Harmison receives contract reward

England dug deep into their pockets yesterday to provide central contracts for four extra players. It brings to 12 the number who will now be under the protective wing of the coach, Duncan Fletcher, and means that if he so chooses he can wrap his fast bowling spearhead, Stephen Harmison, in cotton wool.

Harmison was joined on the contracted list by his seam bowling partners, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard, as well as the veteran batsman, Graham Thorpe, whose rehabilitation in the squad is thus complete. But far from performing a little jig of delight at having so many of his favoured side under his direct control courtesy of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Fletcher expressed disappointment that it was not more.

"The first thing I had to establish was whether we had permission to give contracts to 16 or 20," he said."When that wasn't granted it was pointless asking for anybody else. The ECB finances wouldn't allow it. They were fine about the extra four, but I didn't ask for anybody else because I knew what the answer would be."

Eight contracts were initially awarded last autumn and 10 of the first-choice team that has emerged since then will now be under the supervision of the ECB, and more specifically, Fletcher, till the end of the 2004 season. He will tell them when and where they can play for their counties and decide when they should rest.

But there seemed to be little doubt that the ECB had to perform the equivalent of breaking the piggy bank and hunting down the back of the sofa for their last remnants of small change to fund the extra contracts.

Although their current television deal is extremely lucrative, they have siphoned off nearly £10m as an emergency fund to try to cope with any financial disaster that might befall them if they decide not to undertake their contentious tour of Zimbabwe this autumn.

Harmison took 23 wickets in the series against the West Indies, which England won 3-0 after battling their way to a draw in the final match in Antigua. He is now England's most precious asset and Fletcher must have been desperate to ensure he was not simply allowed to return to his county, Durham, and be persuaded to bowl day in, day out.

Although Harmison was eventually warned off for running on the St John's pitch, the way he kept going as Brian Lara made his way inexorably to 400 was striking. "Even when Lara had 200 and it was an old ball he was still uncomfortable against him and didn't enjoy facing him," said Fletcher. "That was the most promising and positive thing on that wicket."

Harmison was initially denied a contract last autumn, partly as a gentle reminder that he was still full of potential rather than achievement. Since then, he has done everything asked of him in terms of preparation and performance. He is part of England's squad for the one-day series starting on Sunday but Fletcher insisted: "We will definitely make sure he's looked after."

The other three players to have been awarded contracts flew home yesterday. Jones, in particular, might have profited from staying and Fletcher conceded that he was given serious consideration. "He's played so little cricket and he's got to work his own game out, like Harmison has done," said Fletcher, "so that you understand when things aren't going well you know what to fall back on."