West Indies in England, 2007 June 8, 2007

Bowling in clichés proves beyond Harmison

Steve Harmison: a debiliating madness has gripped his game © Getty Images
When English bowlers run out of interesting things to say - which is often - they tend to resort to that most hackneyed of interviewee clichés: "We just tried to put the ball in the right areas." Today at Old Trafford, two of their number, Ryan Sidebottom and Monty Panesar, performed that simple task to such perfection that, by the close of the second day, England had assumed emphatic command of the third Test.

Their two colleagues, however, got it so hopelessly and consistently wrong that they even managed to get themselves slapped on the wrists by the match referee for running in to bowl on the wrong cut strip. Admittedly that misdemeanour occurred during the mid-innings break, but from the way that Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett kept winging the ball way down the leg-side when play began five minutes later, you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd been rehearsing a new tactic.

Poor Harmison, once the kingpin of England's attack, is a man suffering from a madness as mysterious as that which once gripped King George. He has all manner of physicians in attendance - mopping his brow, taking his pulse, bleeding his demons in a vain attempt to restore sanity - but he just seems to be sinking ever further from salvation with every match. His two wickets today, both cracking deliveries, were greeted with a grimace that was part embarrassment, part relief. The only time he has been seen to smile all match was while batting yesterday and this morning, when he twice took blows to the helmet.

At the time it was taken as a sign that everything was about to click. "You guys are history," was what the Harmison faithful imagined he might have been mouthing as he readjusted his chin-strap, just as England's other great scattergun, Devon Malcolm, was supposed to have said to the South Africans at The Oval in 1994. Alas it wasn't the nine-wicket assassin who bounded in to take the new ball, but the same-old shell of a cricketer who waded in as if drowning beneath the weight of global expectations.

Ever since Brisbane and that infamous first-day "freeze", the assumption has been that Harmison will get it right in the end. Three cheap tailend wickets at Headingley were trumpeted as a new dawn, but on this evidence they were the worst thing that could possibly have happened to him. Back he came to the scene of his 11-wicket demolition against Pakistan last summer, back to a pitch as sprightly as a springer-spaniel puppy. All he needed to do was get it in the right areas, and West Indies would once again submit to his superiority. The trouble is, he knew it.

The submission was certainly meek, but it came from leftfield - in every sense of the word. First there was Harmison's surprise straight one to Daren Ganga in that ludicrous first over; then there was Harmison's surprise straight one that Runako Morton fended off his throat to first slip. And then it was all down to the complete lack of surprise at the other end, as Sidebottom and Panesar dropped it on a length with their contrasting left-arm styles - delivery, after delivery, after delivery.

"You have to make sure you're getting the balls in the areas you want them," said Panesar afterwards, as he struggled manfully to come up with a new way of saying exactly the same thing that he has said in every interview since his debut. In fact, he'd been saying it on this very ground last summer, after an identical performance had earned him eight wickets to Harmison's 11.

But Panesar's utter insouciance could not have been further removed from his team-mate's demeanour. Pressure and expectation are alien concepts to a man so exquisitely naïve that every stage he has visited in his brief career might as well be a municipal park in Luton. But to judge by the knowing terror that exists in Harmison's head right now, long may that naivety be cultivated.

A samey explanation was a small price to pay for the destructive accuracy of Sidebottom and Panesar's performances. At 216 for 4 with Shivnarine Chanderpaul at the crease, West Indies had the wherewithal to turn this into a one-innings shootout - and to judge by the venom generated by Fidel Edwards' opening burst this evening, that would have suited their purposes very nicely.

But it wasn't to be. "Our batsmen let our bowlers down," lamented West Indies' coach, David Moore. He was quite right of course. But the sad truth is that they actually exceeded their limited expectations, thanks to the biggest let-down of the lot. Clichés may be boring, but they are a bowler's stock-in-trade. Sadly, Harmison is so scrambled at present, he's even lost the knack of being boring.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo