In St Kitts at the start of England's tour, Stephen Harmison voiced his worst fear. "The odd doubt does come into your mind," he said. "But hopefully it's just that wicket and not me getting old."
He was referring to his greatest asset as a fast bowler: his speed. With that comes the extreme bounce which had, from time to time, made him such an intimidating prospect. Without the first, the second becomes less potent; and without them both, terminal weakness sets in.
By dropping Harmison (pictured) from the team for the Fourth Test against West Indies, the selectors may have made a lasting judgement. The match was to be played on a fast, bouncy surface – exactly the sort on which Harmison is supposed to prosper – but still they could not bring themselves to pick him.
The pitch turned out to be much flatter than expected, or than England would have liked but, as in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Alec Bedser would have loved it not because he was fast but because of that inherent quality alone. Fidel Edwards, desperately unlucky, showed what could be done on the second morning.
This may be the end of the long road that Harmison has travelled from Ashington. For him to come back from this would take not only a tremendous effort of will but a necessity to persuade the selectors that he still possesses what they want. It would be poignant indeed if it ended for him in the West Indies, as it truly started, in Jamaica five years ago, when he took 7 for 12 and everything came together in one stunning morning.
On the eve of the match, Andrew Strauss had said there were two ways of looking at Harmison. One was that he is frustrating and you do not always get the same level of performance from him; the other is that he relies on rhythm, which does not come as easily as people think.
He might have taken the former view for this match, and it is difficult to dispel the suspicion that he will for every match to come. The bitter truth is that since the 2005 Ashes, England have carried Harmison around more in hope than expectation.
In 26 Tests over more than three years, he has taken 83 wickets – just over three per match - at an average of 37.27. Only twice, in the same Test, has he taken five wickets in an innings. He has taken a wicket every 66.72 balls. By any reading, that is not the return of a champion.
Harmison knows and yet does not know. "I have no idea, I can't put my finger on it," he said, imparting that if he could do something about it all, he would. "It does exasperate me but I try my nuts off."
The omission in Bridgetown could mean the penultimate warrior from 2005 has gone – Ashley Giles, Simon Jones and Matt-hew Hoggard all surely not returning now – leaving only Andrew Flintoff and his battered body. It is time for the attack to be rebuilt and remodelled on different lines.
Yet even as the obituaries on Harmison are prepared, it is impossible to let him drift back to Ashington forever to ply what remains of his trade for Durham. He is only 30, not old in modern sportsman's terms. And he has come back before. Importantly, there is still nobody like him.
He is a gentle soul despite his job but it has not made him quite the model pro. By his own admission he was fit, but not fit enough, in India before Christmas. His new captain said he will get fitter and with that will come more venom. This should not have happened in the organisation that Team England have, but there you are.
The hope – but by now only hope – is that Harmison can work up early season for Durham, as he did last year, and come back to frighten the Australians. It is a pleasant thought.Reuse content