October 8, 2013

The enigma of Harmy

The gap between his greatest and lowest moments frustrated spectators, but it also indicated the possibilities he could offer

Harmison: at home in Durham © Getty Images

Two retirements took hold of the Twittersphere on Sunday. The first, of Rahul Dravid, provoked a tearful consensus and an outpouring of affection and respect. Dravid, as a cricketer and as a man, has been treasured. The second, of Steve Harmison, produced no such universal sentiment. Indeed, as Paul Frame, a sharp observer, noted, Harmy's announcement didn't even receive the uncomplicated love that Matthew Hoggard's had earlier in the summer. He did not enjoy the ceremonial farewell and instant celeb afterlife of his pal Andrew Flintoff, nor the rueful what-might-have-beens of Simon Jones, the last of the 2005 pace attack still playing professional cricket. Harmison, it's clear, represents something more complex. He is a lightning rod for opinion.

As outsiders, we know nothing of the private man. His public image has been formed by his actions on the field, where the great peaks and troughs of his cricket have marked him out. There are few players, especially bowlers, whose highs are as distant from their lows, whose statistics are as open to interpretation as Steve Harmison's. The story behind his 226 Test match wickets at 31.82 can be read more ways than Shakespeare; there are silences between those figures as pregnant as Beckett's or Pinter's, and to stretch the literary analogy to breaking point, he has been part Lee Child, part Tom Sharpe. Where do you start with a bowler like Steve?

Perhaps with that gap between best and worst, between Sabina Park and Brisbane, between 7 for 12 and a wide to second slip, because both thrum with resonance in the memory. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has written about the function of the Availability Heuristic in decision-making. Often, our judgements are based on the most easily recalled piece of information. Well, Harmy certainly got those sorted out: both his greatest moments and his lowest are indelible in their way, and reflect how we think of him.

That gap is also important in the sense of the possible that Harmison offered. He could produce brutal spells, unplayable deliveries, moments of irresistibility. He just couldn't do it as often as we thought he should. There was not just a gap between his best and worst, but between his best and his usual, and in that gap, spectator frustration grew.

The dichotomies didn't end there. To see him bowl on television was to watch a slightly uncoordinated giant lolloping in, a man who arrived at the crease with a high skip, arms and legs in freeze-frame. To watch him live was something entirely different, especially from side-on to the wicket where his approach gathered thrillingly, that take-off the culmination of a great rush of effort that saw the ball flung down at the batsman from steepling height, a blur until it dug hard into the wicket and leapt back up. I saw the delivery with which he struck Ponting at Lord's in 2005 from that position - or rather I didn't see it, and neither did the batsman, at least not until too late.

Of the four quick bowlers in that famous team, Harmison carved his niche on the first morning of the series. Hoggy would go on to torment with his curling swing, Flintoff to produce one of the great overs in the history of the game in Birmingham, Jones to fire out stumps with seam and skid, but it was Harmy who was the spreader of discomfort, the man who brought to the bowling what Pietersen injected into the batting, a vivid unpredictability that kippered Michael Clarke with a slower ball in the last over of the day at Edgbaston, that flicked Kasprowicz's glove when all was lost in the same match, that plucked out Ponting at Old Trafford and threw the game back into the balance.

It was after that series that the ambivalence towards Steve Harmison began. He was just over halfway through his Test career, and his best was already in the book. He had 138 wickets at 28.49 from 35 games. Over the next four years, he played another 27 Tests for England and took 84 wickets as his career average drifted out to 37.6. There was the revelation of depression, the struggles of being away from a young family, the growing register of injuries inflicted by his calling. Above all there was the damage of that first ball in Brisbane, a moment that became an emblem for psychological and physical defeat and that led to Harmison sometimes embodying defeatism.

There was another side. The King Cricket blog carried a quote from Shiv Chanderpaul describing how Harmison had pulled off his boots after a day's work at Durham to find them full of blood. Perhaps uniquely in the age of central contracts, Harmison's county provided him with his most cherished moments. Durham was home, and home was where his heart was. Twice he got the wicket that won them the County Championship, and he burns with rightful pride in the achievement. He took almost 500 first-class wickets for them.

"I don't like travelling, full stop - that's just me and I'll never change," he said this week. When Harmison felt at home, whether physically or emotionally, the thing that really travelled was the ball. It's not really mysterious enough to be enigmatic, but the public enigma that is Steve Harmison hangs on that sentence. Farewell Harmy, and well bowled.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here