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From hero to zero – and back again?

Once Steve Harmison was hailed as the best bowler in the world.

Once Steve Harmison was hailed as the best bowler in the world. A speedster of well- grooved action, fearsome bounce, pace and hostility, who got batsmen of genius out on a good surface.

However, that was then and this is now. Tomorrow, the big Geordie returns to his Chester-le-Street home to be judged by his own folk as to whether or not he remains a Test match bowler who can induce instant respect and apprehension in the opposition.

His less experienced Durham team-mate Liam Plunkett has paid the ultimate price for waywardness and lack of confidence, axed for his home Test against the West Indies.

Harmison, having partially risen from his bed of nails on the final day of the last Test to finish with a four-wicket second- innings haul, is reprieved, as much on reputation as anything else.

He has been harshly criticised by his peers, such as West Indies pace legend Michael Holding and former England skippers Mike Atherton and Mike Brearley, though it must be admitted that some of his deliveries threatened to take the head off second slip rather than cowering batsmen.

"Harmison was so bad as to go beyond criticism," maintained Brearley. "One could only pity."

Atherton believed that Harmy was suffering from the yips, usually associated with twitching golfers on the green, and added: "His inner turmoil and inability to cope is the strongest possible lesson to young cricketers that talent and form must be constantly nourished and looked after.

"Take it for granted, as Harmison did in the months before the Ashes series, let things slip for a moment, and it can haunt you for an age afterwards."

The picture painted was of the giant Geordie plagued by self-doubt, by technical and mental inadequacies. Clearing the mind may sound simple but at such times it takes mammoth effort dredging up great courage to quell mass panic.

Yet Durham's finest took six wickets in the third Test at Old Trafford, recovering some poise and direction after working with bowling coach Allan Donald, and must venture forth on to his home track in an altogether better frame of mind.

BBC correspondent Jonathan Agnew subscribed to such optimism, stating: "Harmison bowled with renewed aggression and direction, effectively sealing England's win in his first over after lunch in which he blew away two tail-enders with excellent throat balls. If he is now on the road to greater consistency and potency then this last Test has been thoroughly worthwhile."

Skipper Michael Vaughan gave Steve limited blessing considering he had bowled on a fast and bouncy Old Trafford track which should have suited him perfectly.

Admitting he was still short of his best, Vaughan maintained Harmison had "answered a few questions in the second innings."

Harmison himself hasn't ducked the issue. "I know I've been struggling but I never wanted to be removed from the England team," he insisted.

"Some of the criticism just bounces off me, but when someone like Michael Holding says it is time for me to be taken out of the Test arena and be allowed to sort my problems aware from the glare of national scrutiny then you have to take notice.

"However, it's not a theory I subscribe to. That is the easy way out and the weak way out, and I have no intention of taking it.

"I love playing for my country, and my team-mates and I feel I'm on the way back."

It was only a few years ago that Harmison went to the home of fast bowling, the West Indies, and took plenty for little.

He was in his pomp, hailed as a bowler who got nasty lift from most surfaces, consistently bowling at 90mph-plus. He was the ultimate quickie.

A magnificent seven for 12 as the Windies were blown away for their lowest ever Test total of 47 all out made Harmy the darling of the nation and even secured him a permanent inscribed seat in the directors' box at his beloved Newcastle United!

However, the Ashington lad has always attracted as much criticism as plaudits, whether it was for his supposed dislike of touring, his fragile mindset, or his lack of love of the one-day game from which he has retired internationally.

Harmy was slaughtered in Australia as the Ashes were lost and now against the Windies in a series England have already won.

He has recovered from such waywardness before, of course, bowling seven consecutive wides in his first match of his initial tour of Australia in 2002. Once he actually caught his fingers in the pocket of his whites when running up to bowl.

Tomorrow, and for the next few days, Harmison is surrounded by his own, by people anxious for him to permanently regain his rhythm and confidence. By people on his side.

England need him to deliver because he remains our most potent weapon when on form.

Durham and Harmison have come a long way in a short time. They can both be proud of their achievements.

They have established Test cricket as well as first-class county cricket in an area where previously only football reigned.

Now both have another opportunity to impress the watching world.

Let us hope they take it.

 

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