Test preview: Harmison's stiff back completes a sorry day

Old injury flares up to put paceman in doubt for first match of series and Tremlett also feels the strain. By Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

No sooner were England's lofty one-day ambitions brought plunging to earth yesterday than their Test plans were tottering slightly. Stephen Harmison is being treated for a sore back and is doubtful for the first of only two warm-up matches before the five-day leg of the tour.

It is a condition from which Harmison often suffers at the start of tours, perhaps instigated by long flights and short hotel beds. But it is not what England required ahead of the First Test, which begins on 5 March.

Should he miss the first two-day game in Dunedin, he will have only the second to prepare for the Tests. Harmison's last match was the Third Test against Sri Lanka in December and he needs practice in the middle. He missed the opening Test in Sri Lanka with similar stiffness.

Such had been his indifferent form in the English summer that he was almost omitted for the second match. As it turned out, Harmison produced, albeit intermittently, a reasonable resemblance to an authentic fast bowler in the remaining two games. He has always been a trier despite what some of his notices might say and there were slight signs that he could still be what England want him to be.

His possible absence persuaded the team management to keep Chris Tremlett in New Zealand, at least until the opening Test. It was therefore not entirely without irony that Harmison's stiff back was accompanied by news that Tremlett had what is known as a precautionary scan on a slight side strain. It showed nothing of concern.

In all probability, England have already decided on their bowling attack for at least the opening salvos of the Test series. It will be that which finished in Sri Lanka – Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Ryan Sidebottom and Monty Panesar. Considering that Sri Lanka at times toyed with this quartet such a definite choice might be thought surprising.

Harmison's woes once more bring to prominence the state of modern touring for so-called specialist players. He now plays only Tests, and two two-day games were always likely to be barely enough to be match-honed. One is pushing it even more. Miss both and it is unthinkable for England to pick him.

Similar strictures apply to the other men who have joined the tour, captain Michael Vaughan, the returning Andrew Strauss, Hoggard and Panesar. Strauss has been playing state cricket in New Zealand and last week made 106 in a one-day match for Northern Districts, his first century since last May.

Hoggard and Panesar will have to find their rhythm quickly. Sidebottom, in the groove more than any England bowler, may have to shoulder the burden.

In Mirpur yesterday, Bang-ladesh took an improbable first-innings lead of 22 in the First Test against South Africa. This was probably more impressive than their feat against Australia two years ago when they led by 158, but that was after scoring 427 in their first innings.

Shahadat Hossain, the 21-year-old fast bowler, took 6 for 27 as South Africa were dismissed for 170 and the 20-year-old opener Junaid Siddique made 64 not out as Bangladesh extended their lead to 147. South Africa's AB de Villiers was unusually dismissed when he offered occasional bowler Mohammad Ashraful a return catch to a ball which had bounced twice.