Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2008

The County Cricketers' Year - AJ Harris

Tanya Aldred


Andrew Harris: 'Business is business, and they can't pay me to play five Championship games a year' © Getty Images
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A. J. Harris grew up in Tintwistle in the High Peak, with an accent more Lancashire than Derbyshire. He has a sun-weathered face and a big smile. His hair, almost sandy, sticks up like the top half of a pompom, and his cheeks are so rosy they must have been caught by a paintbrush. The hairs on his long arms are white blond from the outdoors, and he stands just over six feet tall. He has to be a fast bowler.

On his day he is one of the best swing - and reverse-swing - bowlers on the county circuit. He joined Derbyshire in 1993 aged 19, and made a good enough impression in 1996 to win a place on that year's England A tour, but left for Trent Bridge, disillusioned, after 1999.

It has been an up-and-down path. He had a terrible time in 2003, when his form deserted him and his son Jacob was taken ill with suspected meningitis. But two years later his wickets were instrumental in winning Nottinghamshire the Championship. Injury has shadowed him malevolently: hamstrings, groins, fingers, knees, ankles, shoulders, back ... all have malfunctioned. He also became only the fourth person to be timed out in first-class history.

Cricket charges through his veins, and his mood mirrors the highs and lows of the season. Now 34, he is awkward talking in public, has refused to give a speech to the High Peak Cricket Society for ten consecutive years, but chatters away one-to-one, and adores the buzz and cackle of the team. He still lives in Derbyshire, in Chellaston, with Jacob and his wife Kate, who coax him through his more fed-up days.

After Nottinghamshire's pre-season tour to Portugal, Harris couldn't wait for the 2007 season to start, eager to take more wickets, cement his place in the one-day team and, somehow, remain in one piece.

I came to cricket straight from school. I've done millions of different jobs in the winter - trolley pushing, packing in a warehouse - it is very difficult to get a job for just four or five months. For the last three winters I've been working in an accountancy firm, just for the minimum wage but gaining a lot of experience. It was just me and a friend, and when we got bored we talked about Man U and City. But 12 months sitting behind a desk isn't for me just yet.

My last year at Derby was very unhappy. I didn't like the regime, the management or the treatment of players, who had no say in decisions. I was very fortunate that I was able to make a choice, and I've been proper Notts now for eight years.

There is lots of banter in the dressing room, lots of jokes. We are forever trying to keep people on a level. We all got given Clive Woodward's autobiography from Mick Newell at the end of 2004 after we gained promotion. One of the things he talks about is "sappers", people who are always negative - the pitch is flat, the ball's not swinging, we won't get any runs. Have to say that Kevin Pietersen would be in the sapping category - though not with England. I am potentially a sapper, I play too many practical jokes which upset people and put them in a negative frame of mind. I'm forever nicking towels when people are in the shower.

We're a very good team socially, though it was one thing we didn't do so well last year when things started to go wrong. People went off in groups straight away in the evenings, and the age-old batters v bowlers scenario crept in a little bit. There are definitely two camps. My closest friends in the game are bowlers - we spend so much time together, ice baths, pool sessions and training.

I think my biggest asset is to be able to swing the new ball away, and even the old one. Since I've been playing first-class cricket I've also been able to take advantage of the ball reversing - before that, I assumed it was just me playing badly. Sometimes the ball reverses by itself: some teams can do it consistently but we can't. It's all legal and above board, obviously. Lots of teams use sugary sweets, but then you can be stuck with a ball with all this moisture on, so we decided this year that if the wickets were going to be abrasive we would try and keep the moisture out, and damage one side as much as possible so it was lighter to reverse. So instead of throwing it normally, you throw it so it lands on the side you are trying to damage, on the ends of the old wicket so that it takes a bit of leather and lacquer off. You don't want too many people to handle it either.

Usually in April and May the ball just swings normally. This year because of the fantastic spring weather we tried to reverse it down in Swansea in June, but it didn't really go a great deal. I think they were using last year's balls, which were very soft, and it is difficult to get a soft ball to go. But at Gloucestershire in April it suddenly reverse-swung just after lunch on the second day.

I realised my age doing some sprints in March. I never was the quickest, but always used to be somewhere near. The coach came up and said "AJ, you can start from here, it's a handicap system," and I said no and he said "You keep getting beat," and I said no, I'm not having it, and kicked the cone away.

I didn't play in the first Championship game because of a potential stress fracture of the foot. When I was down in Kent for a pre-season game the footholds were a bit uneven and I remember falling over and twisting it a few times. The weather was lovely and the pitches were hard, and it was difficult for the bowlers. We went straight into the ice baths, up to the waist. There is a minute of pain then you go numb, until you get the physio saying "Start moving your legs." I wear shorts, for a mental edge over the ice.

Then I injured my landing heel down at Gloucestershire in the second Championship game of the season. I took lots of pills to numb the pain and filled in ten overs in the second innings very gingerly, but then it was five and a half weeks off. It was a bruise - I could do virtually everything except bowl. It was very frustrating. You just want to be out there performing - any sportsman will say that. I tried to keep my spirits high, it doesn't help to be a pain in the backside. I did gym work to maintain some sort of fitness, so I didn't come back at 20 stone, a bit of maintenance work on the bike and in the pool, lots of ice baths and ultrasound and interferential therapy. It was a bit monotonous - you're on your own most of the time. People would say why aren't you playing, and I'd say I've got a bruise, and they'd say: is that it? I had to bite my lip a little bit.

Then there was the oxygen chamber. You walk in, sit down, put your mask on, take your book out and sit there for an hour. I read Jed Rubenfeld's Interpretation of Murder in there, which touches on Freud and Jung. Stephen Fleming left five or six books behind and I picked this one.

I had just got better and played two games, until between the third and fourth over against Durham I threw the ball in and felt a bit of a twinge in the back of the knee. I had a lateral meniscus minor tear and missed most of the Twenty20s, until the quarter-final. Then with maybe 13,000 watching I bowled the last over. Kent needed nine, and they got them. I used to be sour about the Twenty20 - a month of being slammed into the stands - but now I think: when am I going to have the chance to play in front of these sorts of numbers?

 
 
I think my biggest asset is to be able to swing the new ball away, and even the old one. Since I've been playing first-class cricket I've also been able to take advantage of the ball reversing - before that, I assumed it was just me playing badly
 

I've probably been a bit more grumpy than usual, there is a lot of frustration - just gym, treatment, home. Kate has to talk me through it. I've been maintaining the garden as much as possible. I've planted some climbers, put some nice mesh up for trellising, I'm getting to enjoy mowing the lawn, and digging holes, which is not therapeutic but hard graft because the bloody plants don't want to go in. I quite enjoy sitting out late in the evening watching the bats and things with a bottle of wine. We're on the edge of an old railway corridor tucked away with a field on the side - it's nice and quiet.

When my back stiffened up when we went down to Southampton for a Pro40, I was ready to run away to Marbella. I can't get away from the idea that it was because I drove Kate's car down, which isn't designed for long journeys, and then went straight into training. I didn't tell anyone, and struggled through my eight overs. I saw the specialist, had some manipulation and then kept playing. I was injured but I was just trying to keep my head down, I thought I can't miss any more. We were seven bowlers down at one point, and I was spearheading the attack.

I struggled through the next few games, not bowling very well, not following through properly, and obviously the manager picked up on it. I had more injections in my facet joints, but then they wanted me to bowl in a three-man attack at Chesterfield. The manager said if you can't perform in a three-man attack, or you can't guarantee you won't get injured or break down, we don't want to risk you. I then shot off to Kenilworth to play for the second team, had about an hour and a half in the car, jumped out and had to bowl. At the end of the over I was having problems with the back, and I just thought that's the end of the season for me.

My contract is up at the end of 2008. If I'd played all this year I'd have been expecting an extension, but I knew full well I wasn't going to get one. Business is business, and they can't pay me to play five Championship games a year. I'd already decided not to work this winter, and that sealed it. I'm going to train so that if I don't play much because of injury next year I can say I gave it my best shot, my body just can't cope with the strains of bowling in Championship cricket anymore. I'll try to organise the benefit too. Hopefully I'll have lots of fun with it, make lots of friends - but I don't see it as the handshake, walk away from the game. I'd like to play till 2010 at least.

A season like this does test your resolve. I couldn't carry on playing five games a year. You do feel a bit left out, and I'm not very good at that. I think it's inevitable - you're not involved in all the in-jokes, the little tricks, the camaraderie, and when you come back it is not a foreign environment, but you feel you missed out a bit.

It'll be a long winter: yoga and Pilates, boxercise, spinning, rowing class, and maybe an operation. Sometimes I drive to the gym and it's dark and cold, and I think I really can't be bothered and turn the engine on and go home again. I could count in single figures the days in the season with no pain, I usually have a couple of Nurofen and a paracetamol every day I'm bowling. But I love it, trying to bowl fast and take wickets.

Andrew Harris took 15 Championship wickets at 46.20 in 2007, and a further seven in one-day games.

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