Essex’s Simon Harmer on stock balls, South Africa and life in England

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Tanya Aldred
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Simon Harmer plonks down on a plastic seat at Edgbaston’s Birmingham end, Essex’s home for the length of their Championship game against Warwickshire. It’s lunch on the third day and there are 20 minutes before play restarts.

For the past five years Harmer has been a luminescent walking wonder in county cricket, causing panic through the opposition as he strides in to bowl, sunglasses on, jumper worn long over his bottom. In his first season for Essex in 2017, he took 72 wickets at 19.19; in 2018, 57 at 24.45; in 2019, 83 at 18.28; in 2020, 38 at 15.06 (in six games of the Bob Willis Trophy).

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Harmer signed a Kolpak deal after feeling he did not have a future playing cricket for South Africa. An attacking off-spinner who imparts a lot of kick, he was employed by Essex on a one-year contract, which was very quickly extended as they won the Championship in 2017, again in 2019 and the Bob Willis Trophy in last year’s Covid summer.

Such is the aura that Essex – and Harmer – have built up, it was a complete surprise that Warwickshire went on to win that Championship game on Sunday, completing a run-chase with 11 balls to spare after Rob Yates scored a superb hundred and Harmer failed to get a wicket. The pattern over the past four years has been teams batting last crumbling at the foreboding omen of Harmer. See Durham just two weeks ago, chasing 168 – bowled out for 123, Harmer five for 57. Or last year when Surrey, chasing 337, were bowled out for 167, Harmer eight for 63. And so on, etc, ad infinitum. Is he aware of having a kind of presence?

“I think you can sometimes see it, and I am very aware of the fact that if a team has a partnership and we get a wicket then the dynamic completely changes. I know, and the batsman knows, that if he gets out as well, and there are two new batters at the crease, it could go from them being in a very strong position to them being bowled out.

“That’s been created over the success of the last five years both as a team and individually. The guys talk it up when they’re in the middle, not abusive chat, but if short leg says to slip, ‘Jeez if they lose another wicket now…”, it plays on you as a batter at the back of your mind, as much as you try to ignore it.

“I think we’ve done a lot of good things and for us as a team to be able to bat as badly as we did against Durham [when they were bowled out for 96] and still find a way to win, creates this belief.”

He has been in English cricket for a while now; do any of the English spinners stand out? “I think Dom Bess has ebbed and flowed, he’s had times he’s been really strong and others where he’s not been so strong; Jack Leach has always been incredibly accurate, the cream of the crop at the moment; then Jack Carson at Sussex and Surrey’s Amar Virdi.”

Last year he worked with the 20-year-old Carson, who took five wickets in Yorkshire’s second innings last weekend, including Joe Root for five. “Ian Salisbury asked if I wouldn’t mind having a chat to him. One morning I tried to impart some of my knowledge, he’s got that X-factor and a lot of potential.”

What would he say to the child out there in their replica Essex shirt desperate to be the new Simon Harmer? “You have to have a stock ball you can execute at will,” he answers. “When you turn on the IPL you see Ravi Ashwin, as an off-spinner, has decided he’s going to start bowling leg-spin to right-handers, and a kid sees that and thinks, ‘Now I need to bowl leg-spin’ – so you never really master the art of off-spin. There are so many variations you can bowl of your stock ball without changing a thing, in the trajectory of the ball, the speed, the line. If someone wakes you at 3am and says go bowl and you can’t put it on a length, then I don’t think you can venture off into bowling carrom balls or leg-spinners.”

He’s been very happy in England, and ultimately wants to settle here, but is frustrated by the visa process. “On a tier 5 visa you can’t start a company, I can’t get a mortgage of more than 70% loan to value, I cannot work in any other sphere other than playing county cricket for Essex, I can’t play for my local club for free if I wanted to. Coaches are allowed to be on a tier 2 visa, but they won’t allow it for the players.”

But he has no desire at the moment to try to win back his South Africa place, especially with the current ructions in South African cricket: until peace broke out on Monday these had included the sports minister, Nathi Mthethwa, saying he would withdraw recognition of Cricket South Africa, which could have resulted in CSA being suspended from the International Cricket Council.

“I think it is extremely disappointing that it has got to this stage because it is not something that has happened overnight. But perhaps this is the best thing for South African cricket, perhaps this is what we need, perhaps this is the turning point, and we do need to hit rock bottom before things get better because the way things were run under Thabang Moroe and even when Gerald Majola was in power, it’s been one circus after another.”

And with that, the best spinner in England politely makes his excuses as the players’ boots crunch back down the concrete steps and out on to the field.

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.