got up from a team meeting to pass on a message outside. A simple thing, but he would not have done it months earlier.

He still misses home, and said so within five minutes. "It will always haunt me." Even in the West Indies he was miserable at the start and during the one-day international series at the end. "It was horrendous through the one-dayers up to St Lucia when there was light at the end of the tunnel and I was going home. It will always be there, even when I'm 30."

His big mates in the England squad are Andrew Flintoff and the returning Robert Key. "They stick by you when they know you're not having a good day."

If he can crack the one-day business, Harmison recognises what his next big task will be: helping England to win the Ashes back next summer. It could be his crowning moment. A nation awaits. "I am not somebody who chases attention. It's come by, finding me. You just get on with the job." Win the Ashes and Newcastle United will be asking if they can train with him.

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