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Feature

Simon Harmer showing how to survive and thrive as a spinner in early English season

Ten-for in win over Durham was Harmer's sixth for Essex, comprised of his 21st and 22nd five-fors

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
19-Apr-2021
Simon Harmer in full flight  •  Getty Images

Simon Harmer in full flight  •  Getty Images

Simon Harmer clambered over Chelmsford's advertising hoardings, beer in hand and grin on face, with the gentle hum of low-key celebration from the Essex dressing-room blending with that of the groundsman's mower. Another day, another victory, sealed in dramatic fashion by a son of Pretoria who has found his spiritual home.
Amid all the anxious chatter about how miserable life is these days for English spinners in first-class cricket - with the season dispatched to the margins, where fingers are as numbed by the cold as deliveries are numbed by the early-season surfaces - Harmer's displays in the past fortnight for Essex have shown another side of the story, one in which surviving and thriving as a spin bowler essentially comes down to a command of similar basics.
In last week's season opener against Worcestershire, there was nothing on offer for bowlers of any type, bar a dramatic flurry when Sam Cook got stuck in with the hard new ball. But Harmer sucked up the yakka, and got on with an unglamorous bout of gruntwork. Never before in his county career had he been asked to bowl as many as 61.3 overs in an innings, and yet, with an economy rate a tick over 2, he retained the respect of a deeply entrenched opposition, and earned his rewards late in the innings for the highly respectable figures of 3 for 126.
Which paved the way for the Durham bunfight - an exceptional four-day tussle that could have been ripped in either direction at multiple junctures, but which ultimately toppled, like a felled oak, in Essex's favour as Harmer's unrelenting will to win seized the day. Qualitatively, there was little between the two performances, for all that match figures of 10 for 136 will suggest otherwise. The common thread is that he was there throughout, asking the tough questions, giving nothing away, and taking everything that he possibly could - for himself, but ultimately, for his team.
"It's April. It's never going to rag in April, even at Chelmsford … even at Taunton," Harmer said, adding a not-so-subtle dig at Somerset's woes in their West Country derby, where Gloucestershire's uncomplicated run-chase delivered their first home defeat since June 2017. "It just so happened that this week was mine. But next week, it could be Ports [Jamie Porter], it could be Sam Cook. You have to find ways to get what you can out of the wicket."
Essex had been braced for the end of a record every bit as proud as Somerset's, after slumping to 96 all out in their first innings and conceding a deficit of 163. Instead they've now won 12 and drawn one of their previous 13 home games, dating back to Surrey's 10-wicket win in September 2018 in their own Championship-winning season.
"It's not often that we find our backs against the wall like that," Harmer said. "But for us to rally together, for Ben Allison [52 from No.9] to bat the way that he did in his second game was incredible. For us to conjure up 160-odd for them to chase, it shows the character of the boys, given what we've achieved over the last four years. It shows that we're not only good when we're ahead. We weren't at our best by any means, but we found a way to win."
It is impossible to under-estimate the Harmer factor, however. It's a fact of the Chelmsford experience that club legends are to be found everywhere you turn - even in the midst of a pandemic. And long before the denouement, the chat among sage judges such as Keith Fletcher, their original Championship-winning captain, was that any target in triple figures would give Durham the heebie-jeebies, given the ferocity with which they knew it would be defended.
"It's easy to take wickets in the first innings and be happy with that. But actually, it's the second innings that wins games..."
Simon Harmer
And little wonder, given Harmer's record for Essex since joining them for their return to Division One in 2017, when his 74 wickets at 19.31 set them on the way to the first of their three top-flight titles in four years. His returns have not wavered from that ferocious peak of excellence at any point since. This week's ten-for was his sixth for the club, comprised of his 21st and 22nd five-fors, and he now has a tally of 268 wickets at 19.58. These are levels that transcend the apparently inhospitable conditions, and become self-fulfilling prophecies when matches such as the Durham game are there for the taking.
"It's about finding a way on different wickets," he said. "From last week's wicket to this week's wicket, different balls work, and different variations work. Speed, trajectory, all of that plays a part, but the quicker you work it out, the easier it becomes.
"It's about getting back into the groove, and thinking in the right way. Doing the right basics is the biggest thing at the start of the season, so that come June, it's pretty much 'press a button and off you go'."
Harmer's self-assurance is intoxicating, not least for the batsmen in his sights. But it all stems from a desire to be right in the thick of the action - a difficult mindset for less established spinners to rehearse, given how marginalised their involvement can be at this time of year, but one that has to be mastered given how much expectation can weigh on the breed come that pivotal fourth innings, when all eyes turn to the team's tweaker.
"I really enjoy taking wickets in the second innings of the game," he said. "That's when it matters. It's easy to take wickets in the first innings and be happy with that. But actually, it's the second innings that wins games, so to be able to do it when we needed is always enjoyable."
He was made to wait on this latest occasion, however. Durham resumed the final day needing 108 more to win with seven wickets in hand, and that requirement had been whittled down to 85 before Harmer struck for the first time in 16 tight but unrewarded overs - as Jack Burnham took one chance too many and holed out to long-on for 43. From that moment, the contest pirouetted. After no wickets in his first 101 deliveries of the innings, he ripped out all five in 39.
"We always knew that we needed two new batters at the crease," Harmer said. "That situation at Chelmsford on day four with the ball turning, it was always going to be difficult for them. It was about finding a way, and being patient enough, and disciplined enough, to understand that they will make a mistake, and perhaps that was the difference between us and them.
"It's not that we're used to winning, but we know how to go about constructing day four when we don't have a lot of runs on the board. We understood that we just needed to be patient and sit in, and ultimately, if they batted out of their skins this morning and knocked off the runs, then fair play to them.
"But it was literally about getting that first wicket because, when we got Burnham, all of a sudden, the pressure moved on to Scottie Borthwick and the new batters coming in, having to find a way to score runs. It's easy to sit back now, but we were very aware of what one just one wicket would do for us.
"This Essex side has what money cannot buy," Harmer added. "In situations like that, it's about the group of guys that you're on the field with. You don't want to let them down and that's how we find ways out of the situations that we find ourselves in. We are willing to fight for one another. It's not about me, it's about us. When you've got your mates around you, it's really enjoyable to see the character shown by this group of players and local Essex boys."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket