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May 19, 2007
Sadly, one family's gain was another family's loss, for when Hoggard limped from the field after 25 overs with a strained abductor muscle, his sidekick Steve Harmison was left looking as forlorn as a newly orphaned chick. A wayward, wasteful day's work was the upshot, as he conceded 95 runs from 22 wide and wicketless overs. In the process, the perils of fielding a four-man attack were laid so bare that, had he been listening in from his garden in Cape Town, Duncan Fletcher might even have broken into a broad I-told-you-so grin.
Fletcher's insistence on five bowlers for the Ashes suggested that he had no faith in the tools at his disposal but today, regardless of the negative vibes that attitude might have entailed, his caution was justified by hindsight. This was a day that nobody had quite anticipated, as West Indies fought back from a dire position of 187 for 5 with the sort of ease and poise that would have shocked even their most ardent supporters - what few of them still remain. England leant heavily on the immaculate Monty Panesar, a man as reliably sanguine as Harmison is certifiably scattergun, but without the steadfast Hoggard to plough a similarly lonely furrow at the other end, the reception for the West Indian batsmen could hardly have been more tranquil.
"I know it sounds like a cliché, but sometimes you can forget the basics," said Panesar afterwards, still concentrating on hitting the right areas, even in his press conference. "You have to focus and keep it simple." He was actually talking about his own modus operandi, but he might as well have been delivering a damning verdict on his team-mate. Harmison was awful. Yet again. After an encouraging (but barren) opening burst, he folded the moment Hoggard left the game and the focus shifted back onto his shoulders.
Handed a solitary over before lunch - even as the crowd murmured with concern at the sight of Hoggard, a man who played for England in 40 consecutive matches, leaving the field - Harmison served up a wild Brisbane-esque leg-side wide before being clobbered for two initiative-seizing boundaries by a pumped-up Ramnaresh Sarwan. His county scalps, all 24 of them, counted for absolutely nothing as his resolve crumbled in front of an expectant Saturday crowd.
We know he has a problem sometimes spraying the ball - and when we saw it start today we thought 'he's having an off-day
Dwayne Bravo takes a psychological swipe
Part of Harmison's problem is that the expectation of awfulness now works both ways. "It wasn't really a surprise to us - he can be as bad as he can be good," said Dwayne Bravo, whose delightful 56 from 59 balls was the impetus behind West Indies' fightback. "We know he has a problem sometimes spraying the ball - and when we saw it start today we thought 'he's having an off-day'.
"Harmison looked to be having a bad game, not controlling the ball or in good rhythm," added Bravo. "When he bowled a ball in the right area we wanted to ensure we did not go after anything we shouldn't, but when he got it wrong we were going to go after anything loose to keep him on the back foot." This wasn't the Aussies climbing into Harmison's cranium, but in a sense that makes it even worse. He's a target, not a hit-man, even for a team who have been written off by every pundit in the game.
As an upshot of England's misfortunes, West Indies so nearly had a day to savour. But accidents and indiscipline chiselled away all day long - two facets that go hand-in-glove when you're lurking so far down the international pecking order. Though all three of Panesar's lbws were undeniably adjacent, there will doubtless be some rueful reflection on the one that got away yesterday - Paul Collingwood's let-off against Jerome Taylor that cannot help but leave an umpire feeling a little itchy-fingered.
And then there was the manner and timing of both Bravo's and Denesh Ramdin's dismissals. "I don't play bowlers by name; I just go out and play my game," said Bravo afterwards, a rhyming couplet as sweet as some of his cover-driving. But he was undoubtedly guilty of a lapse in concentration when he heaved a Collingwood long-hop down into the hesistant hands of Alastair Cook at deep midwicket. It was only Collingwood's second Test wicket, and arguably the first time he has succeeded in his designated role of partnership-breaker. His last scalp came at Headingley last summer, when Faisal Iqbal fell the very next delivery after a run-out.
As for Ramdin, his gutsy performance wasn't quite Matt Prior in miniature, but it nonetheless provided a statement of lavish intent, for it was he who capitalised on Harmison's meltdown, savaging him for six sumptuous boundaries in just 21 deliveries faced. He treated half-volley and long-hop with equal disdain, enabling Shivnarine Chanderpaul to fulfil the Ian Bell role at the other end. He remained unbeaten on 63 from 162 deliveries, showing the same lack of intrusiveness that has allowed him to tick through an international career that is now into its 13th season.
West Indies no longer have the star players of yesteryear. The retirement of Brian Lara has brought to an end a dynasty of brilliance - from George Headley through Learie Constantine, the Three Ws, Garry Sobers and Viv Richards, not to mention a pantheon of pace bowlers - that has been virtually unbroken since the dawn of their history. And yet, it was here 12 months ago, in similarly inauspicious circumstances, that Sri Lanka embarked on a team-bonding exercise that carried them ultimately to a World Cup final. If the endeavours of the past three days can provide this frill-free squad with even a modicum of such inspiration, it will be time superbly spent.
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