When Stephen Harmison last played against South Africa in September 2003 he was bowling for his international future. The Durham paceman had shown promise, but the statistics, 28 wickets in 10 Test matches at an average of 36.79, and his attitude - many felt he was ambivalent about playing international cricket - was beginning to test the patience of the England selectors.
Harmison took 0 for 73 in South Africa's first innings at The Oval, figures which took his bowling average in the series to 96. But then, with his career on the line, he finally created the sort of carnage that has become commonplace in the last 12 months. Harmison ripped through the Proteas' batting line-up, taking 4 for 33 in 19.2 hostile overs, and took England to a remarkable series-levelling victory.
Now, 15 months after they last faced him, the 26-year-old will be the man South Africa fear most when they line up against England at Port Elizabeth in nine days' time. Graeme Smith's side have every reason to be wary of a gangling fast bowler who is capable of whizzing the ball past their ears at 95 mph. Smith and Co may have got the better of Harmison in 2003, but since that eventful day in south London he has taken 74 wickets in 13 Test matches. These wickets have come at an average of 19.19, and he is now rated as the finest bowler in the world.
"My last Test against South Africa was a massive turning point for me," said Harmison yesterday, while the rain continued to fall here. "You look at games where you push on from and that was my game. I had not done myself justice in Test cricket before that game but since then I have proved to everyone that I can play at this level.
"But South Africa have definitely not seen the best of me yet. The West Indies and New Zealand have, and hopefully South Africa will - come a fortnight's time."
In order to get himself fit for this gruelling 10-week tour Harmison has gone through the same routine as last winter and trained regularly with his beloved Newcastle United. When Harmison first turned up at St James' Park he admitted that several of the players looked at him and wondered, "Who the hell is he?" But now after a year in the headlines their attitude has changed.
"This time you could see they had taken an interest in what had taken place in the West Indies and throughout the summer," Harmison said. "Graeme Souness [the Newcastle manager] is not someone who enjoys cricket because he is a Scotsman but when I left even he shook my hand, wished me luck and wished England well."
In a country where fast bowlers are expected to win matches, Harmison will have a significant effect on the way this five-Test series swings. But Harmison, like the seven other members of England's squad who did not go to Namibia and Zimbabwe, desperately needs some cricket, and this is reflected in the team named for today's opening match. Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss, Ashley Giles and Geraint Jones played in all England's one-day games and are rested against the Nicky Oppenheimer XI.
In South Africa's Test squad there were two notable omissions. The opener Herschelle Gibbs is injured and could miss the first three Tests after straining ligaments in his right hand. The wicketkeeper Mark Boucher was also left out. A B de Villiers, an opening batsman, and Dale Steyn, a fast bowler, are the only two members who did not take part in the tour of India.
England (v N Oppenheimer XI, Johannesburg, today): M E Trescothick (capt), R W T Key, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe, A Flintoff, P D Collingwood, C M W Read (wkt), G J Batty, S P Jones, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison.
South Africa (Squad for first Test, Port Elizabeth, starts 17 Dec): G C Smith (capt), N Boje, H M Amla, Z de Bruyn, A B de Villiers, H H Dippenaar, A J Hall, J H Kallis, M Ntini, S M Pollock, J A Rudolph, D W Steyn, T L Tsolelike (wkt).Reuse content