For the first time in years, a home Test series is in progress with a fit Steve Harmison not only not participating, but with nobody pressing his claims.
He's been on fire for Durham, yet England are getting along swimmingly without him. And much as he would love a recall, he says, what he loves even more is seeing England prosper. "I would jump at it, but all I can do is carry on taking wickets, and at the moment they don't need to come back to me. England have an exciting group of fast bowlers, and if they can leave the most skilful of them, Jimmy Anderson, out of the one-day team, then it shows how much competition there is."
There is, in this cheerful assessment of the state of the cricketing nation, just the hint of a rebuke for the selectors. The near certainty that they are not bandying his name around their smoke-free rooms genuinely does not seem to bother him. Life is good. But of course, it hasn't always been so.
Does any cricketer embody the highs and lows of the game more fully than Stephen James Harmison MBE? Consider merely his record for England against Australia, which of course is how he bagged the MBE. That thunderous opening spell in the 2005 Ashes was, surely, as devastatingly hostile a burst of fast bowling as anything ever produced in the venerable contest by Lillee, Thomson, Lindwall, Trueman, Statham or Tyson. Then came that first ball in Brisbane in the 2006-07 series, as grotesquely misdirected as anything ever produced on a firing range by Mr Bean. But at The Oval last summer he went and knocked over the Aussie tail to win the Ashes again, a spell that included two wickets in two balls and the fleeting, tantalising possibility of an Ashes-clinching hat-trick.
If the only topic of conversation in more than an hour together was his record against Australia, there would be loads to talk about. But there is also his beloved Durham, who entered this season seeking their third championship title in succession, and his even more beloved Newcastle United FC, back in the Premier League. Harmison is a bigger football nut than he has ever been a cricket nut. Offered a swap between a career in even League Two football and all 63 of his Test matches and 58 one-day internationals, he would not hesitate, he tells me.
Nevertheless, we must start with the career he has, rather than the one he wishes he'd had. And let's first talk Durham, who will have to go some to win a third championship on the trot, something no county has done since Yorkshire in the 1960s. This is a historical titbit Harmison treats with disdain. "What happened in the 1960s can stay in the 1960s," he says. "This is about Durham, it's about our history. When we became a first-class county 18 years ago people would have laughed at you if you'd said we might ever win three on the trot. And we can still do it. The title is Notts' to lose, but they've still got to come to us, and we proved last year that we can win five games in a row. If we can do that again, we can still be in the shake-up."
A back injury limited the big man's participation for much of the early part of the season, but earlier this month he bagged his 700th first-class wicket while ripping through Warwickshire, taking 7 for 29. It was another seven-for, his 7 for 12 against a traumatised West Indies in Jamaica in 2004 that confirmed his status as the most destructive pace bowler England had been able to unleash since Bob Willis, and Willis soldiered on until he was 35. So what of the admittedly receding possibility that Harmison, at 31, might have more international cricket in him?
Might there even be one more, possibly redemptive Ashes campaign Down Under? Watching Australia collapse to 88 all out against Pakistan at Headingley must surely have made him yearn for one last go at them? "You never know. I do think you need some experience in there, and I don't see too many other experienced seamers with Test caps under their belts. But I'm really pleased for Steven Finn. England need a tall hit-the-deck bowler, and Finn gives them that. He'll make mistakes, but I hope people are more patient with him than they were with me."
He knows that, with the 6ft 7in Finn taking Test wickets, the chances of that recall are diminishing all the time. He is also insistent that if his name does become the subject of media speculation, he will not endure it for long if the selectors seem bent on overlooking his credentials. "A certain player, I won't name him, keeps getting talked about. Last summer it was, 'Will he come back for the last Test match at The Oval?' But it was obvious the selectors didn't want to pick him." Harmison doesn't need to give me a name; he is plainly talking about Mark Ramprakash. "If that happened to me I'd retire from international cricket, full stop, so the media would stop talking about me, and talk about somebody else."
Whatever happens, there seems a fair chance that 226 wickets will end up as Harmison's Test haul, at 31 runs apiece. A respectable bowling average, but it does not quite propel him into the company of the men mentioned above, and that pesky term "underachiever" seems to cling to him, much to his understandable irritation.
"People say I've had an indifferent career. I'm ninth in the overall rankings of Test bowlers [I'm not sure which rankings he means; I make him the 46th most prolific wicket-taker], I've been ranked No 1 in the world, I've won the Ashes twice. If I don't play for England again I have some fantastic memories."
We'll come back to those memories, but let's stick with his reputation, which also has him cast as a reluctant tourist, a homebody who hates to be away from his family, back in his native Ashington, for months on end. This, too, irritates him.
"I've got four young children so of course I'm mindful of what's happening at home," he says. "But if I bowled badly on tours with England it wasn't because I was missing home, it was because a lot of pitches away from home don't suit my bowling. That perception of me [as perennially homesick] comes from a trip to Pakistan with England Under-19s. I left school in the October, and by November I was in Pakistan, which I found pretty difficult, but it was also where I first came across Andrew Flintoff, and that's where our friendship started. Every time I had an indifferent trip after that it was blamed on what had happened years earlier. It's true that I struggled at the start of the South Africa trip in 2004-05 ['I wish I worked in an office in a nine-to-five job,' he lamented, in an interview at Heathrow just before setting off on that tour], but I've been fine every other time. My good tours never get mentioned by the media, only the bad ones."
He says this matter-of-factly, not reproachfully. Indeed, the image of Harmison as something of a tortured soul is hardly reinforced by his company in the bar at Durham's Riverside Ground; he is chatty, generous with his time and his candour, and I am assured that his is a lively and popular presence in the dressing room. It was a dressing room that he was the last to leave, him and Flintoff, after the Ashes were regained at The Oval last September. "It was his last Test, and possibly mine. We got out of there about half-twelve."
Yet as celebrations go, it was a sight more muted than the drunken hooley in 2005, the memories of which still make Harmison wince. "It was a shambles. We'd worked so hard for so long, so to tell us at the end of the game that we had to be ready to get on the bus at nine the next morning... I'd defy any sports team to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after what we'd just gone through. They should have let us sit in the hotel for two days, then we would have turned up clean-shaven, suited and booted, but too many people wanted to make a photo-opportunity out of us, especially the Prime Minister [Tony Blair] and the Mayor of London [Ken Livingstone]. Actually, I didn't think we got as rough a ride as we should have done. We got off scot-free, really. I was embarrassed. We had to celebrate it, but certain people bowed to pressure and put us straight on that bus."
For a summer of such extraordinary triumph, it was also a summer of lingering embarrassment; the enduring regret of his career, he says, is that he neglected to check on Ricky Ponting's well-being during that unforgettable opening session at Lord's when a vicious bouncer to the Australia captain had drawn blood. "I didn't realise I'd hit him that hard, and by the time I did realise, I was almost back to my mark. But I wish I'd made sure he was all right. I've so much respect for him; he's the best batsman I've ever bowled against. I bowled against Lara, Tendulkar, Kallis when he was on fire in '04-'05, but for front foot and back foot, steel, stubbornness, Ponting for me is streets ahead of everyone else. So yeah, that's one of those things I'd like to forget."
Pakistan's demolition job on the Australians in the first innings at Headingley surprised Harmison for more reasons than the one called Ponting, however. "Good seam bowlers have been nullified by the pitches in this country. I call them chief executive pitches. The Aussie pitches are good and true because they're all produced by Cricket Australia, but here we have seven chief executives wanting Test matches to go to five days because if they lose a day's cricket they'll lose half a million quid. The result of that is that there's rarely a contest between bat and ball any more. The team with the best batsmen will get 600, but for me I want to see batsmen working hard for their runs. I want to see five for 50, five for 60, and if he gets runs on that pitch then you see his class. I don't want to see pitches where you can't get bouncers above waist height. I know I'm whingeing but there has to be a contest between bat and ball."
A whinge it might be, and undermined slightly by events yesterday at Trent Bridge, but it leaves me in no doubt of Harmison's passion for the game, even if it is dwarfed by his passion for another game. "Where are Newcastle going to get 50, 55, goals from?" he asks plaintively, as I sit back for 20 more convivial minutes with this loquacious, engaging, singular man.
Harmy's highs and lows
Age: 31 County: Durham Test caps: 63 Test wickets: 226 Test average: 31.82
2002 Made Test debut, against India at Trent Bridge, where he took 5 for120 in the match; 3 for 57 in the first innings and 2 for 63 in the second.
2003 Took nine wickets in a four-Test home series against South Africa.
2004 Registered his best spell in Test cricket, taking 7 for 12 against West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.
2005 Picked up 5 for 43 in first Ashes Test against Australia at Lord's in just 11.2 overs, one of eight five-wicket hauls he has taken in Tests.
2005 Took the key wicket of Michael Kasprowicz at Edgbaston in 2005 to level the Ashes series 1-1.
2006 Recorded a 10-wicket haul in an innings win over Pakistan at Old Trafford.
2006 Opened the Ashes with the "worst ball in history" at the Gabba, which ended up in the hands of a somewhat surprised second slip Andrew Flintoff.
2007 Finished Ashes tour with paltry return of 10 wickets, his worst figures when travelling with England.
2009 Played last Test for England at The Oval against Australia, ending with just three wickets.
Harmison has often struggled on tour with England, averaging 36.61 runs a wicket, compared to 28.47 at home.Reuse content