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'It's about opportunity and security for Kolpaks - nothing to do with money' - Harmer

"In myself, I know that I'm the best offspinner in the world," claims South African, who has been the leading spinner in county cricket since signing in 2017

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Simon Harmer has captained Essex in the Blast this season, Gloucestershire v Essex, Vitality Blast, August 2, 2019

Simon Harmer has captained Essex in the Blast this season  •  Getty Images

Try to think of a synonym for the word 'Kolpak'. What's the first one that comes into your head? Sell-out? Journeyman? Mercenary?
Since Claude Henderson signed for Leicestershire in 2004, via an obscure ruling by the European Court of Justice, the term has become part of the cricketing vocabulary of both England and South Africa. The players who have exploited that loophole to sign county deals - some of them lucrative - and give up international cricket in the process have been vilified, put down, and dismissed as money-grabbers who care more about their wallets than the chance to play for their country.
But from the perspective of Simon Harmer, who signed a deal with Essex ahead of the 2017 season and has been the leading spinner in county cricket in the years since, the stereotype could hardly be further from the truth.
"It's very weak and easy by the media to write articles about things being all because of the money," Harmer tells ESPNcricinfo. "It's not all because of the money - they write those articles because that's what sells.
"The fact of the matter is that the opportunity in England beats the opportunity in South Africa. I know that if I come over here, I can retire when I want to retire, whereas in South Africa, they might chance a ruling, and that's the end of my cricket career." Though as it turns out, politics in this country isn't so simple either.
If Harmer's situation was different from many of those who signed Kolpak deals at similar times - he had been dropped by the national team after only five Tests, and had not been offered a domestic contract at home - that has not stopped him from being tarred with the same brush as some of his compatriots.
"I've been guilty by association," he says. "Where I was in my cricket, and where - I'm not going to mention names - but where other players were, I feel like it's very different.
"I signed a six-month, £30,000 deal with Essex to come over and it was basically a shop window, whereas other players signed long-term deals for a lot more money. For me, I wasn't offered a contract back in South Africa - if things didn't go according to plan at Essex, I'd have gone back to South Africa unemployed, and was probably looking at life after cricket.
"It wasn't about the money, it was about opportunity. There's zero security in South Africa - that's the reason players sign Kolpak deals, because of the security and the opportunity. Yes, the money is part and parcel of it because the rand is weak against sterling, but I can guarantee you now, for 95 percent of the guys that have signed Kolpak deals, it's about opportunity and security."
Harmer mentions too the impact of transformation targets, which require South African domestic and international teams to contain a minimum number of players of colour, and says that while he "completely understands" the rationale behind the policies, he doesn't agree with how they are implemented.
"It's affecting players of colour," he says, "because they're forced into a role and they're not allowed to develop their skill. They get thrust in and then thrust out, and then they find the next person to come in.
"If I were to lose my place for a player of colour then I don't have an issue with that. But as a sportsman, I need to maximise my earning potential, and to commit in South Africa where the transformation targets are constantly evolving … your opportunities do get less and less.
"It's the nature of South African sport. It's always going to be there, it's never going to go away. It's such a sore topic and taboo to speak about, but it is what it is."
In his three years at Essex, Harmer has taken a remarkable 194 wickets in the County Championship at an average of just 20.40, winning 25 of the 38 games he has played for them. In that time period, no other team in either division has won 20.
But it is still something a surprise when Harmer hints that among offspinners, he might be among the very best in the world. "You always wonder," he says, "only playing five Tests, then looking back and thinking 'well, what if?' and wondering if you were good enough, then coming over here, performing, and winning trophies with Essex.
"In myself, I know that I'm the best offspinner in the world, but how can I say that when I haven't bowled at international level? Seven out of 14 games I'm bowling at Chelmsford, where the wicket turns, I don't go to Australia or New Zealand or India where wickets might not turn, or turn more, so it's difficult to judge.
