Harmison of Sabina and elsewhere
When you cover a sport other than cricket, you often find yourself missing chunks of action you would otherwise have loved to watch. I've written before here about my frustrations during the Edgbaston Test of 2005, trying to keep up to date on the Saturday while reporting on Wycombe v Carlisle, and finally getting the result on the Sunday morning by text as I sat on a train going to the Community Shield in Cardiff. The occlusions can have an odd effect, elevating certain moments or suddenly delivering an outcome stripped of context.
The news that Steve Harmison has retired brings to mind perhaps the most absurd of those moments when, expecting an update, you're suddenly presented with a result. It was March 14, 2004, and I'd been at what was then still the City of Manchester Stadium for a ferocious Manchester derby in which City had beaten United 4-1, a result that effectively ensured United would not win the title.
At the same time, England were playing a Test in Jamaica. Overnight, West Indies had been 8 for 0 in their second innings, leaving them with a deficit of 20. When I got to Piccadilly station to get the train back to London, there'd been time for perhaps four hours play that day. I rang my desk to check my copy had got through and, almost as an afterthought, asked what the cricket score was - these being the days before such things could easily be checked on a phone.
"Oh, it's finished," said my editor.
"Finished?" I said, instantly furious, assuming England had capitulated again. "How've they messed that up?" Even as I said it, my brain was realising there was no way, given the match situation, that England could have lost.
When my editor explained that West Indies had been bowled out for 47 and that Harmison had taken 7 for 12, my first instinct was that he was, uncharacteristically, making fun of me. There had, after all, been nothing remotely comparable by an English bowler in the 20 years I'd been watching cricket. Even Devon Malcolm's 9 for 57 against South Africa (the last six wickets of which I'd missed by being at Sunderland 1 Millwall 1) had extended over two sessions.
Ultimately, a performance like that comes to colour everything else Harmison did. On the one hand we offered him leeway because of what he was capable of when conditions were right - as much the conditions in his head as in the pitch or the atmosphere - and on the other we were irritated by him because he so rarely came close to that sort of performance again - although there was a 6 for 19 on a helpful pitch at Old Trafford against Pakistan in 2006, and two other six-fors against West Indies in 2004.
And, of course, he was responsible for perhaps the greatest moment of anti-climax in the history of English cricket. I was in Liverpool for their Champions League win over PSV Eindhoven, but even in the press box that night most were more concerned by what was about to happen in Brisbane. I made sure I got my report completed quickly, dashed back to the hotel, made myself a mug of cocoa and settled back to watch the first hour - only an hour, I told myself, unless something extraordinary occurs - of the most eagerly awaited Ashes series of my lifetime. What happened next, of course, is infamous, and at 4am I was still watching, too angry and disappointed to sleep, with Australia approaching 300 for 3.
I'm afraid I never quite forgave Harmison for that. As a Durham man I felt the need to defend him, but I repeatedly found myself making the distinction between Geordies like him and tough Mackems like Paul Collingwood (to anybody not from the north-east, I apologise for the parochialism of that, but the theory goes that those of a Tyneside persuasion are ebullient, extrovert and emotional, while those of us from the Wear are gloomy, introverted and pragmatic).
I suppose I should have appreciated that Harmison's unpredictability was part of his strength, that in a balanced attack you could afford one player who some days could win a game in a spell and other days could be a liability, but there came to be too many wide long hops, too many balls angled down leg side. It seems astonishing to me, remembering hapless spells such as the one he bowled against Pakistan on the final afternoon at Lord's in 2006 - so wayward he struggled even to bowl at Inzamam-ul-Haq's body - that he took 226 Test wickets at 31.
But then you start to remember the unappreciated spells, the way he flogged life out of a dead pitch in St John's in 2004 (1 for 92 in 37 overs of toil); his hostility at The Oval in 2005 (1 for 87) when he helped prevent Australia taking a first-innings lead that would have made England even more jittery on that final day, even if it was Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff who took the bulk of the wickets, or even his penetration on the final afternoon, having been recalled against Australia at The Oval in 2009 (3 for 54), when he took three of the last four wickets as England wrapped up the Ashes.
And perhaps that is the truth of his career and his personality, that he was somebody at his best out of the limelight, performing a yeoman's role and occasionally skittling sides when nobody really expected it. He might never have been as good as 7 for 12 in Jamaica made him appear, but he was probably rather better than I gave him credit for.
Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here