October 12, 2013

End of the road for the Fab Four

With Steve Harmison's retirement, English cricket has broken its last link with the bowling quartet of 2005

And then there were none. With Steve Harmison's retirement, English cricket has broken its last link with the Fab Four of 2005. Andrew Flintoff left the game four years ago; and now none of Harmison, Matthew Hoggard or Simon Jones will ever play first-class cricket again.

Their shared departures are a reminder that, as much as anything, the triumph of 2005 was one of timing. The entire pace attack was born within two years of each other and had the happy coincidence of sharing their peak years. If sporting teams are said to work best when there is a right blend of youth and experience, the fortune of England's 2005 attack - really, the entire outfit save for Ian Bell - was that each player seemed to bring just the right amount of both qualities.

It was a quartet of contrasting qualities, lacking only a left-armer. Harmison's brawn and pace, Flintoff's relentless back-of-a-length hostility, Jones' reverse swing. And then there was Hoggard. The least glamorous, by some distance, of the four, but he didn't mind. He famously once described his job as being to "brush up the debris of the shop floor".

England had bigger bowlers, faster bowlers and scarier bowlers. Hoggard embraced his role as a shaggy-haired shop steward. The image did not do justice to his considerable talents - not only the prodigious new-ball swing and nagging accuracy but also the ability to cut the ball, which allowed him to rise above the limitations of flat surfaces.

The image of Hoggard is of the ever-willing supporter, but he could be the leader of the attack too. The 12 wickets he took in England's win in Johannesburg - especially given the frailties of the rest of that attack - remains arguably the finest Test display by any English bowler in the 21st century. The suspicion has to be that we would remember it much more had it come from another member of the quartet, the perfect outswinger that snared Jacques Kallis first ball especially. Hoggard wouldn't care.

His new-ball partner Harmison, the self-described shy lad from Ashington, took a similar view to the limelight. In a way, Harmison was a victim of his natural gifts. While Hoggard could slip by - just a solid English-style quick, as the popular portrayal had it - Harmison was not so easily ignored. His physique and pace ensured as much; from the moment he broke through with 7 for 12 at Sabina Park and 61 wickets in a 11-Test run in 2004, Harmison attracted media attention of the sort that Hoggard could almost invariably avoid.

The white Curtly Ambrose, they started called him. It didn't seem ridiculous either, watching Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and even Brian Lara floundering against his combination of pace, steepling bounce and surprise yorkers. The paradox was that if Hoggard envied Harmison's greater natural gifts, Harmison must have been jealous of Hoggard's relative unobtrusiveness.

The relationship of England's fans to Harmison was often one of exasperation. Why could he be Grievous Bodily Harmison one day and a 6' 4" mouse the next? From England's tour to South Africa in 2004-05 - when he arrived as the world's top-ranked bowler and left with nine wickets at 73 apiece - Harmison often had to contend with theories that if he wasn't fulfilling his potential, it was in part because he didn't want to. Playing for England was all a bit of a chore.

Of course the perception was deeply unfair. As England collapsed in the final Test in Lahore in 2005, completing their ignominious post-Ashes hangover, Harmison certainly didn't shirk. He bowled more overs, and better ones, than any of his team-mates. Few bowling analyses have ever been less fitting than his 43-3-154-1.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul has cited Harmison as a model of toughness, contrasting today's young bowlers, who "get a little hit or a niggle and they stay off the field", with the Harmison who won Durham the Championship with "socks full of blood" and "a broken hand". But none of this seemed to matter. Because Harmison could be so spectacular - the destruction he wrought in the Caribbean, the carnage of the first morning of the 2005 Ashes, that slower ball to Michael Clarke ­- it followed that when he was not, it was because he wasn't trying or didn't care.

We now know that his dislike of touring was linked to his battles with depression. There were persistent injuries, too, particularly to his shins. But perhaps the greatest issue of all was of biomechanics. As beautiful as Harmison's action could look when all was in sync, there was a lot that could go wrong. It was little wonder that, sometimes - think of the start of the 2006-07 Ashes - it did.

Unfortunately a lot could go wrong with Jones too. Seldom has a bowler's run-up been more deceptive: Jones gave the impression of ambling in with little more threat than seen in Sunday afternoon club cricket, but from a brief explosion onto the crease he was able to hit 90mph. The cocktail of jagging reverse swing and zest for high-octane moments made Jones an intoxicating cricketer. The mesmerising spell to Michael Clarke on the final afternoon at Old Trafford - darting the ball both ways and then decimating his off stump - almost evoked Wasim and Waqar.

The shame is that, like his father Jeff, Jones' dalliance with Test cricket was so fleeting. After his horrific injury in Brisbane in 2002, it took him until 2005 to become a truly established member of the side. After two five-fors in three innings, Jones became England's wizard of reverse swing. The age-old conundrum of the England side had been how to harass good batsmen on flat wickets, especially in Asia. The two supreme reverse swingers, Jones and Flintoff, seemed to offer a compelling answer.

Alas, he has spent much of the last eight years as he ended the 2005 Ashes. Only in one of the past seven seasons has he managed more than four first-class wickets; many people would assume that he has already retired. It is testament to Jones' resilience that he has kept going amid it all. Just last month, Jones dismissed James Taylor in the CB40 final with a delivery that seamed late and kissed the outside edge. Of course, there was a sadness to the ball, a reminder of the shame in such a talent being consigned to 58 Test wickets. But the hope is that with luck - and Jones is certainly overdue some - he will outlast the other members of the quartet, albeit only on the T20 circuit.

So now the sight of Jones in pyjamas is all that's left of the Fab Four. The irony is that it was the least heralded man -­ the new fans cricket discovered in 2005 swiftly forget Hoggard's name if it had ever registered - who departs with the most Test wickets and the greatest sense of promise fulfilled. We may have hoped for more from the quartet after 2005. But we will always have that, and after 16 years of evisceration by Australia, it was quite a sight.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Brian on October 13, 2013, 16:07 GMT

    Some elaborate praise for these England bowlers in the article and some sniping in the comments. A bit of balance is needed. I think that with these four bowlers the 2005 series would inevitably have been closer than the 4-1 and 5-0 scorelines in Australia's favour common around this time, but "fab four" notwithstanding, England still lost the first test of that series heavily, and were reliant on some huge slices of luck to get their noses in front, notably the injury to McGrath and certain umpiring decisions, notoriously the dismissal of Kaprowicz in the second innings at Edgbaston. Without that good fortune I do not believe England would have won the series in 2005. Further, although I am accusing anyone myself, it seems obvious that if we were talking about a set of Pakistan fast bowlers (for instance), I don't think that the English media would be so keen to ignore and forget the aspersions of ball tampering that were cast in regard to the 2005 series.

  • Android on October 13, 2013, 3:47 GMT

    Same attack lost next ashes in australia .clean sweep aus 5-eng 0.one good series and they can live their life with this ..Fab Four :)

  • Dummy4 on October 13, 2013, 1:08 GMT

    Catchy title - gets a lot of eye balls considering that Tendulkar(last of the fab four) just announced his retirement, The comparison to 80s Windes is indicative of how serious the article needs to be taken. The writing style makes it hard to figure out which statements are serious and which are jest.

  • Johnathon on October 12, 2013, 23:16 GMT

    Are you serious? These guys are average bowlers. All of them average around 30 for bowling. Yes, they have committed one of the biggest heists in international cricket, but one good series alone does not make them among the best

  • Chris on October 12, 2013, 20:01 GMT

    @Rajiv Radhakrishnan, well nobody but you is comparing the 2005 quartet to the Windies attacks of the 1980s. And it's time to scotch this oft-repeated claim that Flintoff only had one good series. Over 9 series (38 matches) between 2003 and 2006 he averaged 41 with the bat and 27 with the ball. Check it out on Statsguru. True, he served a long and fairly undistinguished test apprenticeship and succumbed at the end to injuries and maybe a bit of hubris, but for those sweet three years he was pretty much as good as anyone with bat or ball.

  • sam on October 12, 2013, 18:46 GMT

    Harmison was always outrageously overhyped, always fell flat on his face against good batting teams. Freddie Flintoff was very hostile and very fast but he hardly ever got his length right, so took very few wickets (too many play and misses). Hoggard was at his best in 2002-03 and then lost about a yard in pace. Jones though was one who had loads and loads of potential. If he was fit he could have been a great. He reminded me of Waqar. But when I think of Jones I remind myself of BOND! SHANE BOND! A bowler who had the best run up, the best action and generated so much natural pace and quality inswing had his career cut short by injury after injury. Shane Bond had more potential than Dale Steyn and that is saying something.........

  • stuart on October 12, 2013, 18:03 GMT

    If this lot had stayed healthy there is little doubt we would have won more tests.Funnily the loss of Simon Jones had the most effect and it is so sad that both he and his father had their careers ended by injury. He was a potential world class bowler and all four of them that summer gave Australia more than they could handle.If it was not for Shane Warne that year Australia would have lost far more tests. It was a brilliant series of attacking cricket and the standard was really high.As for Harmisons slower ball it was the best example I have seen in the way it was set up and delivered. I always thought Hoggy went too soon but then it led to Anderson and Broad so who knows.

  • Dummy4 on October 12, 2013, 16:49 GMT

    Point being in this series they were dinamite. They made a great Australian side look very average... Only Ponting and Langer played anywhere near their real standard. All credit to them well backed up by Giles....

  • Dummy4 on October 12, 2013, 11:44 GMT

    @Vic Lewis: Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. @Rajiv Radhakrishnan: As Vic said, I was certainly NOT saying that the Fab Four were as good as the West Indies quartet of the 1980s.

  • Dummy4 on October 12, 2013, 11:13 GMT

    @Rajiv Radhakrishnan: you seem to have missed the entire point of the article, which is that for one glorious fleeting moment - well, those few weeks in 2005 - the quartet of Jones, Harmison, Hoggard and Flintoff took on and destroyed a very powerful batting line up which, along with a lethal bowling attack, had dominated world cricket in general and England in particular for many years! After the 2005 Ashes, H H J & F NEVER played together again....but oh, those memories of that fabulous summer when they were at their collective and individual peak! Great article, by the way, Mr Wigmore.