Falling through the Cracks

In the spring of this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Wisden dinner, an event which takes place annually at Lord's to mark the publication of the little yellow book. On this occasion the event was lent greater weight by the fact that it was the 150th edition.

Awards were made, speeches were delivered, toasts were drunk, backs, both metaphorically and literally, were slapped. Some fairly insubstantial food was consumed, along with a lot of complimentary wine.

After the formalities were over, people stood around in the Long Room as the tables were cleared. It was getting late, but few felt like leaving. Among those people was Nick Compton, the only one of the year's Five Cricketers who was there to receive his prize. He had been presented with a leather-bound Wisden by Andy Flower and had given a warm and elegant speech, full of feeling, in which he recalled his first visit to England, being taken to a match somewhere by his legendary Grandfather and meeting Peter Parfitt (at this, all eyes turned to the self-same Peter Parfitt, who was, like everyone else, imbibing freely).

Lots of things felt right.

With rare and unusual confidence, which can be safely ascribed to the receipt of a small amount of adulation and the consumption of a large amount of alcohol, I approached Compton and introduced myself as someone who had been known to watch him from the hill at Taunton. He responded with a direct gaze and a firm handshake. We didn't chat for long, but we did so for long enough to allow me to congratulate him on his recent centuries in New Zealand, especially the one in Dunedin, made under heavy pressure. He smiled an unassuming smile and said something like 'you just have to do what you have to do'. It was the tough, experienced professional sportsman's classic response to what the rest of us, who have never been there, perceive as intolerable stress, under which we could never perform (ignoring the fact that most of us couldn't make a century against Test class bowling even if we were under no pressure at all. We're not good enough.).

For Compton, with his Wisden award and his beautiful girlfriend and his place at the head of England's order apparently assured, all seemed well with the world. Headingley, with all its travails and protracted failures, still lay ahead.

I know this means little - I suspect he's the same with everyone - but at Lord's that night I watched Flower, his expression oozing control and gravity and seriousness, shake Compton's hand as Compton went to leave, and everything about Flower's demeanour suggested a lack of ease, of warmth, of friendliness, of approval. 'Don't get too comfortable' is what his eyes said.

He had a point. Six months on, with England about to begin another tour, Compton is nowhere to be seen. Flower is there, of course, as is Joe Root, and Michael Carberry. Compton is elsewhere, almost certain never to be seen in England colours again. The decision to replace him with Joe Root before the Ashes series in England was a defensible, perhaps logical, one, but for all that the selection of Carberry - with his background of struggle, his illness, his brilliant flair, his ethnicity - is a welcome and touching one, the feeling is that Compton, with his calm orthodoxy and his two Test hundreds, would have been at least as good a choice as reserve opener for this toughest of tours.

As to why Compton is no longer there, there have been mutterings: Compton 'offers little in the dressing room' (whatever that means); he doesn't like working with England's batting coach, Graham Gooch; he scores too slowly. All these can be questioned, argued with, but they add up to the same thing: Compton's face doesn't fit.

The England team has come a very long way from the days when players were regularly brought into the side, given little opportunity to succeed and then dropped and forgotten within one or two matches. This doesn't happen anymore. Compton played in nine Tests, and no-one will ever be able to take away the memories of the two occasions - in successive innings - on which he passed three figures.

But still, on occasion, players fall through the cracks.


Unlikely Looking Lad

For all the usual reasons - too much going in the day job, and in life itself - I didn't manage to mark the retirement of Stephen Harmison when it happened. But this is no bad thing. Sometimes it is a good idea to let the sound, the fury and the dust settle.

And sometimes, pace Sachin Tendulkar, it can be worth waiting until the player actually retires.

After surviving the initial barrage from Betts, I could see from the corner of my eye a tall, lanky lad with an innocent, baby face and long hair swinging his arms, jogging on the spot and jumping up and down like a monkey in the zoo. Obviously warming up to bowl the next over, I thought nothing of it until I glanced at Boony who was still grinning like a circus clown. As he walked past me at the end of the over, he winked at me as if to remind me of his early promise, or threat.

I wasn't to be disappointed. Unleashed was Stephen Harmison, a six-foot-three, nineteen-year-old from Northumberland in the north-east of England. Luckily, I was standing at the non-striker's end when this unlikely looking lad ambled in, jumped high at the crease and, from over seven feet in the air, delivered a bouncer which thudded into the gloves of his keeper. To everyone's surprise, except Boony's, the ball hit the gloves before any of us could blink. Boony's grin glistened as my eyes widened at the prospect of battling this youngster, whose baby face had quickly turned into that of a fierce-eyed monster. His first ball wasn't a fluke, as the next six overs produced some of the fastest bowling I have faced in a long time. This boy was quick, and I mean really quick. Like a West Indian fast bowler, he bounces in, hits the crease hard and hits the pitch harder

Justin Langer 'From Outback to Outfield', 1999.

Steve Harmison could always bowl fast. He may not have known how, or why, but he knew that he could. Bowling for Durham at Justin Langer's Middlesex side at Lord's in June 1998, he liked the way he could make good players feel a sense of discomfort, liked the way he could make the ball bounce steeply, liked the way the ball took the edge of the bat before nestling in Martin Speight's gloves. This was an uncomplicated time. Just get it down there and see where it takes you.

Where it took him was the England team.

All teams have their eras. Times that, when those who followed them get older and move on, they view with fondness and the warm, embracing glow of nostalgia. For all their more prosaic and predictable recent successes, for England the days between their arrival in the West Indies in early 2004 and the death of the dream at Sydney in early 2007 were that time.

And from that time the mind's eye's memory scroll reveals many things. England in the field, with Vaughan, sunhatted and animated, cajoling and controlling with an indefinable and irreplaceable air of authority. Flintoff, muscular and unsophisticated, pounding in, shaking the ground and the batsman's hands with his leaden weight of delivery. Trescothick, restrained, often seemingly inert at slip, catching everything. And Harmison, windmilling in, knees and elbows pumping, sweat dripping, a Bob Willis for the Internet age.

Fletcher on the balcony, seeing everything, revealing nothing.

The apogee of this period - perhaps of modern Test cricket - was the Ashes series of 2005. As time has passed, the series and its quality has been praised and revisited so many times that it has entered the realms of cliché. This was England's time. Cricket's time.

It wasn't really Harmison's. With the recent departures from the first-class game of Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones there has been much justifiable praise for the four-man seam attack which brought the Ashes back from seemingly permanent exile. Harmison's figures of 17 wickets at 32 both encapsulate the nature of his career of peaks and troughs and reflect the fact that, in the summer when Flintoff and Jones were kings, Harmison played a more fractured part. But this was his way, and, at the times in that year when he got it right, he really got it right.

10.30 on the first morning of the series, Thursday 21st July 2005. I am sitting in a packed Warner Stand as Harmison, with the Lord's pavilion behind him, begins his run. The sense is of gathering power and speed, like a fully-laden jet airliner devouring a runway. Unlike Brett Lee, who will do the same later in the day, there is little sense of athleticism or beauty, but there is rhythm and there is high, high pace.

Langer, seven long years on from his first enervating encounter with Harmison, takes one on the elbow, second ball. Later in the morning Ponting too is marked on the cheek. Blood is spilt. Years later, everyone remembers these things.

But for Harmison there are also wickets. Five in just 68 deliveries as Australia, for so long seemingly impregnable, succumb for 190 by mid-afternoon. In this Harmison's importance to his team is confirmed. When the muse is with him he can provide pace, he can provide bounce and he can provide match-defining advantage. He has done this against the West Indies, sure, but he has now done it to Australia, who, even as the cracks begin to show, are a much tougher proposition. England end up losing the match, but there are hints that they can compete. The standard has been set.

Sixteen days on and it is late on an Edgbaston Saturday. England have stood toe-to-toe with Australia but there is a sense that the match is entering a crucial phase as Warne, with naked aggression and self-belief, and Clarke, with astute accumulation, chip away at a difficult target. 175 for 7 chasing 282 for a 2-0 lead in the series which will probably prove decisive.

Clarke is still young here, with his future of back trouble, back-biting and batting greatness lying ahead. He has watched from the non-striker's end as Martyn, Katich, Gilchrist and Gillespie have fallen, but he has played with patience and skill. He has started to feel a little more comfortable at the crease and he, we, have a sense that the bowlers are starting to tire as the close approaches. Harmison, bowling the day's final over, musters a renewed effort. The knees are still high, the sweat drips from his pores in the steamy sunlight of the Birmingham evening, and the arm comes over high for the fifth time in the over, with one no-ball called. Harmison has been bowling at or around 90 miles per hour but this time he decides to throttle back and bowl the most perfectly-timed slower ball any England fast bowler has ever delivered. Clarke, in and set, is nearly up to the challenge. Normally a batsman plays early at a slower ball but Clarke sees it for what it is. However, recognition is one thing, combatting it very much another. Clarke knows what is coming but his timing is shot to pieces and he plays too late. Unfortunately for him the ball is straight and his middle stump is gone. The ground erupts, as does the England team and millions watching at home. Tomorrow, somehow, they will win.

This was the most brilliant thing that Steve Harmison ever did in an England shirt. The years afterwards always carried a sense of unfulfilment, with performances like the destruction of Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2006 immediately followed by a caning at the hands of the self-same batsmen at Leeds, and the individual and collective humiliations which the Australian summer of 2006-7 brought. But for all his inconsistencies and his ingenuousness, on those days when everything clicked - as much in his mind as in his body, Steve Harmison could bowl, really bowl.

The last memory anyone has of him in his national colours sees him hurtling in from the pavilion end at The Oval, Australia sliding to defeat, and a hat-trick beckoning.

The hat-trick doesn't come but a few balls later, the Ashes are won back again.

Harmison, at thirty, is finished with Test cricket.

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