<
>

Harmison in doubt for Stanford opener

Steve Harmison faces a race to be fit in time for the Stanford 20/20 for 20 in Antigua next week, after a slower-than-anticipated recovery from a fractured left wrist that he sustained during Durham's championship-sealing fixture against Kent at Canterbury last month.

Harmison, who has also picked up a stomach bug since arriving in the Caribbean ahead of the US$20 million showdown with Stanford Superstars, is likely to be rested for England's opening fixture against the Twenty20 Cup champions, Middlesex, on Sunday.

"Steve has got this fracture he did at the end of the English summer, but apart from that everyone's fit," said England's coach, Peter Moores. "He's been in Barbados [with the bowlers] and physically he's in good shape, but there's no point in risking him too soon. We'll take advice, and it might be that it's a bit early for him."

Should Harmison be ruled out, it's likely that Ryan Sidebottom will be given an opportunity to reclaim the berth that he himself surrendered through injury midway through last summer. Having carried England's attack in their back-to-back Test series wins against New Zealand in March and June, Sidebottom succumbed to a succession of ailments, including a back injury and a hip complaint, and had been odds-on to miss out in the final reckoning next Saturday.

"Sidebottom hasn't had much practice but he's fit enough to play," said Moores. "Before he was injured he was arguably our best bowler, so that's spiced things up a bit. We've got a lot of competition in the squad, and I think that is healthy. We have a very settled side, and a good side. They've all played very good cricket, and put themselves in a strong position to play."

Though the bowlers have been acclimatising in Barbados since last week, the remainder of England's squad only arrived in Antigua on Friday afternoon. Having finished the English summer on a high with a Test win and four ODI victories in a row, Moores likened the vibe in the camp to the start of a new school term, and was confident that the unusual rewards on offer for this mini-trip would not prove a distraction.

"There's a really nice feel about it," said Moores. "We've had a longer break than we normally get so everyone is fresh and ready to go. The team made a promise to themselves to make sure they used that window to get physically in shape and they all look fit and strong. To meet up now is quite exciting, a bit like first day back at school."

On Saturday, England's players practised outdoors for the first time with Stanford's customised black bats that will be used throughout the tournament, and were able to take their first look at their very own field of dreams - Stanford's intimate personal ground on the fringe of Antigua's airport where each of the six contests will take place this week.

"The ground looks great - it's well laid out and the outfield is an absolute billiard table," said Moores. "It's nice to see the pitch at first-hand and we'll find out how it plays, and tweak our side accordingly. We have a week, so we can look at how Trinidad & Tobago play, how Stanford play, how Middlesex play, and get an idea of what suits the pitch and conditions best. We have a completely versatile squad with a few options, so we'll see where we go.

Regardless of Moores' insistence on treating the Stanford game just like any other fixture, the final selection will - as Kevin Pietersen conceded - be a tough call to make. Nevertheless, Moores was sure that the four players who do end up missing out will be man enough to accept the decision and move on to bigger battles in India next month.

"Sportsmen are used to being in a cut-throat environment where people get rewarded slightly differently because of their profile as players," said Moores. "It's a tough world trying to get into the team, but if you're playing for your country you get the rewards, and if you miss out you don't get anything. The lads are fine. Firstly, they are very glad to be in the squad, and secondly, they'll all try really hard to get into that final eleven."