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