England in South Africa 2009-10 October 8, 2009

England's unkickable habit

This time, there can be no way back for Steve Harmison. Surely?

This time, surely, there can be no way back for Steve Harmison. All patience has been exhausted, and all favours have been recalled. In unveiling England's squad to tour South Africa this winter, the national selector, Geoff Miller stated baldly that Harmison's "performances on tour have not mirrored what he is capable of doing". Indictments don't come much more damning from a man not given to excitable language when justifying his decisions.

And so that, then, is that. Or is it? For England's addiction to Harmison is a habit they have tried to kick in the past, and each and every time, they've come skulking reluctantly back for another fix - lured by the irrepressible memory of what he has done for England in the past, and driven by the inadequacy of the alternatives for his role. No-one else in the country possesses his blend of height, pace, bounce and lateral movement, and having stacked their side with swing bowlers to take on the No. 1 side in the world, England may yet yearn for his menace - especially if the ball refuses to move off the straight and narrow.

But that is the enduring frustration of Harmison. Had he not produced such a glorious run of form so early on in his career, England could have regarded him as they once did Devon Malcolm, and accepted his scattergun foibles as the price you pay for selecting a player with the rare ability to terrify. But instead, following his rampage through the Caribbean in the spring of 2004, he rose to become the No. 1 bowler in the world, and he's been subconsciously trying to shake off that accolade ever since.

Harmison's career will forever revolve around three key performances - and two of those are summarised by individual deliveries. At Sabina Park in March 2004 he routed the West Indians at the spiritual home of fast bowling, earning immortality with second-innings figures of 7 for 12. Sixteen months later, he clanged Justin Langer on the elbow and cut Ricky Ponting on the cheek to announce England's intent on the opening morning of the 2005 Ashes. And then, another 16 months further down the line, he froze in front of a rapt Gabba audience, sending down the most infamous wide in Ashes history that Andrew Flintoff fielded at second slip.

And in between those moments of drama he's been as anonymous as a six-foot-several strike bowler could ever hope to be, a fact that Miller - prompted, one suspects, by England's quietly determined head coach, Andy Flower - latched onto in justifying his omission today. When England last toured South Africa in 2004-05, Harmison's contribution to a famous 2-1 victory was a paltry tally of seven wickets at 73.22, and in all overseas assignments since his 2004 zenith, he's stumped up 48 wickets for England at 50.58, with not a single five-wicket haul in 21 appearances.

Tellingly, the arenas in which he has displayed the most ticker are the very ones where next to nothing had been expected of him, a trait which tallies with his infuriating ability to front up for Durham day-in, day-out, and scatter all opponents with Championship-winning panache. In Pakistan in 2005-06 and Sri Lanka two winters later, he earned plaudits for pounding in on typically stodgy surfaces, but as soon as the conditions were back in his favour, he abdicated his responsibilities, never more so than during England's humiliating defeat at Hamilton in March 2008, after which he and Matthew Hoggard were jettisoned from the side in a bold statement of intent. Hoggard, a stalwart performer but the lesser natural talent, never recovered his place. But England's craving for Harmison forced a relapse before the end of the following summer.

And with that in mind, is he capable of bouncing back once again from this latest indignity? Nobody should underestimate the lure of his abilities. As Miller intimated at Lord's on Thursday, Harmison effectively sealed his fate for this winter by hinting that he would not be making himself available for Australia for 2010-11. But three years ago he retired from one-day cricket on the eve of the World Cup, no less, only to change his mind 18 months later when Kevin Pietersen sweet-talked him into reconsidering.

For all that England want to make a big show of leaving their piecemeal past behind, the very fact that Miller was discussing England's Ashes defence on the eve of a series against the world's No. 1 Test team rather suggested that ad-hocism will still hold sway in 13 months' time. Harmison will have just turned 32 when the first Test at Brisbane gets underway in November 2010, and if he spends next summer bowling Durham to a third Championship title in a row, you can be certain he'll be mentioned in dispatches, no matter what he and the selectors say and do right now.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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