Simon Harmer, recently voted one of Wisden's Cricketers of the Year, talks about his 2019 season, Kolpaks, and the possible resumption of his international career

How are you going during lockdown?
It's been okay so far - started off a bit slowly. It's quite easy to get into bad habits, and so the first couple of days was a bit like holiday. And then luckily I've got [Essex captain] Tom Westley living up the road. We've got a social-distancing running club. We go normally at about lunchtime, for about a 5-6km run. And I've picked up some weights from the ground, so I'm managing to try and keep the strength work up as well.

So yeah, between that and an online short course that I'm doing, lockdown has been relatively productive, but the novelty has definitely worn off. I'm looking forward to getting my freedom back at some stage.

Let's go back over your 2019 season: you were the leading Championship wicket-taker, helped Essex to another four-day title, and captained the team to success in the T20 Blast. A pretty good summer, in other words?
It was. The County Championship was a little bit more predictable. Somerset really ran away with it, [while] we started off quite slowly, losing to Hampshire in the first game. We were kind of chasing our tails from then onwards because Somerset had got off to such a good start. But we knew we had to play them twice, and if we kept on winning, which we were doing at Chelmsford, and finding ways to win away from home. We knew that if we beat them twice, then we could quite possibly catch them.

"I'm quite a passionate and intense person. Especially when it comes to a competitive environment. I expect a lot - sometimes I think I expect too much"

It turned out that they faltered at the second-last hurdle, down at the Rose Bowl, so it opened the door for us. And then yeah, we always knew that weather was going to play an issue [in the final game]. We always knew that the wicket was going to be a result wicket. So yeah, everything panned out, the weather played its part. Looking back on it now, it was an extremely special season.

I think what served us well was, we found ways to outscore opposition at Chelmsford. We all knew that Chelmsford wasn't the batters' paradise of yesteryear, but with guys like Alastair Cook and Dan Lawrence and Ravi Bopara in the middle order, we always found ways to score runs. That was the most important thing for us. And then playing at home with the turning ball, it was always fun bowling there, and being assisted by Jamie Porter. Aaron Beard really came through during the season, Sam Cook has become a stalwart of the four-day team. So it was a really good collective effort.

The T20 stuff - we were absolutely horrendous at the beginning of the competition, couldn't string consistent performances together. And it came down to Glamorgan needing to beat Hampshire, and I think Glamorgan's record was zero from 21 or something ridiculous [16 games without a win]. And Hampshire had been playing really good T20 cricket. So we were pushing the proverbial turd uphill, if I can put it like that. But the stars aligned, we managed to beat Kent at home and Glamorgan beat Hampshire and we were through to the playoffs. I think from there we earned our place.

I don't think Finals Day could have gone any better than it did. So, yeah, it was pretty special being able to lead the team and to lift the trophy. Incredibly special. The club had never won the T20 trophy before.

It was your first year as T20 captain. What did you learn about yourself and the team?
That's a good question. I'm quite a passionate and intense person. Especially when it comes to a competitive environment. I expect a lot - sometimes I think I expect too much. So at the beginning of the tournament, there was probably too much intensity from my part. And as the tournament progressed and we were losing, I started to realise that I couldn't control everything and I had to trust the guys and understand that everybody's trying their best and we needed to just find ways to string together good performances and free the players up.

Get away from the fear of failure, and understand that T20 cricket is for entertainment purposes. So looking to take wickets versus trying to not get hit for boundaries, and as batters, looking to take the positive option. If you're unsure, go for the positive option. If you get out doing that, there's going to be no hard feelings. The same as a bowler - if you get hit for a boundary trying to take a wicket, provided it's at the right time, not, say, the last ball of an over.

We identified the first six overs [as a time] to strike and take wickets. It really opens up the middle period for myself, [Adam] Zampa and Ravi to try and operate in there. That's where we got it wrong at the beginning of the tournament. We were too defensive playing at Chelmsford, a small ground, trying to defend the whole time and as a captain, I got it wrong there. Once we started to look to play more aggressively, look to take wickets, look to score runs, it really freed the guys up and allowed them to express themselves.

You also made some hard decisions, such as dropping Varun Chopra and moving Ravi Bopara down the order into an unaccustomed finisher's role
Yeah, there were some tough conversations. Varun Chopra and Ravi fell out of contention. We felt like it was the right move having Ravi at six, but he obviously felt differently. I think it was quite well publicised that he wanted to bat higher up in the order. But for me the decision was always about: where is Ravi best for the team? And in my opinion, finishing an innings, coming in when there's 30 balls left in a game, that's when he is the most dangerous - in the top three or four batters in the world [at] that.

"It would have been easy for me to just roll into Essex, understand that the standard wasn't going to be international cricket and I could just coast along, but I wanted to try and make the most of my talent"

The first four games didn't really work for us. We couldn't string any performances together and we felt like we needed to make the change. Same as Chops at the top of the order. We felt like we needed a bit more explosiveness and risk-taking, so we decided to tweak the batting order a little bit. It was never the idea that they would stay out of the team for the entire tournament, but we felt we needed to make some changes and bring in some fresh ideas.

It was difficult having those conversations and trying to explain to those players, two guys that I feel like I get along really well with, but I guess that's part and parcel of the captaincy role. The relationships that you have personally and the relationships that you have within a cricket team are different. I think it's quite important to be able to distinguish that. If I think you're not doing a job on a cricket field, it doesn't therefore mean that I think differently of you away from the cricket field. So that was probably a bit of a learning experience, being able to separate those two things and still maintain the relationships off the field.

On Finals Day, you had figures of 4 for 19 and 3 for 16, and then hit the winning runs. Another special moment?
It couldn't have gone any better. Obviously we were excited to be at Finals Day but I didn't want our attitude to just be that we were happy to be there. The way it worked out, it played into our hands perfectly. The wicket was extremely slow, which suited our bowling - myself, Aron Nijjar, Ravi, and we also had Cameron Delport, who had done an extremely good job for us up the order opening the batting and also was able to turn his turn his arm over and take wickets. Having guys like that in your team on a slow wicket was massive for us. And yeah, I managed to pick up some wickets, which was really nice because throughout the tournament it had always been maybe one - two if I was lucky. To get three and four wickets in the semi-final and final when we needed it was extremely rewarding.

There has been a lot of talk in England recently about how difficult it is to produce spinners, with the Championship played in April and September in seam-friendly conditions. What has been your experience?
I think I've always enjoyed the challenge. So if somebody tells me that the wickets are green in April and you don't really bowl a lot of spin, I want to prove you wrong. I've had to prove people wrong throughout my career, and I think hearing things like that as well, as an offspinner, that's what I do. That's my job. I'm going to try and show you that we can change perceptions and strategies.

My fault if I don't play international cricket again - Harmer
My fault if I don't play international cricket again - Harmer

I've always enjoyed bowling a lot and finding ways to make things work. Chelmsford starts turning earlier than most grounds. Come the end of May, beginning of June, it's probably more like end of July beginning of August [at other grounds]. So it has helped me a lot. The trust that Ryan ten Doeschate put in me, by giving me the opportunity to bowl quite early on - in 2017 I'd bowl a couple of overs before lunch and then start bowling after the seamers had had to go off after lunch. I think as he trusted me more and as he saw what I was all about, he started to introduce me into the game a lot earlier, which is obviously not what batters are expecting, especially in England when the ball's nipping and swinging. I think from a captaincy perspective, Tendo bringing me into the game earlier and helped me a lot.

Since your Essex debut, you have taken more first-class wickets than anyone else in the world (291 at 22.12, 74 more than the next best). Have you thrived on the extra responsibility? I stepped away from international cricket, came over to the UK as a Kolpak. So I felt that I still needed to prove to myself that I was good enough. It would have been easy for me to just roll into Essex, understand that the standard wasn't going to be international cricket and I could just coast along, but I wanted to try and make the most of my talent. At the end of my career when I look back, as long as I can be the best version of Simon Harmer, that's the most important thing for me.

So coming over and looking for challenges, looking for ways to be better, looking for ways to perform and help Essex win more games. They had just been promoted from Division Two into Division One. The media-day chat in 2017 was all about whether or not Essex would be able to stay up or be relegated again. So yeah, I really enjoyed the challenge of county cricket. I'd followed it as a youngster. It's very traditional still in England. You get 2500 people down to Chelmsford, which is a 6500-seater stadium. I really enjoyed the challenge, and getting the opportunity which I was looking for when I came over. Essex gave me the platform to showcase my skills and my talent.

Talking of spinning pitches - what did you think of the surface Somerset prepared for last season's title decider?
Well, it's public knowledge that the wickets at Taunton normally turn, normally produce results. So we knew with weather imminent and going to play a part that the wicket was going to be a result wicket. The groundsman was standing on the edge of the square and when Somerset won the toss, he gave a massive celebration, fist pumping, jumping up and down. There were grooves in the wicket at a 45-degree angle about a quarter of an inch deep, and that was the most surprising thing for me. But I don't want to get myself into trouble. [The ECB] rated it "poor", they got a 24-point deduction, 12 of which were suspended. It could be a completely different kettle of fish at Taunton this year, but for the last game, I think they knew that was the only way they were going to beat us, preparing a wicket that would only last two days. So they paid the price for that and we ended up winning the trophy at Taunton, which was that much sweeter.

"I've always enjoyed a challenge and getting into a fight when I'm bowling. I think the competition is what fuels my competitiveness, my drive, my desire"

You played for South Africa in 2015 but were dropped after five Tests. Do you think you were unfairly written off in some quarters?
Professional sports is about opportunity and about being in the right place at the right time. I was lucky in the fact that I made my debut for South Africa, because Robin Peterson had stitches in his finger, Imran Tahir came in for the Port Elizabeth Test, and I was in the right place at the right time [in Cape Town] and made my debut.

Now on the other end of the scale, getting dropped after five Test matches, two of which were in Bangladesh, which were rained out - so effectively three Test matches. But we had a pretty poor series, to put it lightly, on the 2015 tour to India and there were always going to be casualties. Unfortunately that's professional cricket.

I would have liked a bit more opportunity but perhaps that's still going to come in international cricket - or not, I'm not sure. But Keshav Maharaj has done well, and taken his opportunity with both hands. So I've just got to work harder and if the opportunity presents itself one day, make sure that I'm better prepared than I was in 2015.

Do you feel you need to play international cricket again to underline the point about how good a player you are?
I think it's more about the level at which I compete. I've played three years of county cricket now and as a natural competitive sportsman, I'm itching for the next challenge. If it's not going to be international cricket, I need to start challenging myself in terms of T20 cricket. So I then need to work on my skill set as an orthodox offspinner, who doesn't normally play an integral role in T20 cricket. I need to find ways for me to be the bowler that a team relies on in order to take wickets. If it is going to be international cricket to then compete on that stage, and to prove to myself that I am good enough to play international cricket. But if it doesn't happen, then that's the way the cookie crumbles. Unfortunately it's not something in my control - whether Brexit happens at the end of the year, whether the UK leaves with or without a deal is going to play a role in whether or not I then become an overseas player or if I stay a Kolpak player. So there's a lot of if, buts and maybes. I've just got to make sure that I'm on top of my game and finding ways to get better each and every season.

Do you look at spinners like R Ashwin and Nathan Lyon, see what they're doing in Test cricket, and think, "I could do those things"?
I don't think "I can do that as well". It's more, I want to see: can I do that? Can I rock up on day five at the MCG and spin a team out? Or am I not good enough to do that? Am I good enough to take wickets in India? I've tried it once and failed. Can I deal with the pressures of international cricket? It's more about that, more unanswered questions versus looking at Lyon and being, "Oh, I can do that." It's not that at all.

