England v South Africa, 3rd ODI, The Oval August 28, 2008

Harmison confirms his exile is over


Steve Harmison is back, and fully committed to touring this winter © Getty Images
 
And as if by magic, he reappeared. Steve Harmison's self-imposed exile from England's one-day squad has officially come to an end after 18 months on the sidelines. Not content with his stand-in role for the NatWest Series against South Africa, Harmison is now mentally packing his bags for India, West Indies and beyond, after rediscovering his love for the England lifestyle.

"I'm available from now to play every one-day international and Twenty20 for England," said Harmison, which raises the intriguing possibility of a trip to Antigua in November for a share of Stanford's millions. As recently as Wednesday afternoon, such a notion couldn't have been further from his thoughts, but then a text message from Kevin Pietersen set in motion a chain of events that has culminated in an unequivocal recall.

"KP will take the credit for it, and you will all write that he got me in a headlock and said 'you've got to come back and play for me', but he wasn't really that important in the decision," said Harmison. "I retired because my head had gone and mentally I'd lost form, but now I've come back."

The timeframe of Harmison's return to one-day colours has been sudden and unexpected. On Tuesday evening, he was playing for Durham against Nottinghamshire in the Pro40 at Trent Bridge, and by Thursday he had received the phone call from Peter Moores, to say that Ryan Sidebottom had been ruled out of the series, and was he interested in stepping in. Less than 24 hours later, Harmison took the field at Headingley for his first ODI appearance since October 2006, and the rest has happened so quickly it hasn't yet had time to pass into history.

"I was putting the kids to bed for their afternoon sleep at 2pm, and I got the phone call," said Harmison. "Both Mooresy and KP said 'come and play'. They weren't expecting a full comeback, they just needed a favour, and said take it to the end of the series, and see what happens. I spoke to my family and to Durham, who were great when I came back from New Zealand in a poor place, and everyone said I've got to play, and that was it."

At the age of 29, and after six years as an England international, Harmison seems (for the moment at least) to have grasped the need to make the most of the remaining years as a top-class athlete. The catalyst for his one-day comeback was the clear enjoyment he showed during his Test return at The Oval earlier this month - a match which rekindled his rapport with the crowds that have, at times since 2005, caused him to shrink into his shell rather than rise up to be the leader of England's attack.

"I can't overestimate how much I missed playing for England," said Harmison. "After nearly four-and-a-bit years constantly on the road - one-days, Test matches, one-days, Test matches - inside I was completely knackered and my head had gone. I just wasn't bowling well, I wasn't enjoying my cricket, so I packed it in. But I'd have stopped playing full-stop if I thought I wouldn't play for England again."

Instead, Harmison has spent this season out of the limelight, honing his skills with Durham, and after more than 500 overs in a successful county campaign, he's realised he is now match-fit for the first time in two injury-interrupted years. Consequently, the penny has also dropped about the need to go abroad and put in the hard yards in matches that might lack the glamour and prestige of a Test match, but are no less crucial to his preparations for the big event.

Harmison was already intending to reprise his winter plans of 2007 and head off to South Africa to play for the Highveld Lions ahead of the India Tests in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Instead he's realised there is another way to get those crucial overs under his belt. "I came back to play for cricketing reasons," he said. "I could go to South Africa to play four-day cricket to get ready for the Test matches, or play one-day cricket for England. It's really a no-brainer. I had to come back."

Before he can get stuck into Test cricket again, however, Harmison has a potentially tricky decision to make over his availability for the Stanford contest. Given the money on offer, and the timing of his comeback, he's aware of the negative impression his instant return could make - even if he were to be selected on merit.

"It is awkward," he said. "If I'm picked, there's not much I can do, but I've said to the coach and captain how I feel. At the end of the day I have been looking more long-term, because it's about being ready for the Test series. I retired for cricketing reasons, and I've come back out of retirement for cricketing reasons. At the minute we've got three games to play [against South Africa] and three games to win, which would be a big boost for England going into Antigua, the winter in India and the West Indies as well."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo