England v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Old Trafford, 1st day July 27, 2006

Harmison comes out of hiding

Steve Harmison found some of his old fire with an outstanding burst at Old Trafford © Getty Images
Midway through the first day's play at Old Trafford a text message arrived from the ECB stating that Andrew Flintoff had successfully undergone his ankle surgery and the expected recovery time is the 12 weeks previously stated. Nothing startling - and nothing to quell the fear that time will still be tight for the Ashes - but Flintoff's latest downtime from action could yet be pinpointed as the moment that turned England's summer around.

Too much of this season has been spent waiting for injured players to meet fantasy comeback dates. Flintoff's saga only added another distraction to an England side needing to strain every muscle to stay focused on the challenge in hand. At Lord's they looked like a side biding their time, believing their talismatic allrounder was just days away from a comeback. He fooled us all, but finally England entered this match with a definitive answer; Flintoff won't be around the rest of the summer, now the rest of the team has to get on without him.

Filling the hole left by Flintoff, though, is easier said than done. The standard spiel from the players in the build-up to this, and the Lord's Test, was the chance offered to others to fill the breach. The batsmen succeeded in the first Test to more than compensate for Flintoff's runs, but the bowling attack lacked a killer touch and Andrew Strauss was afraid to trust them on the final day.

Steve Harmison should be the leader of England's attack in every shape and form, but in the last 12 months he has been too happy to pass that baton over to his best mate Flintoff and operate in his shadow. It is two years since he was ranked as world No.1, but for England to secure their first series victory since last summer, building momentum into the winter, there could be no more hiding places.

A huge amount of interest surrounded the pitch leading into the match after a recent Twenty20 surface that the umpires called one of the fastest they'd seen in England for many years. "If I'm honest I've been waiting eight months for that pitch," Harmison said with a smile after play. But in the past he has flattered to deceive when the expectation is on him to perform - here, though, he came out of the shadows and blew Pakistan away in a stunning 13-over burst.

Harmison: ' I had an idea about where it was going this time' © Getty Images
"At Lord's I was getting there but I practised three times this week with Durham and I came here with miles in my legs and a spring in my step," said Harmison. "I did feel heavy-legged at Lord's but that isn't surprising as it was the first full day in the field since I left India. But I was happy with the preparation and worked with Kevin Shine, looking over some old footage, and things have gone well and I hit my straps."

Some of that old footage will doubtless have included the moment he signalled his arrival on the world stage at Sabina Park in March 2004, when he decimated West Indies with, what should have been, career-defining figures of 7 for 12. However, since that tour he has only captured the same form in small bursts. It was time for him to deliver the goods again and they arrived with his most impressively sustained performance since that famous day in Jamaica. "There was more rhythm at Sabina Park, but today my action was solid," he conceded. "At Lord's it was only solid for two or three balls."

Everything was right; a measured run-up, a great wrist position and, crucially, late swing from a full length. The result was his first five-wicket haul since the opening day at Lord's, against Australia, last July. "I think you can count on one hand the balls that went down the leg side today. I had an idea about where it was going this time!"

Of his six wickets only Inzamam-ul-Haq was undone by a genuine effort at a short ball, which wasn't played with any conviction. That was the most pleasing part of the day for Harmison: "I pitched the ball up and got people out caught behind the wicket. I think if I'd run in and bounced it half way down each time it would have been very easy to duck." A fear, never evident at Lord's, came over the batsmen and they appeared startled. Abdul Razzaq ended up backing away to leg and all the hours practising on Bob Woolmer's marble pitch hadn't produced the desired results.

Test match days don't come much more convincing and Harmison was sounding in bullish mood. "The pleasing thing for me was that Strauss was looking for his senior bowlers to perform. I gave my all in the one-dayers but was poor, I gave him everything I could at Lord's, but today everything I had was good enough. If we get another day like today there should only be one winner."

Not much has gone right for England this summer but watching Harmison in full flight will have cheered everyone from the dressing-room to the stands. It was a day he and England badly needed.

Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo