Harmison's back injury hands Test chance to Johnson

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The Independent Online

The England fast bowler, Stephen Harmison, was yesterday forced to withdraw from December's three-Test tour of Sri Lanka after failing to recover from an injury to his lower back.

Initially, it had been hoped that Harmison, who returned home from Bangladesh prematurely after the first Test, would rejoin Michael Vaughan's squad with England's five other Test specialists tomorrow. However, after failing to pass a fitness test at the National Academy in Loughborough on Monday the Durham player was advised to remain in England. His place will be taken by Richard Johnson.

"He bowled at the National Academy a week ago and was sore for a few days afterwards," said Peter Gregory, the chief medical officer at the England and Wales Cricket Board. "Then he returned for a fitness test on Monday in front of the selectors, Kirk Russell and myself and while bowling his second spell in the nets it was clear that he could not continue. He will continue his rehabilitation at the National Academy."

After taking nine wickets and winning the man-of-the-match award at the first Test in Dhaka, Harmison will be missed by Vaughan but the England captain has a more than capable replacement in Johnson. In his two Test matches for England, the Somerset seamer has taken 16 wickets and been the man of the match on each occasion.

Because these performances have been against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - the two weakest teams in Test cricket - many are still questioning the true potential of the 28-year-old, but this series should be a good indicator of what he has to offer.

"It is obviously bad luck for Harmy [Harmison]," said Johnson at the team hotel here in Colombo. "But from my point of view it is good news because this gives me another opportunity to push forward my Test career. I have been in his position before where I have played, done well, then got injured and given someone else an opportunity. On this occasion, Harmy's injury has given me mine. It happens.

"This will definitely give me a true taste of what Test cricket is like. I have taken my opportunities against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and you can only play against what you are put up against. If I hadn't taken any wickets against them people would have been wondering whether I was good enough."

England's humiliating 10-wicket defeat in Dambulla on Tuesday and the way the Sri Lanka batsmen set about the bowling has not been lost on England or Johnson. "Generally I have been pretty happy with the way things have been going," he said. "Obviously it is going to be different in Sri Lanka. I have no illusions about that. It is harder cricket and I know it will be tougher than Bangladesh. It is a difficult place to play but I will be trying my best."

Harmison's injury means that Johnson, who was not originally selected for either of England's Test squads, will now be in Asia for the full duration of their pre-Christmas tour. While this unexpected opportunity is excellent news for the former Middlesex bowler, it would have been interesting to see how the it was greeted in Taunton by his wife of six weeks, Nikki.

Johnson's late call-up for Bangladesh, as a replacement for James Anderson, meant the groom had to leave his wife three days after they were married in early October. The honeymoon to Mauritius had to be cancelled and the news of his selection came only six days before he was expected to return home.

The good news for Nikki, who is quickly finding out what it is like to be married to an international cricketer, is that she can now get the suitcase out of the loft and pack her bags for a trip to Sri Lanka. Then, after the Christmas festivities, the pair will eventually find time to go to the Maldives on their long-awaited honeymoon.

Mrs Johnson may not see a great deal of her husband when she arrives because he could be playing in the remainder of England's after it was revealed that Anderson had twisted his right ankle playing squash. The Lancashire fast bowler is due to go for a precautionary X-ray today, but the injury will keep him out of tomorrow's second one-day international here.

England are hopeful the 21-year-old will be fit to play in Sunday's final limited-over game against Sri Lanka - but then they were also optimistic about Harmison rejoining the squad a fortnight ago.

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