Vaughan backs struggling Harmison

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The Independent Online

Three weeks ago Stephen Harmison was poised to become the leading bowler in the world. During successive series the England paceman terrorised batsmen from the West Indies and New Zealand. In seven Tests he took 43 wickets and only Muttiah Muralitharan stood between the 25-year-old and a position at the top of the rankings that no Englishman had occupied since Ian Botham in 1980.

Since then, however, Harmison's ability to take wickets has come to a halt. In England's last two Test matches against Brian Lara's brittle team the Durham fast bowler has taken just three wickets at a cost of 81 runs apiece. As his stock fell he slipped down the rankings to No 3.

Yet this lack of success has not altered Michael Vaughan's opinion of his spearhead. "I have always felt that Stephen will take a bagful of wickets at some stage of this series," said Vaughan, on the eve of the third Test here in Manchester. "And that has not changed. I have watched him in practice and I don't think he is bowling badly.

"I think the West Indies have played him reasonably well but the wicket here could suit him a bit more than those at Lord's and Edgbaston. If he can get his rhythm right he will get good carry and that should make him one helluva handful here. If you ask their batsmen who they would least like to face the answer would still be Stephen Harmison."

Pinpointing why a bowler loses form is difficult. Technical problems can surface but quite often it is simply a matter of luck. There is only so much a bowler can control and the difference between a batsman edging or missing the ball he is attempting to hit comes down to millimetres. On some days a batsman edges it and the catch is taken - on others he does not.

There is no discernible difference in Harmison's action. He appears to be running in as well as he was three months ago and hitting the crease just as hard. In the Caribbean and against New Zealand many were concerned about Harmison's workload. In those two series he sent down over 300 hostile overs but it could be a lack of bowling during the recent one-day series which has caused him to lose a bit of rhythm.

The slow nature of the pitches used during the first two Tests and the form of Chris Gayle, the West Indian opener, will also not have helped. These surfaces have reduced his potency and Gayle has made the most of this by regularly clattering him to the boundary in each of his opening spells.

"The fact people have noticed that he has not taken a lot of wickets in the last two matches highlights how far he has come," Vaughan said. "You are bound to have games when you don't take wickets but he has bowled some reasonably good spells within those two games. During the winter and against the Kiwis he was taking wickets with similar balls but it isn't happening for him now.

"I am not worried and I fully expect him to take wickets here this week." Harmison's place is under no threat but England will wait until this morning before they select either James Anderson or Simon Jones for the final spot. Today's weather forecast is poor and this will probably lead to Anderson retaining his place.

Speculation over Lara's future as West Indies captain has not helped his side's preparations and a draw here would be seen as progress. In order to achieve this result the tourists look set to make several changes to the side that lost by 256 runs at Edgbaston.

Jermaine Lawson is definitely out of the team with a side strain and Ridley Jacobs is struggling with a sore knee. This leaves a bowling spot open for Fidel Edwards, who returned to form last week with a 10-wicket haul against Derbyshire. Carlton Baugh also had a good time in the Midlands. The reserve wicketkeeper scored an unbeaten 150 in the same game, an innings which is bound to put the 36-year-old Jacobs under pressure.

The West Indies may also increase the depth of their batting by picking Sylvester Joseph ahead of the off-spinner Omari Banks. Gayle bowled well for his five wickets in the last Test and gives the visitors a spin option.

ENGLAND (from): M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), A J Strauss (Middlesex), R W T Key (Kent), G P Thorpe (Surrey), A Flintoff (Lancashire), G O Jones (Kent, wkt), A F Giles (Warwickshire), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), S J Harmison (Durham), J M Anderson (Lancashire), S P Jones (Glamorgan).

WEST INDIES (from): B C Lara (capt), C H Gayle, D S Smith, R R Sarwan, S Chanderpaul, D J J Bravo, R D Jacobs (wkt), O A C Banks, P T Collins, J Lawson, C Collymore, C S Baugh, F H Edwards, S C Joseph, D R Smith, D Mohammed.