I think I was just happy to be there, when I made my debut in 2015. It was international cricket, everything I aspired to, all my dreams, all my goals, they've been accomplished, and I didn't then reset the goalposts of where I wanted to go. Richie McCaw, in his documentary Chasing Great, speaks about how he had all these goals up until becoming an All Black, and then once he became an All Black, what then? He wanted to be the greatest All Black of all time. I think I could have been more proactive and better than having these goals to play for South Africa, to make my debut in international cricket… and then not resetting my goals once I got there. It's something that I could have done better and it's something I feel I'd be better prepared for now, whether or not the opportunity comes. It's my own fault if it doesn't.

What do you think you've learned as an orthodox offspinner in the time since you played for South Africa?
It's been learning how to adapt in certain situations and finding ways to take wickets when the conditions aren't in your favour. Dealing with success, dealing with failure. Not worrying about what's going on around you, not worrying about who's taking wickets or what everybody else is doing. Focusing all my energy on myself and finding ways for me to get better. There's been a lot on the field and off the field that I've learned over the last few years, but it's probably the stuff that I've learned off the field that's helped me the most.

You bowled seam-up until turning to spin as a teenager. Have you retained that attacking instinct?
Yeah, I've always enjoyed a challenge and getting into a fight when I'm bowling. I think the competition is what fuels my competitiveness, my drive, my desire. That's always been something that I've tried to do - get involved in a scrap. And I think it brings the best out of me.

"If I think you're not doing a job on a cricket field, it doesn't therefore mean that I think differently of you away from the cricket field"

What are the technical differences between bowling spin with a red ball and with a white ball?
The biggest thing is being able to nail your skills under pressure. As an orthodox offspinner, you need to be able to nail a yorker, you need to be able to bowl a ball that doesn't turn. You need to be able to read a batter and understand when they're going to be looking to take you on. Normally as an offspinner, from the first ball you bowl, the batter has already decided that they're going to take you down. So it's then trying to find ways to get the ball to turn away from the batter, and disguising it as well as you can. Whether that be a carrom ball or a conventional legspinner, undercutter, whatever it is that works for you. It's finding ways to add that to your arsenal and being at the top of your run and being able to say, "Okay, I'm going to bowl a carrom ball" and knowing exactly where it's going to land. Because it doesn't help that you can bowl it but you're too nervous to bowl it in a game or you bowl it halfway down the wicket. So I think that's the biggest skill in terms of T20. Obviously, there's a lot of technical aspects that go into bowling a carrom ball, bowling a legspinner, whatever it may be, but it's being comfortable in that skill that you can then implement it in a game when you really need it.

That's very different to red-ball bowling, which is all about repetition and subtle changes.
Yeah, absolutely. In terms of four-day cricket, you need to be as consistent over a long period of time as you can be, and looking to keep the batsman at one end. And if you can bowl six balls at a batter, you can put a lot more pressure on him than if he's getting two singles an over and getting off strike. They are two very different disciplines but each one brings positives and negatives.

You've mentioned Brexit. Your contract with Essex runs until 2022. What does it say about the situation where Kolpak qualifications are rescinded?
I agreed terms with Essex that if the UK leaves without a deal at the end of the year, for the last two years of my contract I would then be an overseas player for Essex.

And could that open the door to playing for South Africa again?
There haven't been any discussions from Cricket South Africa's side, proactive discussions, about what would happen. And I don't know how happy Essex would be if there was a three-month tour during the English summer, to just release me and be like, yep, no worries, you can go. My main responsibility lies for the foreseeable future with Essex. I came over here for the opportunity, and the security that county cricket brings, so there would need to be a lot of discussions between Cricket South Africa about what they were willing to put on the table before I would consider that option, but it's still a long way off yet and a lot can change.

There's a lot of bad blood towards Kolpaks - Harmer
There's a lot of bad blood towards Kolpaks - Harmer

What about playing for England? Is that still a possibility?
I think it started in the press, with people who didn't really know what the implications were or how it all worked saying that I'd become England-qualified in 2020. Or can we get him involved? I think it's all talk. The way that the visas are structured at the moment, the power lies with the ECB. All the Kolpak players are currently on a tier-five visa, which means that you would have to be in the UK for ten years before you could apply for indefinite leave to remain. There is the possibility of moving to a tier two-visa but the ECB doesn't want to explore that, even though all the counties have a licence to issue tier-two visas. There's still discussions between some of the counties and players and the ECB to try and move the Kolpak players to a tier two.

