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England cricket

August 28, 2013

When Harmy stunned Sabina Park

Garfield Robinson, USA

Harmison celebrates England's first wicket
A rout for the ages © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Steve Harmison
Teams: England

At his best, few fast bowlers could be as devastating as Steve Harmison. His withering pace and the steep bounce he generated made him as likely as any bowler who ever played to overawe a line-up of good batsmen.

But he was not always at his best. He frequently appeared listless and his radar was often awry; instead of being the match-winner that he could be he was often the source of frustration for his team and captain. Renowned as a troublesome traveller, he was the subject of endless conversations in cricket circles: would he overcome the fragility that plagued him and grow into one of the best fast bowlers of his time, or would he remain one of cricket's great unfulfilled talents?

By the time England's 2003-04 tour of West Indies came round he had showed his true capabilities only sporadically, with his most notable performance being his 4 for 33 upon returning for the last Test against South Africa. Later, his nine wickets against Bangladesh in Dhaka earned him the Man-of-the-Match award, before a back injury laid him low for the rest of that series and for the following encounter with Sri Lanka. Fortunately for England he regained full fitness in time for the West Indies tour.

I first set eyes on the him when I watched a day - I don't remember which - of the tour match against Jamaica. The track seemed lifeless. Hardly a delivery rose over stump height and I remember thinking that if the Test pitch was similar in nature, the batsmen would not be overly troubled. But then Harmison came on and it seemed a totally different surface. Suddenly batsmen who were playing deliveries short of a good length comfortably found they now had to protect their rib-cages. The 6'5" bowler didn't take a wicket in the game, but I came away thinking he would be the bowler to watch when the real battle began in a few days.

Only 28 runs separated the teams on first innings of the Sabina Park Test. Opener Devon Smith's 108 had led the West Indies to 311, and England responded with 339. Chris Gayle and Smith then survived three overs to close the third day with game in the balance entering Sunday's fourth day. For some reason that I don't now recall, I was a few minutes late getting to the Park that morning. The loud roar while I was at the turnstiles meant that a batsman had fallen. It was Gayle. He was Harmison's first victim, caught in the cordon flashing at a delivery he could have ignored. The crowd was disappointed that their Jamaican favourite had gone so early and so needlessly, but did not seem overly perturbed, having some faith in those to follow. Before I was properly seated, however, another wicket fell. Ramnaresh Sarwan this time, lbw. By the time Shivnarine Chanderpaul diverted Harmison onto his stumps, the floodgates had truly been blasted open. The West Indies stood at 15/3.

In came Brian Lara. Surely, one of the greatest batsmen the game had known could beat back the rampaging paceman and prevent a complete overrun. He had done it before. He was accompanied to the middle by the riffs of Caribbean cricket anthem, "Rally round the West Indies". The stunned crowd was hopeful.

That hope crashed after exactly five deliveries. Matthew Hoggard ran one across Lara and had him caught behind. Meanwhile, the vicissitudes of capitalism were on full display in the stands. Vendors who had come amply stocked with supplies expecting a full day, realized before long that the impending early end would leave them stuck with most of what they had brought, much of it perishable. The result was that prices began to tumble in sync with the West Indian wickets.

Spectators too had to make adjustments to accommodate the looming early finish. Many who had come armed with strong liquid refreshments to enliven the proceedings could be seen sharing with their fellow mourners, both as a means of treating dejection, and also to lighten the load they would need to take back home. All this time wickets were still going down. Smith gave a return catch to Hoggard, who himself was in the midst of a challenging spell. A snorter from Harmison took care of Ridley Jacobs. Nasser Hussain, fielding at short leg, ran to his left and accepted the catch behind the wicket. Jacobs' 15 would be the top score of the innings. Another screamer would have separated Tino Best from his head had he not moved in the nick of time. But his instinctive jab produced a touch to the keeper. Adam Sanford was then caught by Marcus Trescothick, the first of the six - yes six - slip fielders lined up next to the keeper. Trescothick was the catcher again to end the massacre when Harmison took Fidel Edwards' edge for his seventh wicket. The West Indies innings had collapsed in a heap for 47 and Harmison's 7 for 12 was the cheapest seven-wicket haul in history.

Steve Harmison's first ball heads for second slip, Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane, November 23, 2006
The nadir: From delivering "one of the best spells by an England bowler" to bowling the worst ball in Test history © Getty Images

Five batsmen failed to score. Only two reached double figures, and all the doubters were convinced, for the moment at least, that Harmison was now the fast-bowling force they thought he could become. And for a while he was. The New Zealanders tasted his fire soon afterwards with many batsmen feeling the agony of the ball smashing into ribcage or fingers pinned to bat handle. Harmison was instrumental in England wresting the Ashes from Australia in 2005, and there were a couple of headlining spells against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2006. But he was still unpredictable; sometimes he was downright horrid, and the match-winning performances became scarcer and scarcer.

His nadir was probably the first delivery of the 2006-07 Ashes series that was collected by Andrew Flintoff standing at second slip. A delivery the English press dubbed the worst ball in Test history, and a far cry from his incredible performance at Sabina Park, one his then captain had termed "one of the best spells by an England bowler".

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Posted by Dummy4 on (September 1, 2013, 11:54 GMT)

Thorpe and Smith don't receive the same plaudits as Vaughan, Flintoff & Harmison because they played in an era when England generally lost to stronger sides such as Australia, West Indies, Pakistan & India during the 1990s. Winners usually get remembered and respected more readily than the vanquished as witness the ridicule directed at Atherton & Nasser Hussein by their fellow commentators during this summer's Ashes series for never being in an Ashes winning side.

Posted by Owen on (August 31, 2013, 10:04 GMT)

@Rajiv - if memory serves correctly, Harmison was the top of the bowling rankings for a while and you don't get that from just one good spell. Vaughan might have had just a golden patch of batting, but his captaincy in the '05 ashes was immense. Vaughan, Harmison and Flintoff are ashes legends because they took the fight back to Australia, and beat one of the best teams to have ever existed. This gave England back a belief that they hadn't had for years. In general, English fans are not so much interested in stats as they are in a players impact on the game, which is why we love Anderson - stats aren't great but he delivers the goods when we need them. Alongside the fact that we remember Thorpe and Smith dearly, there's another little fact about English fans you clearly didn't know

Posted by Dummy4 on (August 31, 2013, 3:43 GMT)

I would compare Harmison to Curtly Ambrose if ONLY he had fulfilled his potential. Harmison was devastating in Sabina but who could forget Curtly at Perth (truly amazing). With his height and pace Harmison could have been truly great, but sorry is his no Curtly.

Posted by George on (August 30, 2013, 19:51 GMT)

@Rajiv, trust me, NO England fan has forgotten Robin Smith or Graham Thorpe - nor how poorly they were treated by teh England establishment. As for Big Steve, yes he was flawed, yes he was inconsistent, yes he didn't always seem to enjoy cricket (he confessed himself he wanted to be a footballer & only came to the game by accident). But we love him all the same. I've never wanted a bowler to take a wicket more than when Big Steve was on a hat trick at The Oval in 2009 with Australia 9 down & the Ashes about to be clinched.

Posted by Dummy4 on (August 29, 2013, 15:59 GMT)

We need to get a reality check here. Harmisson had this great spell in 2004 and everyone thought he was amazing! He averages 32 with the ball, nothing to celebrate. Same with Vaughan, he had 6 months of amazing batting in 2002, and lived off that for the rest of his career. Flintoff had ONE good series, yet we think of them as some kind of Ashes legends. The likes of Thorpe and Robin Smith, who consistently performed for England are not remembered! England has not had a proper quality fast bowler since Bob Willis. Anderson could be, but not yet, with an average of 30!

Posted by Rajkumar on (August 29, 2013, 8:05 GMT)

Harmison was always one of my favs.The reason he did not go on to become one of the greats of the game was his mental fragility.(just stating a fact,ofcourse everyone knows.)Some say he was not aggressive enough to be a fast bowler.Michael Holding was sure 80s Windies would have beaten yester year Aus champions any day..reason---"Just remember how Aus struggled against Harmison's pace in 2005 Ashes,there just arent fast men like that anymore"....does he or anyone need a better compliment for his talent????hope he does well in life...

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