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.
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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