The first thing you notice on meeting England's most terrifying sporting hero is his vast hands. Steve Harmison's handshake, though, is deceptive. Gentle rather than weak, it symbolises a man keenly aware of his own power.

Hence, at Lord's on Thursday, while the Bangladesh batsmen are checking their life insurance policies, the one thing they will not be expecting from Harmison is verbal abuse. "If you're six foot six and can bowl 90 miles an hour, there's not much need for sledging," he reasons matter-of-factly. "A bouncer's better."

One feels for Hashibul Bashar and his improving youngsters. Bangladesh are contemplating their maiden Test in Britain, against the world's second-ranked team, saddled with the unfeasible expectations of 138m compatriots: they recently gained their first Test win against what amounted to a Zimbabwe 2nd XI.

Although many England players are hopelessly out of form, this will be scant encouragement: the exception, after all, is the man whose nickname - "Harmy" - evokes a charming but ruthless assassin.

Against Lancashire last week he won the day for Durham with nine wickets, taking his season's tally to 27 in four games. On the second evening he had dined with Andrew Flintoff, his England team-mate and close friend; the next morning he hit Flintoff in the chest with a brutal short ball, then dismissed him. Bangladesh will not expect clemency.

England's best fast bowler in a generation - and their first to be ranked world number one - came of age last year, jump-starting England's first triumphant Caribbean tour since 1968 with a stupendous 7 for 12 in Jamaica: the cheapest "seven-for" in Test annals. "Every time I ran up I thought I'd take a wicket," he recalls. "I bowled better in the next Test but didn't feel like that. I don't think I'll ever feel it again."

He is quick to count his blessings. Notably, after a shaky start in Tests, the injury to Simon Jones that led to a recall in 2003. "I came in at just the right time. Thorpey [Graham Thorpe] bridges the generations and when he came back for that game [against South Africa at The Oval] he said the selfishness in the dressing room had gone.

"That win was crucial to the team, but playing in Australia [in 2002-03] was key for me. I learned to bowl at good batsmen."

His victims there included Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Damien Martyn, the last two twice apiece. "That showed me I was a Test cricketer. You had to plan an over, plan a spell."

Observing the relentless accuracy and discipline of Glenn McGrath also proved priceless: "I learned to build up pressure."

Bowling actions can often reveal the man. Does the laid-back simplicity of his mirror the inner Harmison? "Yeah, I'm laid-back. Don't get fazed too much, or riled or upset. The Aussies tried [to sledge me]. Waste of breath."

Yet he was aggrieved in January when newspapers made too much of a throwaway comment about wishing he was flying home to his wife and daughters rather than staying for a few one-dayers in South Africa, where fatigue had finally, forgiveably, taken its toll.

Homesickness is a constant scourge. "I'd never hidden behind it, always been up-front. Never liked going away and never will. It'll never stop me touring - though it came close a couple of times - because I love playing for England. But I don't think [being away] gets easier as I get older; it gets harder."

As regards the summer's main course, playing colleagues have been damping down the view that Harmison's form is crucial to regaining the Ashes, in order to alleviate his burden. But he does not do false modesty: "If I bowl well, to the best of my capabilities, I can bowl anyone out, and if I bowl well we can win the Ashes. But no matter how well I bowl, if other players don't perform we won't."

The protectiveness of those team-mates contrasts with the self-interested nature of the pre-central contracts era. "We play for each other," says Harmison. "If I don't bowl well but we win, I share the pleasure. In the past people couldn't. That's down to [former captain] Nasser Hussain. He told us to express ourselves, enjoy ourselves. And Michael Vaughan has carried that on. I still feel I'm there to express myself."

The Bangladeshis will pray he saves the soul-baring for the Australians.

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