March 12, 2008

What a waste

Have we seen Harmison play for England for the last time?

Steve Harmison reflects on his dropping in the nets © Getty Images
Is this the end for Steve Harmison? It really is impossible to tell. The runes tell as clear a tale as the stooped-shouldered trudge with which he left the nets at Wellington today, after being informed of his omission during a brief conversation with his captain and coach. Ordinarily, such abject body language would be a giveaway in a sportsman. Not so with Harmison, whose melancholy on overseas trips was being chronicled even before he even set foot in an England team. What was going through his head as he walked away? Disappointment? Indifference? Blessed relief? Or perhaps an incoherent blend of all three.

Let's suppose this time it really is the end. There's something about this whole business that comes across as more than just one of those periodic "kicks up the arse" that happen in sporting selections. There was no hiding behind weasel-words such as "niggle" or "spasm" or "rest", excuses that have spared Harmison's blushes in the past. And there was no hiding at all in the timing of the announcement, 2.30 pm local time, a full 20 hours before the start of play. England have not been this upfront in any aspect of their cricket, on or off the field, since the 2005 Ashes. Which, given that Matthew Hoggard was also jettisoned in the same announcement, is probably the very point they were seeking to make.

The shock that accompanied Hoggard's demise implied that he could be welcomed back as and when he can prove his form and fitness. With Harmison, who can rightly tell? He'll go back to his beloved Durham after this tour, and he'll no doubt bowl very well once he's away from the spotlight, the heat of which he clearly loathes. But will he be trusted ever again by the England selectors? Times have moved on since 2005, and of his former allies, only Michael Vaughan still remains in a rejigged panel. But even the way he's been talking of and turning to Harmison has been in the past tense. In the second innings at Hamilton, with New Zealand backed onto the ropes, he was allotted only four expensive overs, having come into the attack after even Paul Collingwood.

The way it was: Harmison celebrates on his way to remarkable figures of 7 for 12 at Sabina Park © Getty Images
So, that could well be that. With a shrug and a sigh, and at the wastefully young age of 29, Harmy traipses off towards the sunset. And if, as we suspect, he does not return, what memories and fond moments does he have to take with him into his professional dotage? There was his laceration of the West Indian batsmen in Jamaica, of course. His seminal moment in March 2004, when he thundered into Sabina Park, the spiritual home of the fast bowler, and routed a side that England had not conquered away from home for three decades. He returned the scarcely credible figures of 7 for 12, but does that really count as a blessing in his career? It was, after all, the performance that propelled him towards the summit of the ICC World Rankings, a position from which he tumbled like an overwhelmed debtor from Beachy Head.

What about that glorious first morning of the 2005 Ashes? Harmison - lean, mean, limber, coaxed back towards his best form, and unleashed for the first over of a Test match for the very first time in his career. It was a masterstroke from Vaughan. Harmison hurtled in with the anger of the unfulfilled, and in a thrilling first hour, clattered Justin Langer's elbow with a second-ball lifter, before cutting Ricky Ponting's cheek as if armed with a rapier. Australia's legs visibly buckled that morning as Harmison finished with 5 for 43, and though they steadied themselves to win the Test, they were not destined to last the distance in the series.

Does that really count as a fond memory for Harmison, however? Hardly. Not if you extrapolate the experience, it doesn't, and fast forward to the next time he experienced that "first morning" feeling in Ashes cricket. The Gabba. The pressure. That ball. The memories of what he'd achieved 18 months earlier flooded back to him like spectres at the feast, and in a single hideous delivery that Andrew Flintoff fielded at second slip, the agenda had been set for England's brutal 5-0 mauling.

Harmison sends Ricky Ponting packing at the start of the remarkable 2005 Ashes © Getty Images
That's been the way with Harmison's extraordinary international career. Few fast bowlers in history have possessed his incredible blend of attributes. Height, pace, bounce and lateral movement. He had it all, but it's as if he's been apologising for his talent ever since he set foot in the side.

And that's been especially true whenever he's left home. The Northumberland mining town of Ashington is Harmison's promised land. He lives there with his wife and four children, the most recent of which, Charlie, was born on the eve of this tour to New Zealand. He's detested the touring lifestyle ever since his closest friend, Andrew Flintoff, helped him escape from an Under-19 tour to Pakistan in the mid-1990s. He even retired from one-day internationals on the eve of the 2007 World Cup - the very antithesis of ambition.

And since his Test debut against India in 2002, not a single winter has gone by without some drama involving Harmison. On the Ashes tour in 2002-03, he was wided eight times in an over during the warm-up match in Lilac Hill, then lost his run-up in the middle of the Perth Test. In Dhaka the following winter, he bounced the Bangladeshis to oblivion with nine wickets in the match, but was sent home straight afterwards - officially after suffering back problems on a cramped plane to Chittagong, but in reality because he'd exhausted the patience of the team management.

Three months later, after training under Bobby Robson's wing at his beloved Newcastle United, he roared into the Caribbean and scattered all before him, but in South Africa the following winter he was back to lost soul status, with nine miserable wickets in the series at an average of 73.22. Fast forward through the Ashes and he impressed briefly in Pakistan (through his attitude rather than his output), but by the time England moved onto India in the spring, he was labouring with shin splints and missed the famous victory in Mumbai.

And that, more or less, brings us up to date in his career. A tale of talent squandered, not in the tragic sense of a Roy Gilchrist or a Harold Gimblett, but in the tormented sense of a man born into unspeakable wealth who can't help but wish he could just walk down the pub, and play darts with his mates, and cast off the burden that comes with such privilege. A more selfish man would have thumbed his nose at the paupers and set out to make the most of what he had. But that's not Harmy's way. He's a fundamentally decent bloke, but an insufferably frustrating sportsman.

Perhaps he'll be back, maybe for next season, and maybe even for the 2009 Ashes which, many pundits will still proclaim to this day, cannot be won without him. But don't bet on it. He's been drifting away from the game for years, and this time he might finally have been cut loose.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo