Harmison gives England concerns for Caribbean

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The Independent Online

Michael Vaughan's side have more to play for during the next two weeks than a series victory over Sri Lanka following the decision of England's selectors to delay picking their squad for the West Indies.

Originally the squad for February's tour of the Caribbean was to be selected and announced during the second Test which started today in Kandy. But these plans have been scuppered because England's chairman of selectors, David Graveney, is unable to travel to Sri Lanka following surgery on both his knees.

This remains the official reason for the hold-up but England's selectors are still considering the final make-up of this squad. A reason for their indecision is Stephen Harmison, the Durham fast bowler.

Harmison was originally selected for both the Bangladesh and Sri Lanka Test squads before Christmas but following his nine-wicket haul in the first Test, in Dhaka, he returned home with a back complaint. The plan was to get him right for the series here but Harmison failed a fitness test three days before England's five other Test specialists returned to Asia.

A fully fit and motivated Harmison would be one of the first names in England's squad for the Caribbean. In this part of the world, where the pitches suit tall fast bowlers such as Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath, he is undoubtedly a potential match-winner.

However, there is a strong feeling among several of England's senior players in Sri Lanka that the 25-year-old should not just walk back into the side once he has proved his fitness. The reason for their ire is that they question Harmison's commitment to playing for England. The fast bowler is a notoriously bad traveller - Harmison has returned to England early from previous tours with homesickness - and they believe he could have done, and should be doing, more than he has to get himself back to full fitness.

Since he returned home in October, Harmison has travelled reluctantly from his home in Durham to the England and Wales Cricket Board's National Academy in Loughborough for treatment. It is an attitude that has won him few admirers, especially among those who have been on tour since 7 October.

Under Vaughan's leadership England have a different feel to them than when Nasser Hussain was in charge. The current England captain is far more laid-back than his predecessor but he wants to turn this group of players into a closely knit and competitive unit. To achieve this, though, he needs to be fully committed.

As a selector, the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, is also looking for players with character and this is why he is a huge fan of Harmison's Durham team-mate Paul Collingwood. This policy, and the search for players who do not whinge, are traits upon which the Australian selectors put a high value when they identify potential Test cricketers.

The dilemma of what to do with Harmison, and the fact that England will not be taking three spinners to the Caribbean, means the selectors will be looking closely at how the fast bowlers perform in the two remaining Tests here. Of England's eight centrally contracted players, only Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson are fast bowlers and both can be certain of their places, barring injury.

As a tall, fastish bowler who can bat, Rikki Clarke should be included so this leaves six bowlers competing for only three places. Though neither Matthew Hoggard nor Richard Johnson made much of an impression during the last Test in Galle, both have an excellent chance of making the final 16.

This leaves Harmison, James Kirtley, Simon Jones - whose bowling and fitness are reported to be coming along well after the horrific knee injury he sustained in Australia a year ago - and possibly Andrew Caddick, who has recoverd from the back mproblem that kept him out of action for most of last summer, competing for the last spot. Because of what he offers once you get him on the park, Harmison should still be the favourite for this final place but he is in danger of running out of chances.

* The England and Wales Cricket Board will not make any decision on next year's tour to Zimbabwe until February at the earliest following the country's withdrawal from the Commonwealth. The ECB's management board met yesterday for their scheduled monthly meeting, at which they reaffirmed their intention to review plans early next year. Des Wilson of the ECB said: "We are determined that any decision ... is taken by ourselves for the right reasons and at the right time."

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