"But I'm quite happy with where my career's at. I'm quite competitive, and I'd love to still play international cricket. I don't think that would be in South Africa, but you never know what the future holds."
That form meant that when England found themselves needing an offspinner to bowl in the nets to replicate the threat posed by Nathan Lyon ahead of the Lord's Ashes Test, there was only one man to call. England were at pains to point out that there was nothing more to it than them needing some practice, but speculation has been rife about him qualifying. Harmer admits that he would "love to" play for England in the future, even if he is a long way from doing so at the moment.
"Coming over from South Africa, my intention was always to get a British passport, for my future, for my future family's future, and to be able to offer my kids the option of one.
"I know that I'm good enough to play for England, but I think that there would be a lot of difficult decisions to make if my name was to be in the hat. But I do want to play international cricket. I understand that it's a long shot, and it's maybe a little bit unrealistic, but I feel like you've got to have goals and dreams.
"I'm going to keep pushing myself. If it happens and things work out - happy days. I love to contribute, and I think English cricket has offered me a lot of opportunities coming over and playing here. In my eyes, it would be a way of repaying that faith, but I'm sure the world has a different view."
A further complication for Harmer is the UK's impending departure from the European Union. The exact nature of how Brexit will be implemented is no clearer now than it was three years ago, but the ECB has told players and clubs that in the event of a no-deal departure, Kolpak deals will be cancelled at the end of next season.
"I don't think the British government knows what's going on with Brexit," Harmer says, "so for me or for the ECB to know what's happening… there have been some discussions, and I think everybody is waiting to see what happens with Brexit to decide.
The Daily Mail has reported that the ECB's cricket committee will consider allowing a second overseas player per side in the County Championship, depending in part on whether the UK leaves the EU at the end of October as presently planned, which might well allow Harmer to stay at Essex even if they continue to employ Peter Siddle alongside him.
"I feel that I've done well enough to qualify as an overseas professional at a county - I'd love to still play cricket in England, so worst-case scenario, hopefully I could become an overseas pro somewhere.
"Whenever [players with Kolpak deals] play against each other we always catch up and speak about the Kolpak issue and Brexit and whatever it may be - it's thrown a spanner in the works because you don't know what the future holds. I think everybody's in the same boat, but I think there's 49 or so players in the system that fall under this European Trade Agreement, whether it be Kolpak or associate nations playing here. If the ECB is going to kick 49 players out of their system, it's going to weaken it.
"I feel like I've brought something to the table in terms of coming over here. Yes, I've taken a local's spot, but if the ECB allow me to qualify for England then I haven't really, and I feel like I'm adding value to the county."
The legal complications around Harmer's deal are plentiful, and he finds himself in a strange situation where England is "home, but it's not home". His current visa status means that he cannot get a passport nor rent a property; he is unable to get a mortgage, so can't buy a house; and as of this winter, a regulation change means that he is unable to play domestic cricket in South Africa, though he does have a contract to play in the Mzansi Super League.
All that means that international qualification looks improbable for the time being, unless the ECB decide to push hard to get Harmer involved in the set-up. He has fallen short of spending ten months a year in England - as the ICC's regulations stipulate he would need to - since signing his county deal, and his prospects of getting British citizenship on his current visa are minimal.
But the ICC's eligibility rules include a section on 'Exceptional Circumstances', and if anyone's situation has been different from the norm, it has been Harmer's. "Ultimately," he says, "it boils down to the ECB and if they want me or not. If they do want me, there will be ways for them to get me involved sooner, as they did with Jofra [Archer].
"But if they don't want me - maybe because they're scared of what the consequences or repercussions might be, then I think it would also be very easy for them to make things so that I can't ever qualify. It's not down to me."
For the time being, then, Harmer is left in a state of purgatory. Chelmsford is home, but not home; he is South African, but not South African; and the best offspinner in the world, but not the best offspinner in the world. If security might initially seem like a vague concept, then it soon becomes clear why Harmer seeks it in his world of contradictions.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98