Harmison looks to recapture past glories
Another series, another last chance for Steve Harmison.
It's the sub-plot that just won't go away. No matter how things change in the overall tale of the England cricket team, the Harmison story remains stubbornly the same: will this be the tour when he finally gets back to his best?
With the West Indies due up next, it's particularly pertinent this time around. It was in the Caribbean five years ago that Harmison hit his peak, bagging 23 wickets in the four Tests at 14 runs apiece, including that devastating spell of 7-12 as the Windies were blown away for just 47 at Sabina Park.
Harmison came back from that tour as the number-one ranked fast bowler in world cricket, the fiery figurehead of England's four-man pace attack, bearing comparisons to West Indies legend Curtly Ambrose.
When his team-mates talk about how dangerous a fit and happy Harmison can be, it's the 2004 version they hark back to.
Trouble is, a year-by-year breakdown of his Test career paints a rather less flattering picture.
Looking at his Test stats that way, it's clear that those 12 months were the exception rather than the rule.
Both before and after 2004, he's never got close to matching those figures. Factor in all seven years of his international time and his wickets-per-Test fall to 3.67, way below the fast bowlers above and closer even to Dominic Cork (3.54) than Darren Gough (3.94).
The uncomfortable conclusion is that the Harmison we've become used to in recent years - pallid and sedate following fast and furious, the failures chasing the heels of startling successes - is the reality; the destroyer of '04 a glorious, one-off blip.
His bowling action, so rhythmic and grooved during the last tour to the Caribbean, has suffered minor - but extremely significant - changes which affected his notoriously fragile confidence.
"If you look at someone like James Anderson, he releases the ball at the "12 o'clock" position, his arm straight," says Test Match Special summariser Simon Hughes. "In 2004, I did a lot of work on Harmison and his arm was definitively straight at 12 o'clock at the point of release.
"But when his confidence is low he can sometimes bowl at 11 o'clock, which means his arm goes beyond the perpendicular, affecting his length. He sometimes gets too close to the stumps too, which means he has to take a sharp left turn in his follow through to get off the pitch and avoid running on the danger area.
"That means his body is falling away to the off-side too early rather than follow through straight down the pitch, which causes him to lose his direction.
"He has quite an unorthodox action, so things have a tendency of going wrong if you are not quite on song. But these are minute differences which to a bowler are huge, but to the naked eye don't look like anything at all. And a lot of this is down to confidence."
The decline from the 2004 peak was rapid. After steamrollering the West Indies and New Zealand that year, he went to South Africa and fell apart - taking just nine wickets in the five-Test series at a cost of 659 runs, with an average of 73 and strike rate of 127 balls per wicket.
What about his record country by country? Are England fans right to think that a return to form in the Caribbean could presage a summer of scattering Australian stumps to the four corners?
The stats would suggest not. While Harmison's record against the weaker Test teams is impressive (4.6 wickets per match v the Windies, 5.5 v New Zealand, 4.5 v Zimbabwe, 6.3 v Bangladesh) he has always struggled against the big boys.
Against Australia and India he averages just 2.6 wickets a match. Against South Africa that drops to just 2.2.
By contrast, his predecessor as England's premier paceman, Gough, averaged 4.35 wickets per match against the Aussies. Gough also took his Ashes wickets at 30 runs apiece, compared to Harmison' 42.
Is it just a case of Harmison needing a sympathetic captain to bring the best out of him?
Of the five England captains Harmison has played under, Michael Vaughan has managed to coax just over four wickets per Test out if him and encouragingly, Harmison has averaged 4.2 a match in Andrew Strauss's five games at the helm.
Another factor to consider is current Australia fast bowling coach Troy Cooley. During his spell with the England team, Harmison averaged 4.1 wickets per Test, well above his average.
"Cooley's departure was a massive impact on Harmison, the pair were very close," says Hughes. "I remember speaking to Troy at some stage during the first Test of the 2006 series in Brisbane (where Harmison bowled his first delivery to second slip) and he said he just wanted to put his arm around him - but he couldn't.
"Kevin Shine, who was England bowling coach at the time, was very into the biomechanics of bowling, attempting to work on body position and run-up, while Troy was more of a manager with the bowlers, working on confidence as much as technique."
It was another England captain, Mike Atherton, who summed up the Harmison dilemma best when he said, "England can't seem to live with him, and can't seem to live without him."
The figures above imply that Harmison's reputation as a bowler who is just a decent spell or run of games away from being a world-class paceman is unjustified.
But he's still getting picked, even after horror-shows like the 1-137 in Cape Town in '05, the abject match figures of 1-109 against New Zealand in Hamilton last year (bowled at almost the same pace as Paul Collingwood) and 1-90 in Chennai before Christmas. Matthew Hoggard would love the same forgiving treatment.
For England supporters it's particularly frustrating. How can a man who started the 2005 Ashes by cracking Langer on the elbow, Hayden on the helmet and Ponting on the cheek begin the following Ashes by hitting only Flintoff's hands at second slip?
For England fans, it's maddening to see Harmison standing in his follow-through, tugging at his shirt-front in puzzled manner after another delivery has slipped down the leg side.
It used to work, he seems to be saying. Look at Jamaica in '04, Lord's in '05, Old Trafford in '06 - so why isn't it working now?
England would love to have the 2004 variety of Harmison back in the team. We may even see glimpses of that form in the West Indies over the next two months.
His Test return during the fourth Test against South Africa at The Oval last year was a step in the right direction, supplemented by advice from his former new-ball partner at the Riverside Ground, Ottis Gibson, now England's fast bowling coach.
"Gibson has gone towards Cooley's method of management and keeping a very simple strategy," says Hughes. "I remember in the second Test in Sri Lanka in 2007, where Harmison had been out in South Africa and he missed the first Test.
"Gibson told Harmison to bowl a bouncer first up as he said it often got his body charged up and ready for a firey spell, plus you don't score any runs off a good bouncer. That immediately set Harmison up and gave him extra confidence."
But for that model to be the permanent one would require the sort of cricketing re-birth very few 30-year-old bowlers are capable of.