Harmison in right place to succeed

Fast bowler hoping to revive career at the scene of his finest moment for England

There might, just might, have been a tear in Stephen Harmison's eye yesterday as England's chartered plane touched down. He was coming back to the town where it all started for him and for once he could think not of how it went wrong but of where once it was so right.

If Ashington, Northumberland, as he has made clear so often, did not mean so much to him, Kingston, Jamaica might be the place of his dreams. In one Sunday morning at Sabina Park almost five years ago he went from a fast bowler with potential to one of the most feared.

The start of the day was fairly prosaic. The match was evenly balanced. Both sides were finding their range. West Indies had started their second innings the night before and four more overs in the morning yielded five more runs. The shift was sudden.

All at once, Harmison's express pace and steep bounce became an irresistible combination. In some cases, they were not keen to resist, they just wanted to get the hell out of it. In 54 balls, Harmison took seven wickets for eight runs, in all 7 for 12 from 12.3 overs and West Indies were 47 all out. Minutes later England had won the first Test by 10 wickets and there was a sense not only that the series was already beyond recall but that England had a team again. So it proved.

The figures were as dramatic as the performance. It was stunning and it transformed Harmison. In the next few months he became the world's No 1 bowler. Nobody wanted to face him, not many made much of it when they did.

And now he is back there. The First Test between England and the West Indies begins on Wednesday, with the second and final warm-up game having petered out into a draw on Saturday with Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood gaining valuable time in the middle but Owais Shah missing out.

For Harmison, however, something, has been lost on the journey from Sabina Park and back again. It may have crossed Harmison's mind that he can find it again here. He has become England's most exasperating bowler. He concedes regularly that he annoys himself, that he cannot understand why he can be so innocuously wayward. The feelings derive almost entirely from that day, 14 March in 2004. If he could do that once, why cannot he always bowl like that? Or at least not like a drain?

"I have no idea, I can't put my finger on it," imparting that if he could he would. "It does exasperate me but I try my nuts off. I feel now I'm getting more consistency but maybe I'm not as incisive. Before I would throw one down here, one down there and then put one in the slot and that would get the wicket. Maybe I've got to go back to the old days and throw it around everywhere."

More theories are offered about Harmison's bowling than about global warming. Maybe he is too decent a bloke to be a fast bowler. He now knows he has to bowl and bowl to be the bowler he should be.

He is a worrier, an Ashington lad who frets when away. He is fretting mildly at present about his pace – that is half the weapon – because there was not much of it in St Kitts last week. "The odd doubt does come into your mind but hopefully it's just that wicket and not me getting old."

Less than a year ago, it was possible to believe that Harmison's career was done. He had turned up in New Zealand short of bowling and fitness and his performance in the Hamilton Test was hapless. He was aware that he had let himself and the team down.

It took strength of character that some suspected he did not possess to get himself back into the England side. It was stirring to see him return and to watch him propel Durham towards an improbable County Championship title with renewed vigour.

Then came India late in the year. Harmy seemed to go barmy again. India won a Test they should have lost and on the final, spine-tingling day when Sachin Tendulkar made a century whose every stroke was imbued with emotion Harmison was barely entrusted to bowl. Exasperation did not do it justice.

"I knew I wasn't fit enough in India," he said. Harmison's canny candour has the habit of being disarming. "I was fit but I wasn't fit enough and I've got to work hard. I had a long summer, went from Antigua to India and I would say I was tired but that's not an excuse. I was off for five and a half weeks and I spent a lot of time in the gym which my wife can vouch for. I lost a bit of weight, turned a lot of body fat into muscle which I'm happy with."

Harmison is desperate still to play for England, though he is running out of time to have the career his gifts might have granted him.

His state of mind when it all goes horribly wrong can only be guessed at, though he made a game stab of saying that he had fond memories of all his Tests. Sabina Park 2004 (7 for 12) might have been special but so too was Brisbane 2006 (1 for 123 and 0 for 54, the first ball of the series propelled unerringly into the hands of second slip).

"It hasn't been straightforward but hopefully it will keep me in a job for a few more years yet," he said. So it should, but his preparation for every series from here on has to be precise. He said: "I feel I'm in a decent place at the moment." For Harmison the fast bowler there can be none more decent that Kingston.

ICC indecision: The 2006 Oval Test

In an act of belated decisiveness the International Cricket Council yesterday finally agreed that England had indeed won the Test against Pakistan at The Oval in 2006. The match was dramatically abandoned when Pakistan refused to return to the field after being accused of ball-tampering. They were deemed to have forfeited the game, a fact which was later overturned by the ICC who declared the match a draw. The decision was overturned yesterday and England have now won the series 3-0. Pakistan, of course, may yet appeal again.

Stephen Brenkley

Stephen Harmison has played 59 Tests for England since making his debut in a draw with India in August 2002. The Northumberland-born fast bowler has recorded one '10-for', against the West Indies in 2004, and eight '5-for's'.

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