Test Match Betting: Harmison the player, Harmison the man
On his day Steve Harmison is one of the most lethal fast bowlers in the world. On another day his line and length is erratic, his head drops and he's a liability. Andrew Hughes looks at the reasons behind Harmy's inconsistency.
A lanky youngster with a nasty bouncer, Steve Harmison was plucked from the obscurity of Durham ahead of his time. In his way, he has come to represent the good and the bad of English cricket. That we can still find such talent is testament to the hard work and enthusiasm of grassroots coaches and to the enduring popularity of the sport.
That such players can arrive at the international level with their mental weaknesses intact, is an indictment of the inadequacies of our county game. Yet with the fading of Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff's continuing injury niggles, a seemingly rejuvenated Harmison is now a senior figure and a vital part of England's future, beginning with the current tour of the West Indies. So how do we assess Harmison? A wasted talent or misunderstood genius?
When the going gets tough...
His propensity for homesickness is well-documented. It is easy to sneer and mock but many of us might feel the same, separated from our loved ones for prolonged periods. Yet you might expect a modern international sportsman to have found a way to ensure it didn't affect his performance. Harmison's bowling average of 36.60 overseas, compared to 28.28 at home is evidence of his inability to do so. But his homesickness, like his sensitivity to criticism and tendency to let his head drop when things go badly, are symptoms of the same mental weakness, a weakness that was not exposed in the cosy world of county cricket. As Hick, Ramprakash and others have found, it simply does not prepare you for the rigours of the international game.
The England management did their best to help. Duncan Fletcher identified his problems and encouraged him to spend his spare time overseas in the company of his closest friends, like Flintoff. But rather than concentrating on his homesickness, they would have done better to focus on his bowling. Like a trainer taking a long time to work out what makes a thoroughbred racehorse tick, only now are the England management aware of what Harmison the player, as opposed to Harmison the person, really needs.
He needs overs under his belt. It's as simple as that. Fletcher's England were rightly concerned to protect their quick bowlers from the monotonous treadmill of county cricket. For the likes of Simon Jones, with his dodgy knees, it worked. For Harmison, it did not. A rhythm and confidence bowler with a fragile ego, he needs to be in the groove, to be able to turn up and bowl without having to think too much about it. It was up to the management to work out that helping him to feel good about his bowling on tour would do more to boost his confidence and combat homesickness than any number of bonding sessions. Finally, the lessons seem to have been learnt. Never again will a half-fit rusty Harmison pitch up to bowl the first ball of a Test as he did at Brisbane in 2006.
This tour, he has done plenty of bowling already and the way he persevered on a flat pitch at St Kitts last week was encouraging. Yet the fact remains that, even when at his best, Harmison is a horse for a certain kind of course. Aside from Perth and Old Trafford, it is the Caribbean that provides the hard surface that turns him from useful to deadly. His stats show that conclusively. Against the West Indians in England, he averages 31.81 runs per wicket. Yet on their own patch in the Caribbean, he has taken 23 wickets at an astonishing 14.28 apiece, including a devastating burst of 7-12 at Kingston in 2004. With a fully fit Flintoff the only other English pace bowler capable of frightening the opposition, Harmison's contribution is even more vital to his new captain than it was to Michael Vaughan. He will be the key man if England are to justify their short odds of [2.32] to win the First Test starting next Wednesday.