Should England lose the toss and find themselves in the field tomorrow morning, Nasser Hussain has a momentous decision to make. Which of his three fast bowlers does the captain throw the new ball to first and ask to bowl the inaugural Test delivery at the Riverside Ground, Chester-le-Street?
After his five wicket haul on debut, James Anderson, the Lancashire fast-bowler, is favourite to get first crack at Zimbabwe's brittle batting line-up. However, a more romantic idea - and one that would make Hussain the toast of the North-East, for a day or two anyway - would be to let the local boy, Stephen Harmison, have the honour of christening the Riverside as a Test venue.
Romance is a subject that seldom associates itself with Hussain, however. Passionate, single-minded and ruthless tend to be the more common ways in which his style of leadership is described. Yet he had not ruled out the possibility of sentiment affecting his decision as the England team prepared for the second Test yesterday.
"It would be nice, especially for the press to write about," said Hussain with a twinkle in his eye. "It could also make sense tactically. The Duke [the make of the ball used in Test cricket in England] tends to swing when it is a bit older, which makes it a better time for Anderson, Johnson and Kirtley to bowl. Harmison has a good chance of taking the new ball."
Harmison, who has played for Durham since his debut in 1996, would jump at this opportunity. "I hope we bowl first because I fancy bowling the first ball on Thursday morning," said the 24-year-old fast bowler. "I'm not going to go knocking on Nasser's door to beg him to let me bowl it, but if he gives it me I would be quite happy."
That England's fastest bowler now talks and behaves in such a confident and mature manner should be the source of great encouragement to the England team. Harmison is exactly the type of bowler Hussain needs firing if he wishes to see his side develop into a major force. Assured, however, was not something he appeared on several occasions during England's winter tour of Australia.
First, Harmison had to cope with bowling 16 wides in one over during England's first match of the tour. Then, back in Perth for the third Test match, the raw paceman kept losing his run-up, in what could best be described as a bowlers' version of the yips. He came through both, plus the birth of his second child before Christmas and homesickness - a problem which had seen him withdraw or return home from previous overseas trips - during his five months away on England duty. That the fast bowler finished the tour a much stronger and impressive character suggests a winter Down Under, in the toughest of finishing schools, finally made him grow up.
Every batsman in England knows what he is capable of once on the field. In full flow and on form, the 6ft 4in Harmison is a daunting proposition for any player. With long arms and a high action, his steepling bounce and lightning pace gets the best batsmen in the world rummaging around in their kit bags for extra protection. Although he only took three wickets in the first Test, it was plain to see Harmison was the bowler which Zimbabwe's batsmen least enjoyed facing and his threat helped create opportunities for England's other bowlers.
Harmison's wayward radar - caused by his arms not working in unison - is the main reason why he currently has only six caps to his name. Helping him improve on his aim and getting his arms working in straight lines is England's new fast bowling coach, the Australian Troy Cooley. "Troy is brilliant," said Harmison. "I worked with him a lot when I was at the Academy [2001/02] and he is the bloke I search out when I have problems. Even if he wasn't England's bowling coach I would be phoning him up to ask for advice because I can trust him."
Although confident, Harmison could do with a bagful of wickets to prove to everyone else he is capable of performing at this level. He will never get a better occasion to do it. Who knows, an England win and Harmison becoming the first bowler to take five Test wickets at the Riverside could even make Hussain believe in fairy tales.Reuse content