Troy gives his trojan the edge

Second Test: West Indies at sixes and sevens as Harmison controls his probing pace
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Before our very eyes, the ugly duckling has become a swan. The transmogrification has been so absolute that Steve Harmison might as well have shed his feathers all stubby and brown, lost his quack, and revealed a glide, a whistle and a snowy white back.

This is England's new champion, who little more than a year ago could hardly land the ball on the cut strip. There were so many wides that umpires throughout Australia kept being mistaken for coathangers, and if most of the infringements were in the one-day form of the game, they would have been called anywhere.

Harmison is a sensitive man who felt the pain. "I feel I'm letting the lads down," he said. "I have really struggled." He kept his place, but as recently as the tour to Bangladesh earlier in the winter, there were mutterings that he was swinging the lead when he returned home early. His whole career was based on promise rather than achievement. Not any more.

As an apparently prolonged overnight success - do not forget, he was first picked in an England squad in 2000 and has never been conspicuously successful even for his county, Durham - he has now taken five wickets in an innings in his last three Test matches.

The figures are 5 for 35 in Dhaka, the remarkable 7 for 12 in Kingston and, yesterday, 6 for 61 in Port of Spain, when he bowled Pedro Collins to finish off the home team. All without an expletive being uttered.

In Trinidad, he has been fast, accurate, probing and intelligent. He glided all right, and where once there was diffidence here was self-belief. It is the difference between hope and expectation. The indications are now clear that this series is likely to be settled by pace bowling - and they were made clearer when England went in yesterday - and which set of batsmen withstand it better.

Harmison is now the one to give England the edge. Suddenly, and still only 25, he has burst into the world's élite, moving to No 9 in the PwC Ratings before this match. By Tuesday he will be further up the top 10. Part of this is because it takes most players a little time to settle into Test cricket and Harmison is still in the middle of only his 14th Test match.

What has propelled him is simple yet elusive, and might not have happened if he played 114 Test matches (though, true, the selectors might have lost patience in promise before then): he can now control the direction of the ball. Where the old Harmison could find different locations for every ball, as if he was sticking a pin in the donkey's tail, this one can sustain an assault and then change it as he wants.

He looks as if he can bowl a steady off-stump line and a mean, straight bouncer. The bounce that he extracts from a fullish length is now vividly menacing. The manner in which he got Brian Lara on Friday was magnificent. Lara will doubtless supply a retort before the issue is settled, but he will not be taking liberties.

"I don't think any of this has really sunk in and I don't think it will until we get back home if we've won the series," Harmison said after the close of play on Friday night. He has worked hard to achieve this state, repelling critics of his attitude and overcoming a legendary homesickness for his home town of Ashington in Northumberland (there is probably no better cure than taking 7 for 12).

It is certain that England's bowling coach, Troy Cooley, deserves some of the credit. Harmison's transformation has taken place only since Cooley came on the scene last summer, putatively as fast-bowling coach to the National Academy. Cooley was swiftly drafted in by England, and has accompanied the team to the Caribbean.

Like many others, he could not disguise his excitement at Harmison, and was determined to help. "He's different and he's got a different action," said Cooley. "He looks like a West Indian when he's bowling with that gangly load-up. It's not going to get him into too much trouble, but there are a couple of things to work on to do with the pathway of his arms. He's got a good basic release point."

Cooley, a Tasmanian who has worked closely with Dennis Lillee, has taken that action and honed it. He has garnered an unfair reputation for being an expert on biomechanics. So he is, but he is also eager to see the man behind the action. Harmison said as much before this tour started, in an assessment that we can now see as a portent.

"He has helped my body to be in a straighter line when I let go of the ball, so there's more chance of the ball being in a straighter line," Harmison said. "But the thing is he's a good bloke, and if somebody's a good bloke there's more likelihood that you'll listen."

Harmison's latest haul has taken his Test bowling average down to 24 and his strike rate to 50; just ahead, for what it's worth, of Sir Richard Hadlee. There should be plenty more to come now. He will have to stay free of injuries that have dogged him - shin splints, ankle, back, to name but three - but a refreshed mind will help his body.

This reserved, homeloving man will also have to cope with the attention his exploits will bring. At this rate, when he arrives home cameramen will be camped outside his house in Ashington awaiting the return of a very fine swan indeed.

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