July 7, 2013

'Aggression is all about imposing yourself on the batsman'

Steve Harmison on memorable Ashes contests, sharing a gym with the Magpies, and consoling Brett Lee after the Edgbaston win

Can you tell us of a sporting feat that gave you goosebumps as a kid and still does?
I was brought up in football. I never really took to cricket till I was 15. I had never been to a first-class fixture till I joined Durham, because I came from Northumberland. I never really watched cricket. I loved watching football. I love watching Newcastle United. The early days of watching Kevin Keegan. Of being at St James Park, watching Faustiono Asprilla scoring a hat-trick against Barcelona [Champions League, 1997]. Probably one of the best nights you will get at Newcastle. Them were the exciting days when I was growing up.

You have shared the gymnasium at St James Park with some of Newcastle's players. What is the one thing that footballers have that cricketers do not have?
Money. That is probably the biggest one, the financial reward you get from being a footballer. They are decent human beings who are very good at the sport they love playing. They get criticism for the money they earn, but if someone is prepared to pay you for your expertise you're not going to knock 'em back.

For me it was great to be just around experienced players like Alan Shearer, Shay Given, Gary Speed. All these people were top professionals, great role models, fantastic international footballers, arguably global stars. I got an insight from seeing them work hard day to day to realise you have got to put in the hard yards that nobody else sees to succeed.

The image of Andrew Flintoff consoling a dejected Brett Lee at Edgbaston during the 2005 Ashes is a classic. But apparently you spoke to Lee before Flintoff got to him?
I had got Michael Kasprowicz out [the final Australian wicket]. I walked to Lee and consoled him before Fred came over. It was a "bad luck" handshake. I had so much admiration for Lee, for what he did. We hit him everywhere. I don't think there was any part of his body me and Andrew did not hit on that morning. But he still stood up and stood up for long. It just shows what it means to play for your country. When you play against somebody who has that much courage and fight and passion to play for their country, it is well to shake their hand and say, 'Hard luck, and well played.' Brett Lee was colossal through that whole series, and to certain extent, Shane Warne was exactly the same. The Australians have always been known for their fighting qualities.

Do you remember the fastest ball you've ever bowled?
It was in the dark in the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy final. It went for four. It proved the point that the faster you are, the quicker the ball travels through the field for a four. Accuracy has to come with pace. Batsmen are not frightened for pace now. They are quite happy with pace on the ball.

Andy Flower or Duncan Fletcher: who'd win a shouting match?
There is a temper in both of them. They are different characters who bring a helluva lot to the game. I won't say I got on greatly with Duncan Fletcher, because we did not have a lot in common. But the one thing he did have was my respect for him as a coach. Duncan and Nasser Hussain, to an extent, laid a massive foundation for England cricket. [Fletcher] got the right template in place and made sure players were well looked after. Both of them brought the selfishness in the old guard to a halt and moved English cricket to a new era. Andy Flower, too, has helped rebuild England through the Andrew Strauss years.

What is the best field a captain has set for you in Tests?
The one that gets wickets. Sabina Park, 2004, was an ego field. That was like sending a message to West Indies for the rest of the series: we are here to really beat you and take you on in your own back garden. It is not a great field having eight slips, but it is a great feeling when you see all them people as a bowler running in. The best field is something like even moving a fielder five yards left or right or back or forward - a move that will help make a stop, take a catch, or to keep the pressure on that leads to a wicket.

An example was the Ricky Ponting wicket at Lord's in the 2005 Ashes. We would always have a second slip for Ponting. We had a short leg also in place, with a man catching around the corner to sort of intimidate and push him back, push him back. And then the ball that eventually got him was a forward ball that he was not sure of coming forward or going back to. He was hesitant. He nicked it back to second slip. That is a good field.

How did you react to Steve Waugh calling you "Nasser Hussain's white West Indian"?
It did not bother me. Steve Waugh, fantastic career, great captain for Australia. But at the end of the day he was just another man in white we were trying to beat. Another Australian.

Talk is cheap. You had to perform. I never really saw the point of having a go at somebody.

"We hit him everywhere. But he still stood up and stood up for long. When you play against somebody who has that much fight and passion for play for their country, it is well to shake their hand and say, 'Hard luck, and well played'"
On Brett Lee's innings in Edgbaston 2005

Can you define aggression?
Intimidation, aggression, is all about imposing yourself on the batsman. If balls are flying down at a decent pace and a good mile an hour, putting people under pressure, then that is aggression. Having the ability to put the opposition under pressure is aggression. Aggression is not shouting from the rooftop, pumping your chest out, having a go at the batsman. Some of that is bravado. Some people need that. I was never really one for that. Bowling a good ball and to see somebody 22 yards away struggling was aggression for me.

