In an act of acute desperation England yesterday summoned Stephen Harmison to save the Test series against South Africa. His recall four months and seven matches after being dropped is a sign of frantic hope rather than solid expectation.
The selectors had to do something, anything, after the side went 1-0 down at Headingley last week with barely a whimper, and to place their faith in the raw speed and intimidation Harmison can bring was an obvious move considering that the tourists' strategy is based on speed. But the gambit is also a gamble. Harmison is the only new name in a squad of 13 announced for the Third Test, which starts at Edgbaston on Wednesday. England must win to sustain any chance of taking the series. The other 12 players formed the original squad for the Second Test before injuries led to the contro-versial call-up of Darren Pattinson, after only six matches for Nottinghamshire.
Pattinson has been dropped and although the national selector, Geoff Miller, insisted that he had no regrets whatsoever about picking the Australian-born paceman, and that he remained part of England's plans, it is difficult to see him playing again any time soon.
Paul Collingwood, who was left out at Headingley, is retained in the squad despite his poor form. So, too, is Stuart Broad, who has been wonderful with the bat in the series but less impressive with the ball, his three wickets having cost almost 100 runs each. The feeling persists that it is much more difficult to get into the England team than out of it at present.
In picking Harmison, the selectors are asking a man whose pace propelled England to unprecedented glory to get them out of a huge hole. It is almost a blind leap of faith. Harmison was dropped during England's winter tour of New Zealand after a grotesque exhibition in the First Test in Hamilton, when he was clearly ill-prepared for the demands of international cricket.But that was merely the nadir of a long, slow decline. The truth was that Harmison's form had not been good enough for months and his continuing presence in the side was based on the feeling he must come good sometime.
When he was eventually omitted the feeling was that he might never get back into the England side; he had used up all his favours and goodwill. But raw pace and bounce are powerful magnets for selectors and discomfiting weapons for opposition batsmen.
The extent of England's wretched state cannot be overstated. Miller was clearly nervous when he spoke to the press yesterday (this is a man, do not forget, who made a living as an excellent after-dinner speaker), and although he tried to convey the impression that everything was hunky-dory, this may not be the case. He and the captain, Michael Vaughan, met after the Headingley defeat to discuss some comments Vaughan made about team selection. Miller said that everything had been cleared up and that Vaughan's position was certainly in no doubt.
The statistics are not compelling, however. In 17 Tests since his comeback from a long spell out last year Vaughan has averaged 38. In the 11 matches since the end of last summer that has fallen to 29. Two series wins against New Zealand were obviously welcome, but they were also entirely expected. Vaughan still has the backing of the team and should not be underestimated as a hard-nosed, innovative tactician. But if England lose to South Africa (after also losing to India and Sri Lanka) his position should no longer be considered as inviolate.
Miller said yesterday that Harmison was back on merit after responding to the shock of being dropped. "He has bowled well this year and is there on merit. I see a difference between now and last year, when he had been bowling well in county cricket. Being left out was ajolt for him. He had to go away and sort himself out and his technique as well.
"He has done that excellently, he has been watched often and in all kinds of cricket and we'll have to wait and see what his reaction is when he comes back into the fold. We all know the pace he offers."
It is possible, though highly improbable, that Harmison could be omitted from the final XI. Miller stressed that it was up to Vaughan and the coach, Peter Moores, to pick the side they want from the squad. "I will be making my recommendations but I can't do that until I see the conditions," he said. "I don't know whether we will go inwith a five-man or four-man bowling attack."
The very fact that Miller was unsure of the side's balance demonstrates that they are thinking of reverting to four bowlers. Since they have taken 23 South African wickets in two Tests, this may be a considerable risk. Equally, it was their batting that let them down at Headingley and left them chasing the game.
Thus Harmison could be reunited with his chum Andrew Flintoff in a four-man attack also including Monty Panesar and one of either Ryan Sidebottom or Jimmy Anderson. Collingwood would be reinstated in the No 6 position, although he has had a rough time this summer.
On the other hand, it might be thought that they really do need five bowlers to bowl out South Africa twice, even with Harmison firing on all cylinders. That would enable both Sidebottom and Anderson, deservedly, to play. But the tail would start at eight, with Flintoff and Tim Ambrose at six and seven.
It is the most important side to have been picked since the defence of the Ashes began in Brisbane in November 2006, and in the event that one was mucked up. In its way, Flintoff's return has complicated matters. Of course he has to play, and in truth he should bat at six. It should not be forgotten that in his last Test appearance before his long-term injury lay-off at Sydney he made a battling 89 at No 6.
With Flintoff and Harmison coming at them the South Africans could be seriously roughed up. It would be useful too if the Edgbaston pitch gave help to Panesar late in the match, and spinners have taken wickets there this summer.
England will have been given succour by the thumb injury to the South African paceman Dale Steyn. Their abiding desire must be that Harmison can once more provide England with something of what Steyn was offeringthe tourists. If he does not, the cause will be lost and there may be no way back for anybody.
England squad: M P Vaughan (capt, Yorks), A N Cook (Essex), A J Strauss (Middx), K P Pietersen (Hants),I R Bell (Warwicks), P D Collingwood (Durham), A Flintoff (Lancs), T R Ambrose (Warwicks), S C J Broad (Notts), R J Sidebottom (Notts), S J Harmison (Durham), J M Anderson (Lancs), M S Panesar (Northants).Reuse content