Harmison heads new pace-setters

Durham should nurture their young potential England speed king with due care
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Whe England returned from this winter's South African tour, Nasser Hussain, the captain spoke of the urgent need to find a quality pace bowler or two, and a match-winning leg-spinner. Therein lied the key to England's future Test match success, and the facts do not dispute him.

A cursory glance at the successful Test nations reveals a long list of bowlers that fit Hussain's words, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath from Australia, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock from South Africa and Saqlain Mushtaq and Shoaib Akhtar from Pakistan.

So with England finally embracing central contracts and strict control over how much and when the best players play, the only decision left was which 12 players to choose.

Clearly, young pace bowlers and leg-spinners would be uppermost in the selectors' minds. Indeed, they did select the promising leggie, Chris Schofield, but they ignored one of the country's best young fast bowlers. Stephen Harmison, 21, is most definitely quick, but like many pace bowlers, a number of whom have failed to fulfil their potential because of injury, he is tall and slim.

Those long arms and legs that can propel a cricket ball at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour, also look like they would snap in a stiff breeze - a perfect candidate for a central contract where the assembled experts, coaches and gurus could work on his fitness, strength and technique on a continual basis and ensure he is not over-bowled in the county game.

There is no doubting his ability. Two winters ago he went on the A tour to Zimbabwe and South Africa and last year he took 65 first-class wickets before once more being selected for the A tour. But he failed to make the trip because of injury. A warning shot across the bow of the selectors that has been ignored. "I was just running around a field when my right knee went and I fell over," he explained. "It was the ligaments but even though they felt it would be better in a couple of weeks, they decided not to risk taking me on the flight."

Keen to protect him then, it only makes the decision not to award him a contract for this summer all the more curious. "I'd love to have got a contract, but the way Boonie [David Boon] and Giff [Norman Gifford] looked after me last year was excellent," he explained. "I hardly played in the one-dayers. Boonie wanted to get in the top division of the Championship so he kept me for the four-day cricket where he wanted me fresh to bowl quick."

England may yet come to rue thier decision as Boon has retired and is back in Tasmania and Nick Speak has taken over as captain. If the pressure mounts on him and Durham find themselves struggling to retain their first division status, will he still be able to take a longer-term view of his strike bowler? Chances are he will want to play him as often as possible.

Although he was injury-free during last season, his body still reacted to the workload and stress that bowling quickly generates. "I got sore shins during the season, but I played through them, and at the end of the season I was really tired, absolutely knackered," he said. " The problem is I'm not very good at being injured. I'd rather play half-fit." A noble and honest sentiment and one that a county captain would love, but it should ring alarm bells within the England management structure.

Andrew Caddick, a recipient of a contract and England's premier bowler at the moment, is similar in outlook. Many times at Somerset he has played through the pain, has refused to stop bowling, marched back to his mark and demanded the ball. Reliant on rhythm, he needs to bowl a lot, but he is so stubborn and determined to take wickets that he has often played when lesser men would settle for the security of putting their size 12s up in the dressing room. The danger with Harmison is that he will ruin his career by carrying on in a similar fashion.

Players such as Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart do not need central contracts to ensure they are rested and prepared for England. During his captaincy the members at Lancashire were lucky to catch a glimpse of Atherton and even luckier to see him make a meaningful score for the county. Stewart has the gravitas and presence at Surrey to ask for and be granted a rest whenever he feels it necessary. Who at The Oval would object, considering the magnificent service he has given the county during his career? The award of their central contracts are rubber stamping what could, and has already, happened anyway.

In granting the 12 contracts the selectors may have wasted an opportunity to take control of the next generation of England players before the grind of the county circuit robs them of their desire and consigns them to the physiotherapist's table.

If Harmison is elevated to the England team he will give the WestIndies a taste of what their success of the 1970s and 1980s was based on. "It's a great sight seeing the ball thump into the keeper's gloves and watching a batsman dance and jump 22 yards away," Harmison said. One can picture the gentle nodding of agreement from Messrs Walsh and Ambrose. "And an even better sight getting 'em out and watching 'em walk off," he continued. Cue furious nodding in agreement.

"I'm lucky because when I leave the ground I don't think about cricket. But when I'm bowling I don't coast, or bowl within myself. I aim to bowl quick, that is what I do. And I aim to get people out."