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December 14, 2006
It has been an article of faith ever since the squad for this Ashes series was announced. Regardless of what mood he might find himself in on tour, Steve Harmison was bound to have one matchwinning spell lurking somewhere up his sleeve. Surely. Maybe. Possibly ...
The longer this series has gone on, and the more he has struggled with his demons, expectations and assorted technical malfunctions, the further that assertion has slipped from view. Harmison's horrible first delivery at the Gabba was so far removed from his frenzied assault on the Aussie batsmen at Lord's last summer, it was tempting to believe that his mojo had been lost for good.
Harmison has, after all, been an anonymous tourist almost throughout his eventful career. Aside from that fantasy tour of the Caribbean three years ago, he has travelled almost as well as a piece of illegal fruit through the customs at Perth Airport. He managed just nine expensive wickets on an enigmatic tour of South Africa in 2004-05, never made it to Sri Lanka a year earlier after succumbing to a back problem, and on this very ground four years ago, he had such an attack of stage fright, he completely lost his run-up.
His fondness for the quiet life has become the stuff of cliché - a round of darts at Ashington working men's club is said to be his idea of heaven - but it has a serious subtext. What did Harmison, whose role in last summer's Ashes can never be erased from his records, have left to prove in a game he's always seemed to tolerate rather than enjoy? Waiting for Godot was never as tedious as waiting for Harmy to locate his inner ignition key.
Opinions were divided before the start of this Test. The "bin him now" camp were eventually shouted down by the residents of the last-chance saloon who argued, as Alec Stewart did earlier this week, that England had a match to win, and a matchwinner in their ranks. Even so, his series figures from the first two Tests were 1 for 288, and his spell in that despairing second innings at Adelaide had been so anodyne, that his eventual selection for this game can only have been borderline at best.
Sensibly, he was not trusted with the new ball, as Andrew Flintoff hurtled in with the clarity of purpose that his closest friend so lacks, but when he did enter the attack in the 10th over of the day, he immediately located a patch on the pitch that offered his favourite thing in the world - bounce. You'd expect such goodies at the WACA, but amid all the mutterings about the declining standard of these pitches, it still came as something of a surprise.
Suddenly, Harmison was hunting with the alacrity of old. It brought to mind his Jekyll-and-Hyde showing at The Oval last summer. Before the match disappeared in a puff of litigation, Harmison went from abysmal (22-3-98-0) to respectable (30.5-6-125-4) in the space of 8.5 frenzied overs. Such is his way. As Stewart pointed out, confidence is the key for Harmison. Give him an inch and he'll help himself to a mile.
"He was bowling very well today," said his partner-in-crime, Monty Panesar, afterwards. "It was fantastic to see the ball coming out of his hand and the bounce he gets off a normal natural length. I think he does help me when we bowl in tandem together, and it reminded me of Old Trafford."
Old Trafford? Oh yeah. That was a match that took place four months and a lifetime ago, in which Harmison and Panesar took 19 wickets between them to stun Pakistan. The attack that day also featured Matthew Hoggard and Sajid Mahmood - four bowlers who also wrapped up wins at Headingley and (by default) The Oval. Quite why England's think-tank felt so compelled to change a winning team will remain one of the two great mysteries of this series. The other, of course, is Harmison himself.
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