'Things were dark, but cricket was my release'

Steve Harmison reflects on his battles with depression, learning to cope on tour with England and that first ball at Brisbane

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Steve Harmison's first ball heads for second slip, Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane, November 23, 2006

Steve Harmison's first ball heads for second slip  •  Getty Images

Regrets? He's had a few. But then again, fewer than you might expect him to mention.
"I had a lot of problems but I wouldn't swap what I did, because of the love of playing for Durham and England," says Steve Harmison, the former England fast bowler. "There were times when things were dark, but there was times when cricket was my release. I was a maverick, for want of a better word. I could win a game in a spell, or go at nine an over and lose it there and then."
Where Ashes series are concerned, this truism has been distilled into a handful of identifiable deliveries. The elbow clanger to Justin Langer and the cobra bite to Ricky Ponting's cheek at Lord's - early indications in that seismic summer of 2005 that Australia were about to face a challenge such as they had never before encountered.
One Test later, that slower ball to Michael Clarke and that desperate looping rib-tickler to Michael Kasprowicz at Edgbaston - moments recalled with freeze-frame clarity by a generation of England cricket fans, who had been taken to the brink and left there to dangle before that moment of sweet release.
And then, on the first morning of the Ashes rematch in 2006-07, at Brisbane's infamous "Gabbatoir" no less - that ball, that wide. That powder-puff, biomechanic apology of a misfire that curled straight into the hands of Andrew Flintoff at second slip and signalled - symbolically at least - the surrender of the urn that England had worked themselves to a standstill to earn 18 months earlier.
"When we went to Australia in 2006-07, only four players turned up," Harmison says. "And of the three or four senior players who didn't turn up, I was probably top of the tree."
Looking back on that delivery, a little over a decade ago, it's hard now to recall quite how much of a passion-killer it really was. There were other deliveries in the course of England's 5-0 whitewash, and plenty other disappointments - mere mention of the word "Adelaide", for instance, cricket's own version of the "Scottish play", still brings fans of a certain disposition out in hives.
And yet, that first delivery stands the test of time - as symbolic a shortcoming as has ever been served up on such a grand stage. As James Alexander Gordon might have said to the massed ranks of England fans in the Gabba that morning, "if you don't want to know the result, look away now".
"It wasn't so much the first ball itself but the build-up," Harmison says now. "I needed a lot of bowling to get my rhythm going, but I felt my side go in our final warm-up game in Adelaide, so I took the precautionary option of not playing. So I didn't have 25 overs under my belt going into the Test. I felt good in practice, but then I got to the top of my mark…"
Rewatching the footage of that fierce first morning, the main thing that strikes you is the noise. The tribal roar of a packed amphitheatre, tracking Harmison's every step to the wicket, followed by a slightly baffled change of key as Langer shapes to leave well alone, and a renewed outburst of derision as umpire Steve Bucknor spreads out his arms to signal the inevitable. Yes, it was just a solitary moment in time. But what a time, and what a message to relay to the most hostile audience in the sport.
"It's one of those things, as a big tall bowler, you only have to be a little bit out," Harmison says. "I was in no position to let go of the ball. Your front arm leads and your bowling arm follows. And I had no control. It came off my third finger and looped into Andrew's hand. If you freeze the action, you can see I'm losing my left side. I was trying far too hard to bowl too fast.
"It could have gone behind me. Did I freeze? Possibly. I just think I tried too hard."
Harmison remains adamant that the moment caused no lasting damage to England's hopes on that ill-fated tour. "That first ball didn't set the tone. Australia were so much up for it, and ready. The England team weren't good enough then.
"It affected me for about eight hours, when I look back on it. Two soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on that same day, around the same time. And when I watched the news that night, I thought 'what has the world come to?'"
But there was, he admits, an underlying guilt at his performance, both in that match and on the trip in general, in which he claimed 10 wickets at 61.40 in the five Tests. "The disappointing thing was one of my best mates in life was the man in charge. And my performance was probably the worst I've been on tour."
That mate, of course, was Flintoff - "Freddie" to the wider public, but very resolutely "Andrew" to his closest acquaintance. Their friendship was famously forged on an Under-19 tour to Pakistan in 1996-97, when Harmison suffered his first attack of what was then euphemistically described as "homesickness". With Flintoff's help, he found a means to abandon the trip, and they remained as close as twins thereafter.
Attitudes to mental illness in sport have become considerably more enlightened in the eight years since the last of Harmison's 63 Tests - and the bouts of depression that he so clearly endured in the course of his England career can now be called out for what they really were, as he freely admits in his eloquent and at times moving autobiography, Speed Demons.
"The problem with me was when the doors shut," he says. "Andrew and I always shared a room on tour, but once the doors shut and I was on my own, that's when I was struggling. I'm the most destructive person in my own company. I still am now.
"I was at my worst when I was injured," he adds. "The physios would stick injections in me, I'd have tablets coming out of my backside, because playing was my release, my therapy. I think I would have been a hell of a lot worse if I'd come out and been honest, because I always felt I was one bad game from never playing again for England."
And in fact it was Flintoff, not Harmison, who was first to follow the lead of their team-mate, Marcus Trescothick, and admit - in a documentary in 2012 - how even a player so naturally ebullient as he had endured episodes of depression both during his career, and especially, after it, when his England days were ended prematurely in 2009 by a chronic knee injury.
"Even now, you watch him on TV, the guy you see on League Of Their Own, that's Freddie, and he's fantastic. But the guy I know is Andrew. He's earning a lot of money, and he's so well thought of, the world loves him at this moment in time, but Andrew loved that game of cricket. Apart from his family, cricket was his biggest single love."
Some of the darkest days for Flintoff occurred on that 2006-07 tour, when as captain he found himself powerless to resist Australia's determination to regain the urn, and found too few of his team-mates willing or able to step up in his support.
"Cricket is played by human beings, not robots or egotistical prima donnas. They are real people"
"I knew something wasn't right with Andrew," Harmison says. "He was the right man to captain England at that time - Andrew Strauss would have got beat 5-0 as well. He wanted to take on Australia by himself, because when you are the leader you stand up to be counted. But he suffered in silence. He didn't have people close to him during that period. In particular, his relationship with Duncan Fletcher went downhill, because Duncan struggled to talk to people individually."
The England team's social arrangements on that tour were, at times, particularly dysfunctional, not least over the Christmas period in Melbourne, when the players were billeted in an upmarket apartment block with their families - or in rather miserable isolation, in the case of the squad's many singletons, not least Monty Panesar, another ex-England player who has had to face his demons in recent years.
It was all far removed from the tours on which Harmison would evoke, perhaps unwittingly, the spirit of Ian Botham, and make his hotel-room into the social hub of an England campaign.
"I used to take a dartboard, I had hundreds of DVDs," he says. "I would raid Cadburys before every tour, especially to the subcontinent, and stuff my suitcases with sweets and Haribos. I needed people to come into my room, Swanny nicknamed it the 'Harmison Arms'. It would be stinking hot in there, no windows, but someone would ring room service and shout anyone want a beer. We'd get in 20 of them, chuck buckets of ice in the bath, and do it all again tomorrow.
"Think of a pub when you're comfortable and relaxed," he says. "You can have a meal, have a game of darts, the internet was there … I was in my element. I'd rarely watch any of the films but sitting in my chair without people to interact with, I'd be climbing the walls."
And that, in essence, is what happened to Trescothick on the tour of India in 2005-06, and again ahead of the Ashes the following winter, when he was spirited out of the firing line by an England management who, even that recently, were unable to confront his mental struggles and instead dressed his condition up as a "mystery virus".
"Talking to Marcus, when he struggled in India, he shut himself off in his room and was alone with his thoughts," Harmison says. "If I'd known he was as bad as he was … Christ, I'd have taken the whole lot to his room.
"Good team-mates pick up on things, and I had people I was close to that I could share it with," he adds. "This was all new to Marcus. He didn't know what he was going through. If only I'd known."
In spite of rising to become such a central figure in England's social set-up, Harmison's relationship with his sporting fame has rarely been less than ambivalent - a feeling that was set in motion by his very earliest encounters with the national squad, back in the summer of 2000.
At that time, right on the cusp of the central contract revolution that would change the landscape for Harmison's generation of players, the England dressing-room remained a jealous and petty environment, with the individuals therein more fearful of personal failure than motivated by collective success.
It certainly was not a welcoming environment for a gawky new boy from county cricket's youngest club. "I was from a football background and didn't know what cricket was," he says. "I'm from a football background, Durham were eight years old in 2000. I'd played 30-35 matches in my career. I don't know what international cricket was, and now I'd been picked to go to Lord's."
Harmison elaborates on a tale that he tells in his autobiography, one that brought home to him, at the age of 21, the absurdity of his sudden elevation.
"I was on the train down from Newcastle, and a group of kids with special needs were in the same carriage, on their way to the museum at York. I thought should I move, but actually I enjoyed their company because it was their day out and also my day out, because I was going to London in the squad to play cricket for England.
"Pulling in at York, a right old battleaxe got up and started telling the kids exactly what will happen. 'Anyone move,' she said, 'they'll be straight back on the train'. And then she did a headcount, 'One, two, three …' and looked at me.
""Who are you and what are you doing?' And honestly my backside fell out. I looked at her and said 'I'm Stephen and I'm going to play cricket for England in London…' She just pointed at me and said 'Four …' and that was about right.
"They were having their day out, I was having mine, when I got to Lord's, I didn't get picked in the Test match, I spent three days there on an experience, and when I left to go back to Durham, part of me was thinking I wish I'd got off at York and gone with those kids, because I would have had a better time.
"I wanted to be around people who wanted to be together, be a group and do something meaningful. The era I came into didn't have structure, but the system was better when I left. The players were better, and stronger."
Harmison strikes a curious note in an otherwise sympathetically pitched autobiography when he revisits the events of England's last trip to the Gabba, in 2013-14, and Jonathan Trott's hasty departure from the tour, in the wake of his twin dismissals by the ferocious pace of Mitchell Johnson.
Trott, Harmison wrote, had displayed mental "weakness" rather than mental "illness" in his actions, in particular when Trott spoke about the incident some months later and insisted that he was not a "nutcase".
"I was quite critical of him," he says. "I'm just going from what I've seen with my eyes and what he's said in interview. I've got no doubt he was feeling down, but the words he was using weren't those of a person who had suffered. But on the other hand, was he just trying to show the bravado? Trying to show he was not weak? It could be he just didn't put it across right and, if that's the case, I take everything back."
Or it could just have been the intimidation factor of the Gabba that tipped Trott over the brink on that tour, much as Harmison himself might recall from his own fateful day 11 years ago.
"Cricket is played by human beings, not robots or egotistical prima donnas who are kept away from everything," he says. "They are real people." And through triumph and occasional high-profile failure, the sport is all the greater for that fact.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @miller_cricket