What becomes of the broken Harmy?

Only way out of crisis is for England's troubled strike bowler to work out what he really wants
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What now for Stephen Harmison? Back to Ashington, his land of milk and honey, for the quiet life he craves, or attempt to rediscover the great gift which took him out of there in the first place into a wider world of which he is deeply suspicious? For Harmison, it might not take long to answer that one.

In Brisbane he has been offered more advice than an agony aunt dispenses in an entire career. All of it is well-intentioned, none of it has quite reached the nub of the issue, which is whether Harmison, at 28, can ever again be the bowler that, briefly, he was.

Much has been laid at the door of the first ball delivered in this Ashes series, and it is perfectly true that it had a virulent effect on the team, quickly spreading its evil spawn and becoming unstoppable. But the wild wide had been a long time in coming. Not that wide, not as wide as the Wide Sargasso Sea, but more probable than possible.

Harmison, the great hope of this series for the Poms, had to be removed after two measly overs, but he did not suddenly become a bad bowler at the Gabba on Thursday morning. Bad? He was unremittingly dreadful, making a nonsense of the theory that one of the reasons for the appointment of Andrew Flintoff as captain was because he would bring the best out of his friend.

For more than a year, Harmison had been heading towards this nadir. His action, form and psyche have been steadily disintegrating since the end of 2004.

That had been his golden year. He was irresistible then. One magical Sunday morning in Kingston, Jamaica, launched him to the stars. Everything they had been saying about Harmison's promise was revealed then. He was fast and furious, and if some of the West Indies batsmen were frightened it did not make them cowards.

Between that match and the end of the English summer, Harmison found himself. He was as certain then as an uncertain man can be. In 11 matches he took 63 wickets, one every 43 balls. He was a phenomenon.

But the action, always slightly unorthodox, was also brittle. It matched his mind. That winter in South Africa it was difficult to tell what happened first. Either he bowled indifferently because he was missing home or he missed home because he was bowling indifferently.

Back home for the Ashes, he seized the moment. His over in the opening Test at Lord's was as destructive to Australia as the first over at Brisbane was destructive to Harmison. The other bowlers continued to feed off him in that series.

Yet since then, Harmison has hardly bowled. He has not often looked as though he wanted to bowl. One big match against Paki-stan, but that was all. Undoubtedly he is missing the influence of the departed bowling coach Troy Cooley, whatever anyone says, but even then the action and the temperament were being held together by pieces of string.

It may well be that Harmison got out of his bed on Thursday morning and knew that he did not feel like it, that it was not his day. That happens to clerks. But his feelings must have been amplified because he recognised, deep down, that he was not truly prepared, that he had nothing to fall back on. Nor did Glenn McGrath, it has been mentioned, except years and years and years. But they are different men.

Harmison's preparation was interrupted, culminating in his withdrawal (because of a side strain) from the last warm-up match against South Australia. It is known that his colleagues were displeased and that the coach, Duncan Fletcher, was as mad as hell.

In the nets, Harmison redoubled his efforts. For a week, he bowled like the wind. If he wanted nothing else, he wanted the Ashes. But at the top of his run for the first ball at the Gabba a multitude of thoughts came crowding in. He looked nervous, he looked as though he wanted anybody else to bowl that damned ball but him. He fell apart. An entire nation's hopes collapsed in a single moment.

His action has been all over the place, an indictment sadly of the bowling coaches who have been advising him. Neither lead flapping arm nor bowling arm behind right ear have been in the right place.

He was denied the second new ball in the first innings and, more humiliatingly, at the start of Australia's second innings. At least when he came on he looked like an authentic bowler again, but Australia were 500 ahead.

Michael Holding, who knows a thing or two about fast bowling, has suggested the action needs immediate rebuilding and that he should miss the Second Test in Adelaide and be sent to Perth, where the Third is played, for remedial work.

But it goes deeper than that. Harmison has to decide if it is worth the candle. Or if Ashington is calling him.