England selectors weigh up Harmison recall

Published: Saturday, May 20, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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London:Whether or not to bring back fast bowler Stephen Harmison will be the central issue confronting England's selectors ahead of Sunday's squad announcement for the second Test against Sri Lanka at Edgbaston starting on May 25.

In the absence of the Durham quick, sidelined since suffering a shin injury before the second Test against India in Mumbai two months ago, Sri Lanka - following on - batted for a marathon 14 hours.

Their 199 overs of resistance enabled the tourists to salvage what had seemed, at one stage, an unlikey draw in the first Test at Lord's and leave the three-match series still all square.

So far this season the selectors have been bold, handing a debut at Lord's to the raw but quick Sajid Mahmood in preference to the steadier, and still uncapped, Jon Lewis.

Meanwhile Alastair Cook, fresh from his heroics in India, beat Ian Bell in the race to the No 3 berth of still injured captain Michael Vaughan (knee).

But in Harmison's case the selection trio of chairman David Graveney, coach Duncan Fletcher and former England off-spinner Geoff Miller face an issue of fitness not just tactics.

Harmison played just a lone one-day match prior to his return to action this week in Durham's County Championship match against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge.

But the nature of the game allied to bad weather meant Harmison did not bowl until the third day, leaving the selectors having to guess if their strike bowler was ready for the rigours of Test match cricket.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that the two concluding matches of the Sri Lanka series, at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, are back-to-back.

And, although they won't say so publicly for fear of being branded disrespectful to their current opponents, one of England's major goals this season is to ensure all their key players are fully fit ahead of the defence of the Ashes in Australia starting in November and next year's World Cup in the West Indies.

"There is a lot of cricket ahead of us and if we rush him (Harmison) and there is a problem, we're only going to have to rest him again later on - we have to make sure everyone is fully fit when they come back and play for us," Fletcher said earlier this week.

Another dilemma for England is that if they include Harmison, at the expense of say Lewis, in what is likely to be a squad of 13 but leave him out of their starting side, he will miss the chance for additional match practice with Durham, who face Sussex in a four-day County Championship fixture starting Tuesday.

But his unrivalled ability amongst English bowlers to gain extra bounce from docile pitches, was missed at Lord's.

His return might also persuade Andrew Flintoff, deputising as captain for Vaughan, that leading from the front need not mean bowling yourself into the ground after the pace bowling all-rounder broke the 50 overs in a Test innings barrier for the first time at Lord's.

However, even Harmison might have struggled to compensate for England dropping nine catches during that match and greater concentration in the field has to be a must if they are to win in Birmingham.

Possible England squad: Marcus Trescothick (Somerset), Andrew Strauss (Middlesex), Alastair Cook (Essex), Kevin Pieteresen (Hampshire), Paul Collingwood (Durham), Andrew Flintoff (Lancashire, capt), Geraint Jones (Kent, wkt), Liam Plunkett (Durham), Sajid Mahmood (Lancashire), Matthew Hoggard (Yorkshire), Monty Panesar (Northamptonshire), Ian Bell (Warwickshire), Stephen Harmison (Durham)

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