Harmison will roar again on Durban fast track, says Fletcher

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The Independent Online

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, is confident that Stephen Harmison will regain the form which made him the most feared fast bowler in the world in 2004. The Durham paceman was the most unreliable member of England's attack during the seven-wicket victory over South Africa in the first Test, taking only one wicket and conceding 142 runs.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, is confident that Stephen Harmison will regain the form which made him the most feared fast bowler in the world in 2004. The Durham paceman was the most unreliable member of England's attack during the seven-wicket victory over South Africa in the first Test, taking only one wicket and conceding 142 runs.

Fletcher feels the performance of England's spearhead in Port Elizabeth was an aberration, and that Harmison will be back to his best in the second Test against South Africa which starts on Boxing Day.

"I am confident he will bounce back," Fletcher said yesterday. "Nobody can hold their form indefinitely. All players have windows when they are in form and then suddenly, for no particular reason, it can just go. Working out why it has gone is the tricky part. But Stephen could turn up on Boxing Day and bowl as well as he did during the summer."

Harmison, along with the fast bowlers of both teams, should enjoy what they see when they arrive at the Kingsmead ground in Durban for practice today. The green, hard, bouncy nature of pitches at this venue has brought belated Christmas cheer to many a fast bowler and this one is no exception. The Test is still two days away but yesterday it was almost impossible to identify it from the grassy unprepared pitches which surround it.

Producing pitches of this type was a tactic used by New Zealand when they played at home and went 1-0 down in a series. Poor surfaces can even out one-sided contests, especially when you have Richard Hadlee in your side. The great New Zealand bowler was unplayable on pitches that seamed around and South Africa, in Shaun Pollock, have a modern-day Hadlee.

On surfaces like this it is crucial that Harmison recaptures the form he showed before his arrival in South Africa, when he took 61 wickets in 11 Test matches against the West Indies and New Zealand. If the groundsman decides to keep his lawnmower in his shed this could be a low-scoring and close match. And when that is the case it is vital that all your bowlers are firing because one poor spell, conceding 35 runs, can be the difference between the two sides.

England are reluctant to accept that any of their players were under-prepared before the first Test but Harmison most certainly was. The lanky fast bowler opted out of England's controversial tour of Zimbabwe for moral reasons and had not bowled off his full run for 10 weeks when he landed in Johannesburg.

Some players are capable of performing at the highest level without a great deal of preparation but Harmison is a bowler who needs to bowl. The reason Harmison was able to remain on top of his game last summer was because he kept on bowling for seven months and never lost the wonderful rhythm he found when he took 7 for 12 against the West Indies in March.

England's only other worry before Sunday is complacency. But after a night celebrating in Port Elizabeth, and a well deserved day off on Wednesday England were back in the gym yesterday preparing for the second Test.

"It is fantastic to see the players with their families around them," Fletcher said. "But we have to be careful. It would be easy to sit back, have another day off, but before you know it a holiday feeling develops. And this is why we are back in the gym. We have to ensure we maintain our routines. It is to get the team focused again because there is a Test match in two days and we want to go 2-0 up."

England are unlikely to change their team but South Africa have important decisions to make before Boxing Day. The return of Herschelle Gibbs from injury will give the Proteas a much-needed lift.

Gibbs is a wonderful player, who is capable of winning a game on his own. The opener has batted just once in a competitive match since November and Fletcher indicated that England will be aiming to get into him early.

Graeme Smith, the South African captain, suggested that Nicky Boje would play in this match but he may change his mind when he looks at the pitch. Boje missed the first Test because he had not fully recovered from a recent operation to remove a cancerous growth from his thyroid gland. But now, despite undergoing a course of chemotherapy, he has been declared fit to play, although there would appear to be little point in playing a spinner on a surface like this.

The absence of Boje would allow Charl Langeveldt to make his Test debut. The swing bowler bowled superbly for South Africa A against England in Potchefstroom, where he took seven wickets, and this performance could well gain him selection in preference to the inconsistent Andrew Hall.

The South Africans could also change their wicketkeeper in an attempt to strengthen their batting. Thami Tsolekile is regarded as the better gloveman but A B de Villiers, who opened the batting in the first Test, also keeps wicket for his province.

Hashim Amla looks set to play his first Test match in South Africa in front of his home crowd. The right-handed Amla is a strict Muslim and for religious reasons refuses to wear the Castle Beer sponsors' logo on his South African kit.

Whichever final XI they decide on will be far more experienced than the one which was beaten in the first Test.

ENGLAND (probable): M P Vaughan (capt), A J Strauss, M E Trescothick, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe, A Flintoff, G O Jones, A F Giles, M J Hoggard, S P Jones, S J Harmison.

SOUTH AFRICA (from): G C Smith (capt), H H Gibbs, J A Rudolph, J N Kallis, H H Dippenaar, H M Amla, A B de Villiers, S M Pollock, C K Langeveldt, M Ntini, D W Steyn, T L Tsolekile, N Boje, A J Hall.

Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) & S J A Taufel (Aus)

Third umpire: K Hurter.

Match referee: C H Lloyd (West Indies).

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