My immediate need for that would be in order for me to buy property. The banks won't give me a mortgage because I don't have indefinite leave to remain, so I can't buy property in the UK. I can't do any other form of work in the UK. I can only play county cricket, I can't play club cricket. I can't do any coaching. And my girlfriend's on a visitor's visa, so she can be in the UK for a maximum six out of the 12 months of the year, which obviously poses its problems. There's a lot of reasons that I would want to move to a tier-two visa.

I think English cricket has given me the opportunity to become a better person and a better player. So I would ultimately like to get a British passport and be naturalised in the UK, especially for my future family. But there's a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of dead ends at the moment. In terms of playing for England, as far as I'm aware, that's off the table for the foreseeable future.

You were in South Africa during the southern summer, playing in the Mzansi Super League. Did you follow the upheaval at CSA?
Yeah, I think they are starting to move in the right direction, in my opinion. I think Graeme Smith has a lot of experience and having him in a director of cricket role, being the bridge between the players and the board, is a smart decision from Cricket South Africa. And it's the same with Mark Boucher. He's got a lot of experience in international cricket, somebody that the players would have the highest level of respect for, and when he speaks about situations or game scenarios, he speaks with international cricketing experience. We know that international cricketers don't necessarily make good coaches, but it's a hell of a good starting point, and especially with a young group of players, which South Africa has at the moment. Getting those players to buy in and to trust somebody, I think it's a lot easier when you've got somebody like Mark Boucher at the helm.

"The biggest thing is being able to nail your skills under pressure. Being comfortable enough in that skill that you can implement it in a game when you really need it"

Given there has been a lot of player turnover, retirements and so on, would South Africa benefit from having some of the Kolpak players return?
I think when you are blooding new players, there's always an element of experience and youth. I'm 31, I've played a lot of cricket, but I haven't necessarily played a lot of international cricket. I think somebody like Kyle Abbott has been around the block - he's played in T20 leagues around the world, he's played more than a fair amount of international cricket. So I can't see how it would be detrimental to have guys like that in your set-up. But there's a lot of bad blood towards the Kolpaks, and it would take South Africans and perhaps Cricket South Africa to swallow their pride and seek for those players to return. There's been a lot said in the press about the return of Kolpak players, but the public perception still is not great.

I can't really speak for all of them. I don't know what their feeling is in terms of playing for South Africa again. But if the Kolpak situation is taken away, then I'm pretty sure there'll be a few more players putting their hands up for selection in South Africa.

Finally, what are you hoping for from the English summer, once the coronavirus restrictions lift?
Any cricket to start off with would be great. From there, I'd really like to play in the Hundred. It's a new tournament and I felt like I did well to get picked up in it. With the change of rules that could potentially come in at the end of the year, it could quite possibly be my only opportunity to play in it. Being a Kolpak, I qualify as a local player. If that was taken away, I would then be an overseas player. So yeah, it would be extremely disappointing if it didn't go ahead.

I don't really see the point of having [the County Championship, curtailed] - unless you're going to play seven or eight Championship games, so that you can play everybody once. But I think if you're playing four or five games, it's not really a true reflection and you're probably better suited to playing a regional tournament, just among the sort of London and south of England clubs or whatever it may be. But all of the cricketers at the moment are just hoping for any cricket.

In the meantime, you have a law degree that you are aiming to finish at some point.
I've registered through Open University, but it can only start in September because of the way the academic year runs. So I'm busy doing an eight-week course through the University of Cape Town in property development and investment. That's been keeping me busy. Property is something I'm quite keen to get into in the UK. I'm invested in South Africa, but it's something that I'd like to do here as well. It's been pretty insightful and has made the days not boring and more productive.

This interview was conducted on April 7, before Essex's players had been furloughed

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick