October 9, 2013

Honest, simple, Harmy

Steve Harmison was a standard-bearer for a new breed of sporting hero: understated, self-effacing, unafraid to non-conform or to reveal vulnerability

And then there were four. Given the recent hurried and lamentably quiet exits of first Simon Jones, then Matthew Hoggard and now Steve Harmison, the giants are dropping like flies. Of the down-and-dirty dozen who propelled England's reclamation of the Ashes eight years ago, only Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, Geraint Jones and Kevin Pietersen are still on first-class duty. Maybe it's my rapidly expanding crow's feet, but the thought that Joe Root was a scrawny 14-year-old during 2005 And All That seems positively surreal.

Together with Andrew Flintoff, Jones, Hoggard and Harmison formed the best-balanced and most lethal pace attack ever assembled in the name of the northern hemisphere, an all-boxes-ticked posse led fitfully but fearsomely by the reluctant hitman from Ashington. If ever a nickname captured the cricketer, "Harmy" captured Harmison - but perhaps not in the way future Wisden porers and perusers might imagine.

That he could live up to the first half of his name is indisputable. For a few rampaging years during the last decade, no bowler inflicted more harm, mental or physical. From a quivering 17-year-old Parthiv Patel, brusquely and mercilessly undone by a short riser on Harmison's Test debut at Trent Bridge in 2002, to Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer, bruised, bloodied and beaten on the first morning of the 2005 Ashes, no batsman of any age or stature faced him without a modicum of dread.

Yet there was always something not quite complete, something not quite right about that final "y". "Harmy" hints at playfulness, a lack of serious intent, a compassionate softness, an antidote to Lillee-ness. A number of variations on movie titles vie for Harmison's biography: Some Don't Like It Hot; Kind King Kong; The Beer Hunter; The Bittersweet Smell of Success. If he's feeling morbidly self-mocking, he could always opt for Barmy Harmy. I still hope he plumps for The Accidental Terrorist.

Our paths crossed just once; hindsight confirms what a timely time it turned out to be. I'd schlepped up to the north-east extremities of Stockton-on-Tees to interview him for the Financial Times shortly before Bangladesh became the initial fall guys of that imperishable summer of '05. Little did he know it - though he may well have suspected it quite strongly - but Harmison was at the very zenith of the apex of his peak.

After he announced his retirement at the weekend I glanced back at my notes from that 45-minute conversation - it felt much more like that than an interview - and felt a chill fizz up my spine. Those 18-plus years of Australian-induced hurt still had some months to run, but the sense of what made the ending of that unconscionable famine possible was impossible to miss.

"Some of the cricketers in the past have gone out there selfishly," he asserted, unusually strident. "What we have is a group of players who have been together for a while who play for each other. It's not just about individual success. If I don't bowl well but we win, I'll take that. In the past people couldn't share in others' achievements. That change is down to [Nasser] Hussain. His message was: 'We've identified you players as the future and now we're going to go forward.' We were told to express ourselves, enjoy ourselves. If I do badly Hoggard will step up. We work for each other, help each other. I still feel I'm there to express myself. I came in at just the right time against South Africa in 2003: we were just starting to go over the top in the right direction. Thorpey [Graham Thorpe] said the selfishness [had] gone."

When we sat down he was betwixt and between: between innings, midway through a midweek match against Somerset, halfway through an often brilliant career that achieved less than it might but almost certainly more - given his temperament and outlook - than it should have.

A fortnight earlier, against Worcestershire, he had claimed Durham's first-ever first-class hat-trick; in this fixture he would twice dismiss Marcus Trescothick cheaply and help engineer what turned out to be his county's best start yet to a Championship campaign. The following week he nabbed nine wickets to lasso Lancashire, the only county Durham had hitherto failed to beat. On the second evening he'd dined with Andrew Flintoff, his best pal; come morning he was softening him up, striking him in the chest with a brutal short ball, the prelude to swift dismissal. If ever a fast bowler intimidated without malice aforethought - "I couldn't help myself, your honour" - it was Harmy.

Here was a globetrotting athlete who detested leaving home and family; a chap who bowled dangerously despite himself; a fast bowler who didn't snarl, swear or sledge. "I don't bother," he reasoned. "If you're six foot six and can bowl 90 miles an hour there's not much need for sledging. A bouncer's better."

Here, too, was a man to whom success seemed to have been largely a happy accident, underpinned by a late and sudden growth spurt in his teens. The way he conveyed it, ambition had never been a spur. F***ball had always been his bag. "I didn't have any cricket heroes, never watched a Test before I played one. I remember little bits on telly with Botham and Robin Smith. I remember little bits but nothing that made me think I wanted to be a Test cricketer."

The matter-of-factness was bracing. "I've never been one to say it's the be-all and end-all, never obsessed by it. If it all went tomorrow, so be it." Not that this precluded self-assertiveness: "Not many can do what I do - bowl 90 miles an hour consistently. Name me one."

The first time it struck me that he possessed an extraordinary talent, and just might be the first English slinger to consistently unnerve quality batsmen since Bob Willis, was on the fourth day at The Oval 11 Augusts ago. Dispatching Gary Kirsten and Jacques Kallis in the space of four balls - the former slicing one that zipped away, the latter trapped by one that zapped back - he accelerated England's march to an improbable series-squaring victory after South Africa had kicked off with 484. No other game did more to point the way ahead, to usher in the rebirth of the Old Dart as a cricketing force.

Being Steve Harmison, one suspects, has always meant being acutely aware of the clawing talons of vulnerability

Seven months later came that 7 for 12 at Sabina Park, which even overshadows Devon Malcolm's "You guys are history" one-man show at The Oval as the most devastating display I have ever witnessed from a Pom who elected to hurl leather for a living. "Every time I ran up I thought I'd take a wicket," the author mused, the boyish wonder in those alert eyes balanced by an adult's perspective. "I bowled better in the next Test but didn't feel like that. I don't think I'll ever feel it again."

Realism was plainly an asset. Deep down, it probably didn't surprise him in the slightest that the delivery for which he is now most readily and cruelly recalled would be one that flew straight to second slip. Being Steve Harmison, one suspects, has always meant being acutely aware of the clawing talons of vulnerability.


The first thing I noticed upon meeting the nation's latest most terrifying sporting hero was the vastness of his hands. How could a mere ball not obey his every whim? Oh how deceptive that proved. The handshake was half-melting rock, half-wet plaice; gentle rather than weak, genuine rather than arrogantly limp; the handshake of a man perhaps too keenly aware of his own power.

That innate honesty had not always served him well. Trescothick's brave confession of his own vulnerability, that proud landmark in the annals of freedom of cricketing speech, was still in the future. Above all cricketing breeds, fast bowlers are supposed to be invulnerable, but here, plainly, was one to whom bluster and pretence were anathema.

Had he been too open about those notorious and debilitating bouts of homesickness, not least the previous winter when he had admitted, with that characteristic and refreshing guilelessness, that he'd rather be Heathrow-bound than play in an ODI?

"Possibly, yeah. They hung me for [that]. I was disappointed. I'd never hid behind it. Always been upfront. Speak as I see it. I'll always be like that. Never liked going away and never will. I probably didn't say the right thing but there were only five journalists there, and three came and apologised afterwards when the papers made a big splash. They felt as if they'd been stabbed in the back. How'd they think I felt?"

As for what ensued in the weeks after we met, the sense of all-for-oneness continued to mount. "We think as a bowling team," he declared, exuding a pride in collectivism more befitting a rising member of the Young Socialists. "It's the only way to get wickets. You look to your partner to help you out sometimes. Dry up the runs. Make batsmen think."

The success of that philosophy owed much, he believed, to the tell-it-like-it-is approach of Troy Cooley, the Australian whose value as bowling coach should never be underestimated in this tale of Pommie renewal: "Troy keeps everything simple: tells you good things when you're bowling well, tells you you're a prick when you're bowling badly. He's honest and he's simple." Honest as in truthful; simple as in straightforward.

Honest and simple. Harmison wore those virtuous adjectives well. He has been the standard-bearer for a new breed of sporting hero: understated, self-effacing, unafraid to non-conform, unafraid of revealing vulnerability. A role model, in other words, for the Twittering Age.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • des on October 11, 2013, 8:13 GMT

    @TenDonebyaShooter: I note you only mention events in his early career. So you've also forgotten him repeatedly turning up too unfit to play after being given time off.

  • Brian on October 11, 2013, 3:27 GMT

    @Surly_Cynic & TomBowler: I hold no particular brief for Harmison but I think your comments aren't fair or accurate. Suggestions that there were many occasions when he turned up "unfit for England duty after not following his agreed fitness programme" are confusing separate events. There was a time when he was unable to play in Sri Lanka in 2003, but was put on a training program in Newcastle, and promptly turned up fit enough to take 7-12. Put on another program in Boland in 2007 he turned up for England fit but inconsistent. In the case alluded to when admitting wanting to fail a fitness test in 2005, he actually passed the test. The quoted comments about Harmison having "nothing to prove" appeared in 2007, & it's not true that he'd "bowled like a drain" for 5 years before that (Sabina 2004? Lords 2005? Old Trafford 2006?). Meanwhile the misrepresented exchange with Hussain in 2007 partly relates to Harmison loyally sticking up for his captain and pal Flintoff. Arrogant he ain't ...

  • des on October 10, 2013, 10:06 GMT

    @clarke501 - Do you remember how many times Harmison turned up unfit for England duty after not following his agreed fitness programme? My suspicion is a 'resounding no'.

  • Dan on October 10, 2013, 8:53 GMT

    Honest and self-effacing? It must have been a completely different Steve Harmison who gave extensive interviews about how he "had nothing to prove" after five years of bowling like a drain. I assume it was this same other Harmison that loftily declared Nasser Hussain was persona non grata with the England team after he dared to suggest the 2006-7 winter hadn't been a huge success. I struggle to think of a cricketer whose arrogance and sense of entitlement were in such inverse proportion to his achievements.

  • Graeme on October 9, 2013, 21:23 GMT

    Really good article that. Harmison carried his talent badly at times, and could be as frustrating a cricketer as I've seen for England in 25 plus years, but he also created thrilling moments and contributed as much as anyone to our revival.

    I admired his bravery in fighting through his bad times, the stuttering run ups on his first Ashes tour an onwards. He even got a nice ending to his test career, by that time the horse had truly bolted.

    Reading reports and reflections on his retirement has led me to YouTube, and brought back some brilliant memories listed above and beyond, and I am unsurprised at the cheap shots fired out below the line by bitter hacks who never see anything other than disappointment, still, plenty of positive comments drown them out.

    Thanks GBH, I hope we get to see your likes soon again.

  • Cyril on October 9, 2013, 21:04 GMT

    If Harmison had a killer instinct he could have been an all-time great. But he didn't and it is wrong to expect a man to be untrue to himself. He was still an entertaining and effective bowler, yet an honest gentleman and real family man.

    Harmison, Hoggard and Flintoff did so much to restore the supremacy of Test cricket in 2005, that should not be forgotten. If it were not for that series we may well be on our way to a world without Tests. For that every cricket fan should thank Mr Harmison for some great memories.

  • Brian on October 9, 2013, 19:24 GMT

    @ viv-sobers: good point, well made. Occurred to me also when I read that clause that those who remember West Indies attacks comprising Marshall, Garner, Holding, Walsh might have a thing to say about that. However, I join you in liking the article and in liking Steve Harmison. One incident however makes me curious in connection with the image portrayed here of Harmison as the reluctant, self-effacing, humane fast bowler, and it's not surprising that it's not mentioned in this article. It is the time when having inflicted a blood injury on Ricky Ponting on the 1st day of the 2005 Ashes, Harmison proceeded back to his mark without him, or anyone else in England colours, checking the state of Ponting's health. Perhaps someone could explain that for me. @jackiethepen: like your message, just 1 further historical point; it wasn't just that young soldiers were "persecuted ... coming out of World War 1 for shell-shock"; some who experienced shell-shock were shot at the lines for "desertion".

  • Cricinfouser on October 9, 2013, 16:59 GMT

    @SurlyCynic - Do you know how much time Harmison spent in the nets, or how much time he spent in the pub, or the nature of and reasons for his various injuries? My suspicion is a resounding no on all counts.

  • Paul on October 9, 2013, 13:56 GMT

    I have a lot of time for Harmy as a cricketer and as a bloke. All the best!

  • harvey on October 9, 2013, 11:27 GMT

    'Together with Andrew Flintoff, Jones, Hoggard and Harmison formed the best-balanced and most lethal pace attack ever assembled in the name of the northern hemisphere,'. Don't you know that the Caribbean islands are in the Northern Hemisphere and any combination of the 'fearsome foursome' from the late 70s to late 90s would outdo this lot? But nice piece on Harmison, a very good fast bowler when on song.