'I've knuckled down, so now let me play,' pleads Harmison

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The Independent Online

Stephen Harmison last night pleaded with the England selectors to pick him for tomorrow's crucial third Test against South Africa. When Harmison was dropped by England on their tour of New Zealand many believed he had made his last international appearance, but the débâcle of Headingley and a desperate desire to triumph in a must-win Test have encouraged the selectors to return to their former enforcer in the hope that he can rediscover the form that made him the most feared fast bowler in the world.

"A lot of people thought you'd never see me in an England shirt again, but I was never one of them," said a defiant Harmison. "I'm obviously delighted to have been called up. When I left New Zealand I asked, 'What have I got to do to get back in?' and I think I've answered that question as well as I possibly could have. I've gone away, knuckled down and done it. That is what I wanted to do because I've always wanted to play for England. I've missed the atmosphere. It is great playing for Durham and I love it, but the buzz of the first morning at a Test match is not something you get playing at the Riverside.

"I'm not looking to prove any points, the selectors made a decision and everybody is talking about them. They made a call months ago to leave me and Matthew Hoggard out, and went six games without changing the team. They went six games playing well and at the time it was the right decision. Now they made a choice last week and it didn't work for them, the one in New Zealand did. I've got a chance now to stake my claim and I'm looking forward to it. I've bowled overs and taken wickets, in fact I feel as though I've bowled the most overs in the country, so I'm pleased.

"Now I've got to get in the team and stay in the team. I'm looking forward to having that first ball and getting back out in front of 20,000 people. If I wasn't I wouldn't be here at Edgbaston."

Harmison's return has not been greeted with universal joy. Michael Atherton, the former England captain, described it as an uninspiring selection. Mickey Arthur, the South African coach, questioned Harmison's recall too, suggesting that England were looking for a "quick fix". In 2004 Harmison was rightly rated as the best bowler in the world, and his hostile bowling at Lord's on the first day of the 2005 Ashes, when he rattled Australia's top three batsmen with fast bouncers, played a major part in England's success. But the 30-year-old's form in the past 18 months has been disappointing and his commitment has been questioned. On each of last winter's tours he turned up injured and short of match practice.

The return to county cricket appears to have helped Harmison enormously, allowing him to regain form and confidence. For Durham this summer he has taken 75 wickets. Umpires who have watched him bowl at close quarters say he is bowling extremely well.

"Sometimes you need to take time away from the game and away from the big stage to get everything back in a groove and get everything right to actually come back," said Harmison. "Hopefully I'm a better bowler for having time out of the team and hopefully I've learnt a few things about my own body and bowling. I'm looking forward to this week if I can get a game.

"For me it is hard to go straight into Tests, and I feel I've got overs under my belt now."