The Michael Clarke wicket at Edgbaston in 2005 is widely regarded as one of your best. Which is your favourite?
I enjoyed the Ricky Ponting one at Lord's, because I had done well what I had to do. He got hit in the face, which was unfortunate. We did not really understand how badly injured he was. But within the 15-ball period, we got him where we wanted him to be: we wanted to push him back, we wanted to be aggressive, we wanted to show Australia we were not just going to lie down in that initial burst in the Test match. And we had a plan to get him out and it was a perfect fast bowler's dismissal. It would have been more sweet if he had not been injured in the process.

What has been your most embarrassing moment on a cricket field?
Has to be Brisbane, isn't it? [Bowling a huge wide off the first ball of the Ashes in 2006-07]. People have asked if that does bother me still. Yes, it does. It was an embarrassing moment, but it was one moment. People say you set the tone in 2005 and now you might have set the tone in 2006-07. But that did not lose us the Ashes. Andrew Flintoff being the captain did not lose us the Ashes. We lost the Ashes in Australia because Australia had a far better team than England and they played far better cricket. I am not detracting from the fact that the ball was a wide. That over became a seven-ball over. But it still gets talked about.

Do you roll your eyes each time a commentator says "He's done a Harmy" when a fast bowler pitches a big wide?
I have said it myself on commentary on TV a few times if it is wider than a wide. "It is a bit like one of mine." You have to make a joke about it. I have always believed what does not kill you makes you stronger.

What is the one thing you miss about not being on the field and playing for England?
I do not miss being on the field playing for England. The thing I will miss when I finish playing, full stop, which will probably be at the end of this year, is the dressing room. It is such a unique place. It is like a family. You have the camaraderie, the bus trips, the team hotels, all that is part of a professional cricketer's life is what I will miss. What I played for was the dressing room: to be around people, to see other people's success, for other people to be involved in your success, to have memories.

Steve Harmison was speaking from a Sport England and StreetChance, supported by Barclays Spaces for Sports project, which uses cricket to engage young people living in areas affected by youth crime and anti-social behaviour

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 10, 2013, 18:53 GMT

    Natwest 5th ODI against SL (2006) was also a bad day for him.His figures were 10-0-97-0

  • mainul on July 8, 2013, 11:47 GMT

    Harmison last played a test match was an Ashes test which England won and his 2nd innings spell was 16-5-54-3.Was that bad ?Not at all.It was very good. So why he was not given another chance? Stuart Broad is playing and his bowling record is close to Harmison.So why he is being given chances? I dont understand.

  • Dummy4 on July 8, 2013, 5:46 GMT

    His passion for football is quite evident. Perhaps the reason why he could not elevate himself to one of the greats in cricket. He had everything, pace an imposing height and bounce. Yet there was a vulnerability, in that he appeared to get rattled if someone got after him. Amazing talent though.

  • Brian on July 7, 2013, 9:37 GMT

    Plenty of fans (England and Australian) find it easy make fun of Steve Harmison, but with a player who struggled for consistency it's easy to lose perspective. Harmison played in four Ashes series and won two of them. I can think of plenty of England players from the 1990s, who are much more highly spoken of in both England and Australia (e.g., Gough, Atherton, Thorpe), who must wish that they could say the same. That record reflects the fact that Harmison successfully responded to high-pressure situations (e.g., taking Kasparowicz's wicket at Edgbaston in 2005), albeit that he also muffed some opportunities.

  • Dummy4 on July 7, 2013, 8:33 GMT

    I used to enjoy watching him bat too. That time when he stayed in and Flintoff battered South Africa for the 9th wicket at The Oval in 2003 was good fun. I like his honesty. Lots of cricketers seem self-deluding!

  • Mark on July 7, 2013, 7:49 GMT

    Just seen that he hasn't played since a May 2nd T20 double-header for Durham 2nd XI v Scotland A. Sad way for his career to end.

  • Dummy4 on July 7, 2013, 5:24 GMT

    One of my favourite bowlers when he was on top. It's sad that from one Ashes to the next he turned from a great bowler to mediocre and could never be the same bowler again. To a guy who was not fully into cricket (he has admitted himself) he had a decent enough career. I enjoyed watching him rip the West Indies and then in Ashes 2005.