Simon Harmer begins Kolpak life with a bang
"I feel like I've landed with my arse in the butter," says Simon Harmer. It is a curious way for our conversation to begin. It suggests Essex's new signing might be as much Lurpak as Kolpak.
Harmer's saying is rather useful. For one thing, its origin seems to be South African and it therefore reflects his roots, of which he is very proud; for another it reflects the "fall" he suffered when, along with Rilee Rossouw and Kyle Abbott, he signed a deal with an English county; and finally it reflects his deep pleasure at choosing Essex and a bunch of players among whom he is plainly at home.
We were chatting on the third morning of Essex's home match against Middlesex. Two days previously Harmer had taken 5 for 77; the week before, he had collected career-best figures of 14 for 128 in the innings win over Warwickshire; yet all this was to fade somewhat on the frantic, floodlit, pink-balled last evening of the Middlesex game when Harmer took 9 for 95, another career best, and bowled his team to a victory with four minutes and eight balls of the match remaining. It was the sort of victory that wins titles, and so we talked again.
"We've earned other people the right to say we are Championship favourites," he said. "We have a well-balanced squad and we're playing the right brand of cricket. It was a very dry wicket and I was bowling extremely quickly towards the end, but it was still biting. We'll reflect at the end of the season as to what we have accomplished and hopefully we will achieve great things.
"I think I'm quite modest with the way I go about things. My phone is a mess at the moment, with people sending me messages. But I've always had a good support structure. My girlfriend, my family, my brother and my friends all keep me grounded. They send me a message saying: 'Don't think you're the shit now that you've taken 28 wickets.' Little things like that help, but I'm just immensely happy that we got a win."
Every cricketer knows that such moments justify the investment of cash, hours and pain. Yet Harmer's decision involved more than that. Believing his way into international cricket was blocked in South Africa, he decided that his career was best served by signing a Kolpak deal.
"It's not the decision a 27-year-old wants to make," he stressed. "There was a lot of bad press back in South Africa towards the Kolpaks because Kyle and Rilee were still in the national set-up. Before that there wasn't too much of a fuss kicked up, but I felt that in terms of the longevity of my career and the security of my future family one day, I needed to do it.
"If you do well in England, the rewards are there and you can play for a long time. In terms of national cricket in South Africa, I wasn't being selected in the A side and the national coach had said that domestic cricket is not good enough to select from. I was dropped straight from the national side into franchise cricket. It wasn't a decision I wanted to make at such a young age but I have done what I feel is best for me and my family and I am extremely happy here. I wouldn't say there were any regrets. Any sportsman wants to be competing at the top level, but this is the way things have turned out for Simon Harmer."
The deep content is mutual. Having originally signed Harmer on what was effectively a one-year deal, Essex quickly extended it to three. One can see some of the reasons why they did so: one can imagine Harmer giving the ball a tremendous tweak in his huge hands; he has many changes of pace, a kinkless action, and the ability to bowl under pressure. He doesn't drop much at slip. More than that, however, he fits the bill at Essex in ways that few outside the Chelmsford sanctum will ever see.
"I think I was what the club needed in terms of skill as a spinner, in terms of personality and in how I want to play my cricket," he said. "I think it's exactly what Chris Silverwood and Ryan ten Doeschate were looking for. The players work very hard but they also enjoy their successes off the field.
"That's very much how I see my cricket. There has to be enjoyment. In terms of everything and how I get along with everyone, it has been a rejuvenating experience. To come over here and to experience my first summer of county cricket as I have done, it has been a motivating experience and has put the jump back in my step in terms of enjoyment.
"It is a curious choice because the ground has small, straight boundaries, but I have been quite surprised by how much the Chelmsford pitch has turned. It's also a lovely place to play cricket. It's small, it's quite intimate and the crowd gets very involved. For a 6500-seater, there is a helluva lot of noise and I've really enjoyed Chelmsford so far."
And yet, and yet, by an exquisite accident of the international calendar, South Africa are touring England just as Harmer is settling into his career as a county cricketer. But how could that fact be lost on him when Alastair Cook, who tuned up for the Lord's Test by making 193 against Middlesex, is one of his team-mates?
"When we played at Lord's I couldn't help but think what it might be like to play in a Test match there and I chatted briefly to Alastair Cook about it," he said. "He talked to me about the vibe and the atmosphere. The Long Room is chock-a-block for a Test match and everyone is patting you on the back as you are walking out to bat. Cookie said it was a special place to play international cricket."
Harmer knows that the chances of him playing in a Lord's Test are now remote. But if he cannot pit his skills against Cook, he does at least know what it is like to play alongside him.
"We could probably do a five-page article on Alastair Cook," he half-suggests. "I've got so much time for him, both for who he is as a person and his place in sport in England. He could be very arrogant and bigger than his boots but he's the most humble, down-to-earth individual I have ever met.
"He's always got time for anybody and he brings so much calmness and experience to the changing room. He commands your respect when he speaks and it's very easy to see why he captained England for so long. It's been unbelievable to have him in the changing room both for the runs he's scored and the other things he brought."
Harmer's situation might be debated by moral philosophers. It is easy to dismiss quotas and the policy of transformation and equally straightforward to stress the need to accelerate the development of a fully multi-racial South African society in which sport plays its proper role. But what does a man do when trapped in the midst of such a struggle? Certainty is always easy; any pub bore will wag his finger and tell you that.
But what no one should begrudge is the happiness Harmer has found in a place as strange as Essex. That happiness was plain as one left the County Ground long after that terrific win against Middlesex was completed. From an open window came the sound of singing: raucous, tuneless, victorious. One imagined Harmer sitting with a beer in his hand and belting out the songs with his new mates, Tendo, Fozzie and Ports. At any rate one hoped it was so; that's the effect blokes like Simon Harmer have on you.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications