Steve Harmison: a fiery return for England © Getty Images
 
Steve Harmison bounded back into Test cricket with a performance that, by his own admission, was his best for more than a year, as England belatedly demonstrated the full range of their firepower on the first day of the fourth Test at The Oval. By the close they had bowled South Africa out for 194 and responded with a scoreline of 49 for 1, an effort that enabled Kevin Pietersen to ease himself into his new role as England captain.

England's leading wicket-taker on the day was James Anderson, whose three-wicket haul included his 100th in Tests, but Harmison was the star of the show. His first over included a first-ball dropped catch and a split lip for his own wicketkeeper, Tim Ambrose, and he later followed that up with two wickets in two balls, including a 92.9mph yorker to demolish Hashim Amla's middle stump.

"That was a good ball," said Harmison. "My tail was up, because I'd just got my first wicket, so it was nice to get one full and straight, and as quick as I could, and he played all round it. Some big men stood up today to be counted today, and we can be proud of the way the day has gone. I struggle to believe how this side is getting beat."

Harmison's performance was a throwback to his glory years of 2004 and 2005, and defied the predictions that had followed his limp display at Hamilton back in March, after which he was banished from the side for eight consecutive games. While most observers felt at the time that he would never play for England again, Harmison was not among that number, and he admitted that the buzz of playing for his country was something that he had missed during his exile.

"I had an interesting chat with Marcus Trescothick at Somerset," said Harmison. "He's happy there and retired from the game, but I could never do that. I couldn't retire [from Test cricket], because that is what I've missed - playing for England and wearing the three lions. I can't knock county cricket, but you might get that once every six weeks when you get a top, top player out. But to do it in front of 16-18,000 people, the atmosphere and buzz, that's what I've missed, and it's why I was never ever going to go away.

"Someone said out there today that this is what England have missed," said Harmison. "But I've missed it as well. I've not bowled like that for a while, not for 12 months before I was dropped. But I love playing for my country. It wasn't going very well and I was right to be dropped, but I've had a break and I'm better than what I was. Hopefully this is the start of a long road to a more successful 12 months than I've just had."

Much of Harmison's renewed vigour comes from a lengthy stint in county cricket with Durham, where he has finally enjoyed regular outings with upwards of 500 overs under his belt already this season, including 43 wickets from nine Championship fixtures. It is the most he has bowled in years - under Duncan Fletcher, England's pacemen were routinely rested between internationals, while his 2007 season was interrupted by a hernia operation that ruled him out of the second half of the summer.

Perhaps more important than the rhythm that he has picked up, however, has been the break from the spotlight, and the chance to groove his action without the pressure to perform that comes when the cameras are watching your every move.

"When you're out of form and out of touch, everyone's an expert and jumping on your back," said Harmison. "But it's difficult to get your rhythm back in international cricket. The former players like Nasser [Hussain] and Atherton will say that playing county cricket is what has got me here, and there is that, but it's also spending time out of the spotlight that has left me mentally refreshed. There must be something in that, because Andrew Strauss didn't play a great deal of cricket before the New Zealand tour, and he got a hundred at Napier."

The break from the front line worked wonders for Harmison on this first day back. He was entrusted with the new ball by his new captain, Pietersen, and responded with a first over that set the tone for the day. "I was nervous coming back in, but quite keen to take the first over," said Harmison. "I was just pleased to be back. The momentum came from that first over, and the majority of things that England have done today have been done well. It's put us in a good position, and hopefully a day's batting can ram it home."

It is, however, a moot point whether Harmison can follow this first-day performance with the sort of sustained aggression that once made him the most feared bowler in the world. Nevertheless, the signs are good from a player whose body language is a window to his soul. "I got a text off Kev last night saying welcome back and good luck, it felt like Christmas Eve. I was so excited, so God knows how Kev felt, going into his first day as England captain.

"The support I've had in the last two to three months has been brilliant," he said. "People telling me I'm bowling well, and getting back to what I wanted to be. I've been bowling well, but the lads in the team were also bowling well and deserved to keep their shirt. But now it's about keeping the pressure on, and putting the ball back in the selectors' court."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo