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Bring on the boys' brigade

They are like two peas in a pod

Wisden CricInfo staff
08-Jul-2005
They are like two peas in a pod. Steve Harmison and Simon Jones were both born in 1978 in towns where coal had been mined for generations. They are uncommonly tall, they bowl fast, and they made their England debuts last summer against India. They are the new faces in the Ashes squad and there is growing curiosity about how they will perform in Australia this winter, where they will both have their 24th birthday. They are rivals, of course. At the start of last season Harmison thought he was the best bet for an England debut but, when he injured an intercostal muscle, Jones got the extra paceman's place at Lord's. ("I was over the moon for him," says Harmison.) Harmison's chance came when Jones was injured in turn. Harmison believes there is room for only one of them in the XI for the Brisbane Test on November 7. But in that case he is an optimist because he thinks Darren Gough will be fit. A pessimist would look at the fitness records of England's opening pair and conclude that Harmison and Jones each has a fine chance of making an Ashes debut this winter, perhaps together.
Then we will discover they are not so alike. Harmison exploits his 6ft 4ins to get bounce and he concentrates on grooving his action. He works with Martyn Moxon, the coach at Durham, on making his action smoother and more compact. Harmison believes that to change the action is to change the bowler and he prefers fine-tuning. Duncan Fletcher is happy with what he sees. Simon Jones of Glamorgan is a skiddy bowler despite his height of 6ft 3.5ins and, before he played for England, Fletcher made him change his run-up. Jones's run-up is becoming a saga.
His Dad Jeff played for England between 1964 and 1967 though Simon knew nothing of that when he was six and began to play cricket in the garden. Jeff was his coach when Simon first played club cricket at Llanelli at 11, and by then he knew about his father's 6 for 118 at Adelaide in 1965-66. He was a small child ("a little dot," he says), only 5ft 5ins in his mid-teens. When he played rugby at school they put him on the wing because he was small and fast. But he could bowl fast enough to play for Wales and break a boy's arm. He got a sports scholarship to Millfield School, where he shot up. He was coached by Richard Ellison, who had fine performances of his own against Australia. "He taught me to be aggressive, to make my presence felt." Essex showed an interest but, when Matthew Maynard arrived in person to ask him to join Glamorgan, no more needed to be said.
As a young pro he had his share of stress fractures (foot and shin) but his trouble was no-balls - as many as four an over. Glamorgan called in Lynn Davies, Wales's Olympic long-jump gold-medallist. "He quickly helped me develop a stride pattern." Jones started to take 26 paces back to his mark and 11 running strides to the wicket. When he first tried this new run, it was so long that he was exhausted after three overs. He was good enough to impress David Boon when he made his Glamorgan debut against Durham aged 19. The hard, shrewd former Australian Test batsman took Jones aside. "He said I could do well for myself and told me to enjoy it."
In 2001 Jeff Hammond, Glamorgan's Aussie coach, told Jones his run-up was too long. He cut it to 12 paces and six running strides. When he spent last winter at the Academy in Adelaide, Jones's tutors went five steps further: seven walking paces, four running strides. His run-up was now the same length as his team-mate Dean Cosker, and he is a slow left-armer. It was extraordinary to look at: a short, sharp approach to the crease and an explosive open-chested fast ball. At the Academy Troy Cooley, the fast-bowling coach, made him get more side-on as well.
But, when Fletcher travelled to Cardiff early last season, he did not like what he saw. He told Steve Watkin that Jones's action did not look right. "Look," he told Jones, "I want you to get more momentum." He proposed that he should bowl off 15 paces, eight strides. Jones himself did not notice much difference in pace, but the new run-up seemed to work. Andy Flower told him he was as quick as anyone he had faced. He was ready. Or so it seemed.
Harmison is an instinctive performer. Ashington in Northumberland is where Jack and Bobby Charlton come from, and he grew up there in a football culture. As a boy he hoped to emulate the Charltons, but by 16 his height better suited him to bowling fast. He was playing club cricket in Ashington in 1996 when he was 17. That September his career took off so dramatically that it proved harmful to him. Having spotted him at Ashington, Durham gave him a game in the last match of the 1996 Championship season. He bowled only nine overs, taking 0 for 77, but someone told the selectors and they rushed Harmison into the Under-19 team. Two months later he was in Pakistan.
He suffered a profound case of culture shock. He was horribly homesick and was shipped back to Ashington with a bad back. He says now that it took him five years to recover fully from the forbidding experience of being discovered and treated like a prodigy.
The back was diagnosed as growing pains, but he suffered the usual young fast-bowlers' injuries. Back in the county game in 1998, he impressed Justin Langer, who wrote in his diary: "His first six overs produced some of the fastest bowling I have faced for a long time. Like a West Indian fast bowler, he bounces in, hits the crease hard and hits the pitcher harder."
He missed A tours of New Zealand and then West Indies. He was injured but his absence led to muttering about temperament, as if you could not take Ashington out of the lad but you could not take him out of Ashington either. In a way you could not: he married a local girl and still lives close to his parents and his siblings. "It's a nice little town," he says. It is now.
Harmison is a fatalist. His action became more fluent and relaxed, but he believed he would become a Test player only when he deserved it. He had hoped that might be two years ago, but the selectors sent him to the Academy instead. He is less enthusiastic about it than Jones. Not enough cricket, he thought, but he enjoyed the Australian experience. "It made me a better person," says Harmison. He believed he would finally be chosen when he was good enough. "This summer I was good enough."
They were like two peas again for their Test debuts - both very nervous, both a bit wild at first, both settling down in the second innings. Jones endeared himself to the crowd by scoring 44 in 46 minutes but, when he was called on to bowl, he was so flustered that all feeling had gone from his legs. "There was nothing there. That's why I put my arm round Nasser's shoulder. I told him I could not feel my legs and he started laughing." He was fascinated to see the speed of every ball appear on the replay screen - and he bowled Virender Sehwag in the second innings, but he had picked up a niggle in only his fourth over. He thought it was because he had played for 18 months without a break and was tired. "My action wasn't as strong as it was early in the season. Maybe the arm was falling away a little bit."
Jones was confident that he would be fit in a couple of weeks but he came back too soon and retired hurt again, making way for Harmison to play at Trent Bridge. Harmison was very nervous too. "There's the media hype; TV cameras in your face. And the crowd. You play county cricket in front of 300 and on the last day at Trent Bridge there were 16,500. You tighten up. I depend on confidence and rhythm but in my first spell the ball didn't come out of my hand the way I wanted it to. The last day I was faster and the control was there, but you do have to be focused. I normally bowl 28 overs or so in a day. I bowled 14 overs in a day at Trent Bridge and I felt more tired than after 28. It's the concentration."
There were five fast bowlers at the Academy last winter. Alex Tudor, who had already played Test cricket, Jones and Harmison, plus Steve Kirby of Yorkshire and Hampshire's Chris Tremlett. Jones reports: "We made a pact. We were all going to play for England in the next five years."
Three down, two to go. This winter will tell us whether they can hack it.
Stephen Fay is the editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly.
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