Harmison running out of excuses

When you're as determined to turn over a new leaf as England profess themselves to be, it's the little things that make the world of difference. Little things like blinding catches in the gully, disciplined probing on a flat lifeless surface, wholehearted application for 90 strength-sapping overs. England applied plenty of that today, at least, most of them did. Sadly, one man once again fell short of the necessary. No prizes for guessing who. It's a sadly familiar tale.
Let's ignore Steve Harmison for a moment, because his travails are getting wearisome. Three men instead stand out for England, because of the way they raised their game to meet the demands of their captain, Michael Vaughan. Yesterday he called for a line in the sand to be drawn after two series defeats in a row. A fresh tour and a fresh start was on offer for those who wished to grab it.

So Alastair Cook rose to the occasion with three outstanding catches - including a one-handed pluck in the gully that defied his not-unreasonable reputation as a klutz. Monty Panesar bounded in with the same self-belief that he misplaced in Sri Lanka to extract the vital wicket of Jamie How, and kept all the New Zealand batsmen on as tight a leash as the conditions allowed. And then there was Ryan Sidebottom, who shrugged off the lack of match practice that had arisen from his hamstring strain, and slotted instantly back into that slippery full-swinging length that has so impressed since his career resurfaced.

All three gave the impression that they were hungry to reignite England's success. The challenge of rising back up the rankings has been posed, and a 3-0 clean sweep - the scoreline when England last played New Zealand in 2004 - would take them back to No. 2 in the world. "It was satisfying," said England's coach, Peter Moores, of England's first-day efforts. "We took the chances that came along."

But then there was Harmison. Moping in at 80mph, scratching for inspiration, shrugging at the futility of countering his inner demons. England may have taken some bold strides in their attitude on the opening day at Hamilton, but with Harmison in their ranks, they were dragged backwards as if attached to one of those bungee cords so beloved of New Zealand thrill-seekers.

"He's feeling better all the time," said Moores at the close, with the sort of bedside manner that many doctors would commit euthanasia for. "He'll keep gaining confidence and keep working at it, and I know with all the lads they've given everything. Harmy even dived six times."

That was big of him, I'm sure. But how many more games can England put up with a man who has all the attributes but refuses to use any of them? He came so close to a breakthrough in Sri Lanka before Christmas, where he claimed to have stopped "beating himself up", and he even picked up five wickets in the warm-up at Dunedin. However, no-one who saw that performance could quite believe his figures, and today he produced a more accurate reading. He conceded his runs at nearly five an over and took one wicket, but even that was batsman-error - Matthew Bell was so carried away after consecutive slashed boundaries that he drilled a wide half-volley to fourth slip.

Excuses are everything for Harmison. He's been late arriving on two England tours - in Sri Lanka he lost his bowling boots in transit from South Africa, which of course knocked his preparation entirely out of kilter. And out here he turned up late following the birth of his son, Charlie. No-one who tours the world as much as England cricketers can criticise him for that, but somehow as soon as the news came out, you realised his heart was not going to be in it.

It's all a bit of an insult to the likes of Sidebottom, who immediately located a length in his first outing for two weeks, and Matthew Hoggard as well. He wasn't at his best today after a stomach bug earlier in the week, but there's never any doubting the heart and soul he puts into his game. Earlier in the week, he told Cricinfo about his modus operandi. "If you don't really want to bowl in tough conditions, or only half-heartedly, then you ain't going to get anywhere," he said. At the time it didn't sound like a dig, but in hindsight you have to wonder.

Harmison's real crime is his inability to force an improvement out of himself. Cook has managed it with his catching - in his first two years as a Test cricketer, he was little short of a liability in the field, but on today's evidence he's turned himself around like another of England's self-made gully fielders, the under-estimated Ashley Giles. "Cook is a deliberate learner," said Moores. "He's worked very hard on his catching, and he'll challenge himself to get better and better."

Likewise, Panesar took himself off to India with the England Lions where bowled tidily in their challenge for the Duleep Trophy, and has returned with the fruits of his labour. "Bowlers are like batters, they can lose form," said Moores, "but to watch the way Monty went today, he was getting shape on the ball, which challenges both sides of the bat. Like all players he's going through a journey, but Monty loves to bowl."

Does Harmison love to bowl? You have to wonder. Tomorrow he'll doubtless turn his form around and pick up a quick four-fer to massage his figures and give the impression that all is well with his game. But there's no point in England professing to a fresh start if their senior strike bowler is so irredeemably stale.