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August 23, 2009
When Great White Sharks patrol the Southern Seas, it's not the quantities of their kills that count, but the certainties. The best and most dangerous predators can go days, even weeks, without feeding. It what happens when they finally scent blood that makes them the creatures they are.
For three innings and 59 overs of the final Test at The Oval, Steve Harmison basked in the warmth of a sunny Oval outfield, superfluous to his team's requirements, but lurking nonetheless, with a menace that is the preserve of only the biggest beasts. Up until that point he had bowled four overs in the first innings, and five at the start of the second - his impact deadened on a wicket as helpful to him as a sun-lounger to a barracuda.
But then, on the fourth afternoon, with Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting beginning to work through their repertoire and - in Andrew Strauss's admission - despair beginning to encroach on England's thoughts, Harmison's gills twitched and he was ordered in for the kill. His final-day contribution was devastating, sudden, and panic-inducing, as in two spells of five and six overs, he transformed the dynamics of the contest.
Harmison's second stint was the money shot, as he filleted Australia's tail with three breakthroughs in 13 balls to take his summer's first-class tally to 58 wickets at 20.58. But his first stint made the difference, as Hussey - his anxiety palpable as his Test career hung in the balance - immediately abandoned his calm accumulation in favour of panic.
Sensing the hunter was about to turn hunted, Hussey carved madly at Harmison's second ball before being hit on the bicep by the sixth, and the spell was only three overs old when he clipped the fatal single that caused his captain to be run out by Andrew Flintoff at mid-on. "I wasn't expecting too many ultra-quick singles to be taken at that stage of the game," said Ponting, through gritted teeth. But such is the impact that Harmison can effect.
And that is especially true against Australia, for his reputation in Ashes cricket is as curious as they come. It will of course forever be recalled for two grotesquely contrasting performances - his first-day rampage at Lord's in 2005, when he clanged Justin Langer's elbow and drew blood on Ricky Ponting's cheek, and his freeze on the first morning at Brisbane 18 months later, when Andrew Flintoff fielded his opening delivery of the series at second slip.
But regardless of the accusations, most of them justified, of his apparent mental fragility, there's scarcely an Australian who is willing to risk a bad word about him. The cricketers who have faced him recall and respect the hold he took of the key moments in 2005, and are able to accept - more readily than any Englishman - that in some environments he simply comes across as a (big) fish out of water.
With that in mind, his contribution to this decisive final day mirrored the role he had played for England all summer - best described by Vic Marks in The Observer as England's nuclear deterrent. From the moment he roughed up Phillip Hughes in Australia's pre-series tussle against the Lions in Worcester, there had been a puzzling reluctance to unleash such mayhem on the enemy, and yet a great delight in parading him, Soviet style, from city to city in a show of the nation's strength.
It was a role that Harmison accepted with relish, for he knows full well the unease he can cause. "They don't seem to be the confident Australia I've known," he announced during that Worcester performance. "There are things you pick up on like body language. I've seen a little chink there. It is understandable because there are not the players in their side from bygone years."
It turns out that he had a point. Harmison has now played Tests in four separate Ashes campaigns - the same as Brett Lee and second only to Ponting among squad members on either side. Like Andrew Flintoff, his ultimate career figures will prove to be less than the sum of his potential; unlike Flintoff, it is hard to claim that he ever gave it his all.
But that's the thing with predators. They turn up when they chose, and generally when they know it is safe to do so. For all his innumerable flaws, Harmison has laid his hands on a brace of Ashes-winners medals, while securing a notch in fast-bowling folklore. It all adds up to the impression that he timed his feeding frenzies well.
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