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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Wessels on March 14, 2008, 23:57 GMT many chances did he want. I think he has become a bit like a useless lazy celebrity footballer who clings to the goal he scored to win a FA Cup a decade ago. The sad thing is he is still so young. I hope this is the kick up the backside he's been begging for for so long. Somewhere in there is a world beater, once the very best in the game, just waiting to get out. Dear Steve get into a gym, practice as hard as you can, take the county circuit by storm in a season or so. If cricket is still what you want...

  • Daniel on March 14, 2008, 22:03 GMT

    The logic is simple. He isn't happy and he isn't doing well. Let him be, he can hand his cards in and do what makes him happy with his life. He has talent, physically, but mentally he's just not right for the job, and that's just as important. Wishful thinking won't change it. I have had the feeling that he's just doing it because he feels he ought to, not because he wants to. That's not going to work. So thanks Steve, when you were on you were the best. Let's forget about the rest of it. I hope you have a happy and fulfilling future.

  • Prasad on March 14, 2008, 15:50 GMT

    English cricket has got to forget the Ashes glory of 2005, at least for a while. Its over - that team is never coming back again - and if does, it will no doubt fail miserably. Every tour since has started and ended with team management, fans and media lamenting the loss of "star" players to injury. They have never fully backed the playing eleven and it shows. If Harmison and Hoggard, and later this year Flintoff, are able to consistently demonstrate good form in domestic cricket, they should be considered for the team. Just because they were part of the winning team in 2005, is NOT a good reason for selection.

  • Nathan on March 13, 2008, 6:54 GMT

    The slightest hint of success sends the english media and fans into hysterical over-reaction, as evidenced by the 2005 Ashes series. Perhaps harmison was just never as good as some people desperately wanted to believe he was, and hence his decline should not be the surprise it is to some. One thing is for certain, you cannot be a top class international sportsman and mentally fragile at the same time.

  • Aditya on March 12, 2008, 21:44 GMT

    It's great when Harmison's bowling well, but the fact is that he's so inconsistent. Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff have also been plagued by injuries. England should no longer place faith in guys whose fitness you're never sure about, no matter how good they might be in terms of ability. The England selectors' patience must be running thin with these players. They should definitely get more young blood into the team now, and maybe within a year they can put together a team that's ready for the Ashes. Broad, Anderson, Bopara, Owais Shah, Sajid Mahmood and even that young leggie from Yorkshire everyone's talking about.

  • H. on March 12, 2008, 21:37 GMT

    Perhaps for too long he England team have been counting on players that at their peak have been magnificent but since the Ashes victory have been in somewhat of a decline. There has been too much focus on Flintoff coming back, too much focus on Harmy denigrating attacks when he bowls right and even ill thought of notions that Simon Jones might be back to add some venom to this attack. The team has got to move on and invest in its' next generation of bowlers, I am not sure that Anderson is one of them, but Stuart Broad certainly is. Ryan Sidebottom is there for a while now and he could be the talisman of the attack.

    If it is the end, thank you Harmison for the memories... :-)

  • Ben on March 12, 2008, 21:26 GMT

    i think that harmison has a good couple of years left in him, but maybe he hasn't had the preparation that he needs. and as for hoggard, what is moores thinking?! englands most reliable bowler for 18months gets dropped for ONE bad game. it beggars belief. stuart broad will be a good bowler for the future, it's time for him to show that he's good enough. i don't rate james anderson in tests personally, and in the ODI series he was terrible, with an average of 80 i think? i don't think anybody was particularly impressed. and i don't want to linger on this, but why is strauss still in the team. shah did nothing wrong. harmison just needs time.

  • Sanjay on March 12, 2008, 21:05 GMT

    Ever since Harmy and Jones made their debut against India, I have always felt that they had the talent to make their mark among the finest fast bowling pairs in cricket, ever. Cast an eye on the predicament of poor Simon Jones. Frustrated and dogged with injuries, none of his making, he would happily exchange an arm (his left) to be Harmy's position.

    Andrew, much as I agree with your comments here in general, on this one, I have to disagree. Harmy may carry the burden of one blessed with aplenty, but he also has a duty to perform for himself and for country. That, my friend, is his Karma.

  • Prem on March 12, 2008, 20:42 GMT

    i will never forget the 7 for 12 or the ashes ball to ponting, at that time & possibly even today, the best exponent of the pull shot in the world. we all know he has it in him, so what happens? why can't he get it right? without him, the english attack is toothless. wish they would have figured him out & sorted all his problems.

  • Sam on March 12, 2008, 19:04 GMT

    Miller's assertion that Harmison's achievements in 2004-5 haunted his later career, like 'spectres at the feast', reminded me of the ghosts of the past that haunt Hamlet in the eponymous play. Listening to Harmison interviewed during the first test at Hamilton was, indeed, like listening to the soliloquoy of an usurped Shakespearian tragic hero; a once powerful and proud man, reduced by the flaws in his character to a shadow of his former self, soon to be usurped by a cocksure, young successor - Stuart Broad.

    The signs suggest that Steve Harmison's international career is unlikely to be resurrected from its current resting place, so adopting an eulogistic tone my abiding memories of that career will be positive ones. Memories of that devestating spell in Kingston or the sound of ball on grill as that spitting bouncer struck Ricky Ponting rather than the sight of slumped shoulders and anxiety-filled eyes in the series that followed. The tragedy is 'that it should come to this!'.

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