Gibson would welcome on-form Harmison
England's bowling coach, Ottis Gibson, has said he would welcome the prospect of a fully fit and firing Steve Harmison returning to the England fold for the Ashes, but believes that the crop of fast bowlers currently in the squad are more than ready to meet the Australian challenge.
Speaking at Edgbaston on the final day of England's three-day warm-up match against Warwickshire, Gibson admitted that he, like the rest of the squad, had been keeping a very close eye on the televised events down the road at Worcester, where Harmison's bounce and aggression accounted for four impressive first-innings wickets, as well as the prize scalps of Phillip Hughes and Ricky Ponting second-time around.
"We all know what Harmy can do when he's fit and firing, and confident," Gibson told Cricinfo. "If he's coming back to his best, then it's good for us because it gives the selectors more options. Harmison at his best, like he's been bowling at Worcester, is an asset to any team, and we can't ignore that. But I'm confident that, with all these names on the table, whichever combination we come up with will do the job."
Regardless of his timely return to form, Harmison remains an outsider for selection in the first Test at Cardiff, not least because of the success of the men in possession. James Anderson claimed five wickets on the second day of England's warm-up to give his confidence a useful topping-up, and though Gibson insisted Harmison's selection would not amount to a retrograde step, it was clear his focus was on the future, and not on England's past glories.
"I heard Freddie [Flintoff] say that we can't keep dining out on 2005, and I share that," said Gibson. "We've moved on. I wasn't involved, Andy Flower wasn't involved, Mushtaq Ahmed and the fielding coach weren't involved either. This group is taking responsibility to shape their own piece of history, and their own presence on a cricket field. This is 2009 - it's a very different Aussie team, and a very different England team. We want to talk about the here and now, and what we're good at as a team."
Nevertheless, with England's former bowling coach, Troy Cooley, now lining up against them in the Australian squad - and teaching old dogs new tricks to judge by the stunning spell of reverse-swing that Brett Lee produced on the second day at Worcester - it's clear that the spectre of 2005 won't be entirely simple to dispel.
"I can't wait to meet up with Troy for a beer, because he was good for me when I was starting out as a fast-bowling coach," said Gibson, "but over the next five Tests, it's not going to be about me or Troy, it's going to be about the people on the field and whether they can win games in pressure situations.
"We all saw Lee bowling reverse-swing, and he was good at it, with high pace on the ball and swinging it big, but Jimmy got it going both ways against West Indies, and Fred and Broady [Stuart Broad] have got the skills as well. We all practise it, we all talk about it, our batters face it in the nets a lot, and we understand it better now. If the conditions allow it and it is reversing, we've got people that are capable of doing it."
The man whom England will look to as their primary swing specialist, however, will be Anderson, whose opportunity to take centre stage is looming large, after a six-year international career in which his limelight has often been taken by other, more forthright bowlers. Though the man himself has appeared, of late, to relish the moments when he has been the senior bowler in the attack, Gibson was wary of saddling him with any official responsibility.
"I don't want to put that pressure on Jimmy as a leader," he said. "Everyone, when it's their turn to bowl, has to think like a leader. Obviously Jimmy is the one who's had success lately, but Broad has bowled well, [Graham] Onions too - they've all led in their own right at different times, and when you're bowling well in a spell, you have to cash in when it's your day."
He did, however, detect a greater resolve in Anderson's recent performances. "It all comes with confidence," said Gibson. "This is perhaps the longest run he's had in the team without being dropped or injured, and it coincides with him bowling well and finding his game.
"He works very hard in the nets, but he's a little bit of a perfectionist, and so when things go wrong they can go horribly wrong, and he can get down on himself. But we're seeing less and less of those days, which is a good sign for him, and for us. These days he's understanding his bowling better - what's he's good at, and what he's not so good at."
One man who has rarely blown hot and cold in his bowling is Flintoff. "From my point of view, if you've got Freddie on the field and you know what Freddie can do, of course you want to throw the ball to him," said Gibson. "But that just says to me that Freddie has been a very good bowler for us, and has bowled well consistently, which is why the captain wants to throw the ball to him. Jimmy's now bowling well consistently and therefore the captain has another option, because he merits the chance to be labelled the go-to man."
England will only be able to go to Flintoff, however, if he is able to remain fit for all five Tests. That, unfortunately, is the great imponderable, especially with Flintoff having missed 20 of England's 28 Tests since the 2006-07 Ashes, including each of their last three against West Indies. Gibson, however, believed England had sufficient depth to cover in the event of another breakdown, and insisted his potential absences would not be a major distraction.
"It could be difficult for the group, but it's more difficult for Freddie," he said. "He gets up a good rhythm but then gets injured, which is not his fault, he's just been very unlucky. He works as hard in the gym as anybody, but the problem is he builds up a head of steam, because he's a wholehearted cricketer and gives 100% all the time.
"But he's got a presence, and any opposition knows that, if he's fit, there will be no easy runs off him, he will put people under pressure with his pace and aggression, and what he does with the ball. It's difficult when you lose someone like that for any team, but whereas in the past, we might have suffered from losing Flintoff, the good sign for us now is we have a lot of options to choose from."
One of those remaining options has the potential, in Gibson's opinion, to become the absolute pick of the bunch. But for the moment, Stuart Broad remains a player who is a little way short of knowing his optimum role in the side, and as a result, his coach is wary of placing too many expectations on his 23-year-old shoulders.
"He's still young, we have to remember that," said Gibson. "In my mind we've got a gem of a cricketer, not just a bowler, but a cricketer, but he's still young and will take time to develop and find his role. At the moment, he will do whatever he's asked to do, which is a testament to him. If we ask him to be fast and aggressive he can do it, but if we ask him to go at two an over, he can do it as well.
"But as he develops, he will grow into becoming one or the other. A fantastic strike bowler or a fantastic containing bowler. He doesn't try to limit himself in his thinking, and he's meticulous with his preparation and very switched on. He's the one bowler who will go and look at footage of himself and come and ask me questions, rather than the other way round.
"This summer he'll do a job, but whether that will make him a star for this Ashes, I don't know. There will be times this year, if he's playing, that he'll do the sorts of things we've seen from him, and know he is capable of. But everyone needs to play a starring role until August. We need to have contributions across the board, rather than one person being the star."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo