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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Barath on October 11, 2009, 4:58 GMT


    His performance against SA was decent but that was at home and the next series was played away from home in India and Harmison was back to his old ways of bowling rubbish. At Madras he was all over the place and I had sympathy for the wicketkeeper Prior as he had to keep to some of the most wayward bowling I have ever seen!

    Harmison away from home can't bowl well.

  • Barath on October 11, 2009, 2:50 GMT

    If I compare Hoggy and Harmison I know who I would have.

    Theories like Harmison is tall and brings variety into the attack just doesn't work as away from home in recent times he has bowled at medium pace. If a bowler doesn't hit the deck hard he won't get the bounce.

    Jimmy Anderson is improving as a bowler as is Broad but Harmison doesn't deserve a place.

  • Muqit on October 10, 2009, 20:23 GMT

    Everything in English cricket is still discussed only from test match point of view.Everyone is talking about Harmy's poor test performance.But last year when he made a come back at ODI's then his performance was decent.If English selectors believe that still Harmy got future in England team then they should allow him to play more ODIs.For England ODI squad of RSA tour selectors picked SajMahmood who is one the most rubbish bowler I have ever seen.Instead of allowing SAJID they could give opportunity to Harmison.Perhaps he could get one or two wickets every match n gain confidence.I dont see any problems with test match bowling for ENGLAND, but in ODI they need better Fast bowlers.Onions,Bresnan,Wright are not good enough for ODI's, Harmison is better than them in any version as a bowler.So he should be in ODI squad if not in test ever.

  • Michael on October 10, 2009, 16:25 GMT

    Though this point is not entirely relevant to this piece it would seem glaringly obvious that a lot more people rate Matthew Hoggard than Harmison.No-one has quite satisfied the fans as to why Hoggard has not played since Hamilton, even though for a year Sidebottom worked the magic fr England.Is there a real reason for this as Hoggie was quite outstanding and often bowled brilliantly on unpitying surfaces. Maybe Cricinfo could find out for us.

  • Barath on October 10, 2009, 8:00 GMT

    The last time I saw Harmison bowl in the subcontinent in Madras he was so rubbish that even a club bowler may have bowled better as he went for 90 runs.

    Anderson, Freddie and Broad all bowled better than Harmison in India in 2008/09.

  • Barath on October 10, 2009, 7:46 GMT

    Carol 19,

    Harmison hasn't got a 5 wicket haul since that match at Old Trafford against Pakistan in 06.

    Away from home he hasn't taken a 5 wicket haul since 2004 in the Caribbean!

    His recent performances away from home have been bad. He averaged 90 in India.He averaged 121 in favourable conditions in NZ in 2008.

    The last time he went to SA he averaged 73.22 on so called bouncy tracks but Hoggard averaged just 25 and took 26 wickets!

    So why should he play away from home???

  • D on October 9, 2009, 19:19 GMT

    Hey,i agree with kingkarthik Harmison was always an overated player,England selector always rate performants against west indies,just like they did with Ravi Bopara he perform against west indies and they think they had they #3,wat a laught the same with Harri,sabina park is fast bowler dream for a pitch who knows wat to do,just check Cory Collymore record there,and of lately Jerome Taylor.Its a real shame the way they treated Matthew Hoggard one bad show and out you go never to get a look back in then they went for an old australian with one first class game and gave him a test match.England has the players i believe with the potential to be the #1 team in world cricket but they will never get there with they selection policies,look wat they did in the seven odi's against the aussies pick a lot of bit and piece players and xspect to win with one quality player in Strauss.People will adjust to any situation and batmans will too.ur best player should bat at 3,check history,don't make 1.

  • Michael on October 9, 2009, 15:36 GMT

    You have to wonder,caro 19, why Harmison's dips in form always coincide with playing in a Test,whereas the good citizens of Durham seem to get the benefit of all the peaks. Personally I'd try deep hypnotherapy on him and if he did niot play consistently afterwards give him the push. He seems a very inconsistent character,let alone bowler,saying he wants to play for England one day,then telling the selectors what to do the next. I hope a couple of clever really big fast bowlers appear soon to remove the argument from view. Meaker is one for the future,but more Gough's size. The one good point I would make about Harmison has been his bowling in the subcontinent. Maybe he likes the food!

  • Caroline on October 9, 2009, 14:30 GMT

    I'd love to see him earn his place back, simply because when he's at his best there's just no one else like him around. All this talk of 'chances' is rubbish - people dip in form and get dropped all the time, they pick up form and they get selected again, that's natural. But ignoring the best performers at your disposal isn't going to get you anywhere. People who actually paid attention can recognise he played the last two England Test matches - and actually bowled WELL. All the commentators were saying he bowled his heart out, and you could see it for yourself. For heaven's sake, he almost won the Ashes on a hattrick!

  • Rod on October 9, 2009, 14:03 GMT

    Harmison's problem is finally revealed:

    "He's still a top class bowler on his day," Gibson told Cricinfo. "He's still capable of bowling high end 80mph so he'll have to sit down in the winter and evaluate what his next step is . . .Steve will have to sit down and decide whether he has got the best out of himself ....He'll have to sit down and decide whether he's been as good for England as he could have been."

    Take a seat, Steve!

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