Pakistan v England, 3rd Test, Lahore, 2nd day November 30, 2005

England grateful for Harmison's venom

For such a mild-mannered man, Steve Harmison has a bodycount that would do Carlos the Jackal proud © AFP
It is fair to suggest that, when the pre-series pundits were trawling around for a star of England's tour of Pakistan, Steve Harmison did not feature highly in the deliberations. His abilities as a fast bowler have never been in doubt, but his love of touring most certainly had. It was widely assumed that, if homesickness didn't neutralise his effectiveness, then Pakistan's sluggish pitches most certainly would.

And yet, by the second evening at Lahore, it was to Harmison that England had turned as they strained every sinew to get back into a match and a series that had been slipping from their grasp. An excellent, under-rewarded seven-over spell late on the second day forced Inzamam-ul-Haq to retire hurt with an injured wrist, and led Mohammad Yousuf, the mainstay of Pakistan's innings, to declare that it was one of the best spells he had ever faced in his career.

Harmison's intercessions enabled England to breathe more easily at the close. "They might be struggling if Inzy can't bat," he said afterwards, as Pakistan reached 185 for 4 with the nightwatchman, Shoaib Akhtar, at the crease. "It makes the first hour tomorrow crucial. It was nice to get a wicket right at the very end, and hopefully if we nip Yousuf out we'll have a go at the tail and it'll not be too many runs either way."

England's first-innings total of 288 may have fallen far short of the target they had set for themselves, but with just 71 overs available in the day - and 77 on the first day - their hasty demise did at least mean the game was hurtling towards a positive result. England, you sense, will accept a 2-0 defeat if at least it means they were in a position to force a 1-1 draw.

"The lads have stuck together and bowled really well," said Harmison. "The wicket's got a bit of bounce, a bit of carry, but it's very slow which is the tradition in Pakistan, and there's not a lot of sideways movement either. The ball hasn't started reverse-swinging, but there's a bit in it and that's enough encouragement for the lads to keep plugging away."

Darren Gough once said of bowling on the subcontinent that it was at least preferable to working down a mine, and Harmison admitted that he had found the going pretty tough in the first two Tests at Multan and Faisalabad. Even so, there has been no stinting in his application all series long - and his tally of 12 scalps at 24.25 is already four times as many as the great Dennis Lillee managed on his solitary tour of Pakistan in 1980-81.

It is also four times as many as Andrew Caddick managed out here on England's last tour in 2000-01, and Harmison, like Caddick, is a man who uses high-kicking bounce as a primary weapon. But with Andrew Flintoff strangely subdued in this game - he was back to the defensive mode that Nasser Hussain had advocated in India four years ago, banging every ball in short to induce a batsman error - and Shaun Udal unable to exert any pressure with his fingerspin, the only alternative was an injection of pure venom.

For such a mild-mannered man, Harmison has a bodycount that would do Carlos the Jackal proud. His tally of 17 Ashes wickets didn't include the countless dents he left on Justin Langer's forearms or the duelling scar on Ricky Ponting's cheek, and today by clattering Inzamam a painful blow on the wrist, he found yet another unorthodox manner of removing the great man from the crease. Last week at Faisalabad, it was a controversial shy at the stumps that did the trick.

"You make your own luck," he shrugged afterwards. "I would have liked a few more wickets, and with a bit more rub of the green, we might have had them two or three more down. But Inzy and Yousuf were forming a good partnership and they had us pretty much where they wanted us. It was nice to get a fresh face out there which lifted our spirits."

'His day in the field was excellent,' said Harmison of Liam Plunkett © AFP

Doubtless Harmison would still prefer to be back home in Ashington, but at least in this Test he has had two prominent figures from his home county playing starring parts alongside him. In the morning session, Paul Collingwood fell agonisingly short of his maiden Test century when he hoicked Shoaib Akhtar to deep fine leg for 96. And then in the afternoon, Liam Plunkett rumbled in to deliver a timely maiden Test wicket.

"His day in the field was excellent," said Harmison of Plunkett. "He was very nervous before he went out to bat, and even more nervous before he came out to bowl, but he can go to bed a very happy and proud man, because he bowled very well for a 20-year-old on debut."

After all the criticism of his role in the England team, Collingwood's demise was felt by everyone in the dressing-room. "We all go hand in hand, everybody's disappointed for everybody," said Harmison. "He didn't have to prove anything to anybody but himself, but he's a big northern lad and he'll brush it off. Next time he'll put it away for four.

Harmison himself would fit that big northern description, and likewise, he's risen above the carpers in recent months. To a certain extent, his homesickness has had little impact on his cricket - he took nine wickets in his one appearance in Bangladesh two winters ago, and he earned a Man of the Series award in the West Indies the following spring. Either side of those he has endured torrid spells in Australia and South Africa, but he got through them and that's what mattered.

His sunny demeanour on this trip, however, has still come as a surprise, and is possibly linked to the new circumstances of his best mate, Flintoff. In South Africa last year Flintoff, his wife Rachel and infant daughter Holly were playing happy families all around the country, leaving Harmison to fend by and large for himself.

This time, however, the roles have been reversed, and as Flintoff said on arrival last month: "It'll be me crying on his shoulder". And as England strive for that series leveller, it looks increasingly likely that Harmison will have to carry several of their hopes on his shoulders as well.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo