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The end of the enigmatic Steve Harmison era

Durham fast bowler Steve Harmison has been left out of the squad for the England team’s tour of South Africa this winter. The omission of the Geordie paceman will, in all probability, result in him announcing his retirement from international cricket. The South Africa tour now will mark the first time England have toured without either Harmison or his great friend Andrew Flintoff in the last ten years.

If Harmison does choose to retire from the international game, he will leave a bewildering legacy. While he has attracted his fair share of criticism over the years, I feel it’s harsh to say that he never reached his potential. He was once ranked as the world’s number one bowler. He proved his ability at the top level. The problem came when he was never able to sustain the form that made him the most feared bowler in world cricket.

Harmison also incurred the wrath of the national press with his apparent reluctance to tour. Stories of homesickness and turning up for tours out of form and unprepared have dogged him throughout his career. Yet his importance to the England team was never in question. The selectors chose Flintoff over Andrew Strauss as captain for the dismal 2005/6 Ashes tour on the basis that Freddie would get the best out of Harmy. When Kevin Pietersen’s brief tenure as skipper began, his first move was to coax the Geordie out of one day international retirement to unleash some Grievous Bodily Harmison on the South African tourists.

So, how did a bowler with the height, pace and bounce to terrorise batsmen all over the world only realise his full potential in a golden 12-month period in 2003/4? The key to the mercurial Harmison lies in the circumstances in which the paceman produced his best performances for his country and offers a possible window into the character of a cricketer who will end his career with a creditable record but ultimately could have done so much more.

Harmison’s most memorable bowling spells came when conditions were in his favour. In 2004, he demolished the West Indies with a devastating burst of seven for 12 on a pacy wicket in Kingston, Jamaica, reducing the hosts to 47 all out and propelling England to a famous win. With his confidence up, he went on to take 23 wickets at 14.87 on that tour and was named man of the series. In July 2006, Harmison took full advantage of a quick and uneven Old Trafford surface to return match figures of 11 for 76 as England skittled Pakistan.

Yet against better teams, Harmison’s bowling figures were nowhere near as impressive. On the 2004/5 tour to South Africa, he took just nine wickets at an average of 73 and later admitted being affected by homesickness. Were his performances purely reliant on self-confidence? Was he only able to produce his best form when everything was in his favour? Do these stats reveal a character unable to raise his game when it truly mattered?

I can see why people would answer yes to these questions but I’d ultimately disagree. It’s easy to forget Harmison travelled to Bangladesh with England and took nine for 79 on a flat wicket in stiffling conditions. He also set the tone for the 2005 Ashes when he roughed Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting on that electric first morning at Lord’s. In the same series, he produced the ball of the series, his slower ball that bowled Michael Clarke on the third evening at Edgbaston. He even joined a South African state side so he could prepare for England’s 2007 tour to India, something he would not have done if, as suggested by some, he didn’t care about representing his country.

Yet despite these efforts, Harmison’s poor performances seem to provoke greater interest than his most memorable ones. He’ll probably never live down bowling the first ball of the 2006 Ashes to his mate Flintoff at second slip. Yes, it was one of the biggest wides anyone had ever seen but it was just one ball. Surely match-winning spells are more important? Struggling on flat wickets and bad luck afflict every bowler but, when they hurt Harmison’s figures, eyes were rolled and tutting eminated from pavilions. Why was he judged more harshly than  other bowlers?

The answer lies in the glimpses of brilliance scattered throughout his long career. Every England fan rememebered Harmison destroying the West Indies or making Ricky Ponting bleed. Maybe they expected him to do that every time he bowled. That’s unrealistic for any bowler, especially on the flat wickets that seem to dominate test cricket. It was the promise of what Harmison might do in any given spell that made people so disappointed when he didn’t deliver. No other England bowler has had to endure such weight of expectation.

In some ways, Harmison’s bowling career mirrors the batting career of Michael Vaughan. The former England skipper enjoyed his own purple patch where he stroked a steady stream of centuries that propelled him to the top of the world batting rankings. Yet after that, possibly due to his injuries and the pressure of captaincy, he understandably could not sustain that level of form. There were at least three occasions where Vaughan, amid heavy criticism over his lack of runs, produced centuries to put an end to the debate. But, like Harmison’s 10-for against Pakistan, they were sporadic echoes of a golden period of form he would never consistently regain.

If Harmison’s omission from the South Africa tour does indeed signal the end of his international career, I hope people look beyond his statistics and, at the very least, concentrate on what he did achieve rather than focus on the things he failed to do. Look at the last thirty years of England bowling, only Bob Willis matched Harmison’s pace and ferocity. Yes, he could have done more. But who couldn’t? There’s no need to judge him more harshly than his peers. Briefly, he was the world’s best bowler. He played in two Ashes winning teams. Sometimes his bowling won test matches for England. Sometimes he failed to perform. He answered England’s call for a genuine fast bowler. He is counted.


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