Stephen James Harmison, England pacer and the world’s leading bowler at one point, announced his retirement from professional cricket on Sunday. Aayush Puthran looks back at the journey of the big burly pacer and explains why his contribution remains significant in England’s 136 years of Test cricket history.
It was in the month of June 2013 that Ian Botham had predicted a 10-0 win for England in the back-to-back Ashes series. Although the statement might have sounded pompous, there were a decent number of voices believing the same. However, it is hard to fancy anyone saying anything on similar lines a decade back. The reason was not just that Australia had become a much weaker side, but also that in 2013, England have, in the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and others, a bowling line-up that is an envy of every opposition. It was a far stronger attack than the one they had in 2002-03, when Darren Gough was the best they could put forward.
But the misery was to end soon for England as a burly 6ft 4inch man with an open-chested action from the countryside of Ashington came to intimidate batsmen the world over with steep bounce and pace. England had found a new leader for their bowling attack in the form of Stephen James Harmison.
However the bigger question is — what is the significance of a Steve Harmison with respect to English cricket, for they have had many a pack leaders, who were far more intimidating, effective and charismatic, in its 136 years of Test history. But, Harmison will retain a special place for the fact that he spearheaded an attack that linked two generations — the 1990s to early 2000s when English cricket was at its lowest ebb ever in terms of form and the late 2000s to early 2010s when they again became a dominant force in world cricket. He was the leader of a pace attack that played a critical role in the revival of English cricket. He was the bowler who led the four-man pace battery in one of England’s most sensation and historic Ashes series wins in 2005.
Early life and family
Born and brought up in the quaint countryside of Ashington — a place famous for the Charlton family, the most popular of them being Sir Bobby — it was natural that Harmison’s early inclination was towards football. He even played for the local club Ashington FC. However, soon realising his strengths and shortcomings, he decided to concentrate on cricket.
The eldest of three brothers and a sister, Harmison’s attachment to his family became a well-known fact in the cricketing circle. In a chat with Donald McRae of The Guardian in December 2004, Harmison blurted out his frustration of being away from his family as he saw people backpacking for their Christmas holidays at the Heathrow airport. “Today is the day I wish I wasn’t a professional cricketer,” he said as he stared at the yellow reflection of the international departures sign in the smeary window of an airport coffee bar. “Today is the day I wish I worked in an office in a nine-to-five job. Today is probably the worst day I’ve known as a cricketer.”
“Emily (his five-year-old daughter) was very tearful and upset before we took her to school this morning. That upset me and I set off Haley (wife). There’ve been an awful lot of tears in the family today. Only Abby (two-year-old daughter) didn’t really understand. She just thought her dad was going off to the shops for a couple of hours. How do you tell your kids you won’t be home for 10 weeks?”
However at times, his home-sickness and poor performances outside England were even taken out of context and blown out of proportion. In an interview with the Independent, Harmison, who has three daughters and a son, defended himself saying, “If I bowled badly on tours with England it wasn’t because I was missing home, it was because a lot of pitches away from home don’t suit my bowling. That perception of me [as perennially homesick] comes from a trip to Pakistan with England Under-19s. I left school in the October, and by November I was in Pakistan, which I found pretty difficult…Every time I had an indifferent trip after that it was blamed on what had happened years earlier. It’s true that I struggled at the start of the South Africa trip in 2004-05, but I’ve been fine every other time.”
Harmison was drafted into the squad for the tour of Zimbabwe in 2000; however, he didn’t get a chance to play. Nonetheless, he shined when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) National Academy team toured Australia a year-and-a-half later. He picked up 19 wickets in the three First-Class matches he played. The high-point of that tour for him was his eight-wicket haul against Victoria Second XI.
The performance on that tour paved way for his regular inclusion in the England national side. It was against India in August 2002, when he made his Test debut at Trent Bridge. On a batting paradise, he returned with five wickets.
He continued to impress with his bowling, even as it lacked consistency. On the tour to Australia in 2002-03, were England were battered, Harmison did well to earn a place in the national squad for the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. Although he didn’t get to play a single game in the tournament where England again fared poorly, he was awarded a central contract from ECB for a period of six months.
Injuries to frontline pacers allowed Harmison with a chance to play more Tests for England. In the first match against Bangladesh at Dhaka, he returned with nine wickets and his first Man of the Match award. However, the joy wasn’t to last too long, as putting in the extra yard to extract bounce and pace from the sluggish pitch at the Bangabandhu Stadium took a toll on his back and was declared unfit for the tour to Sri Lanka.
However, he was picked for the tour of West Indies in mid-2004 and that began, in what would go down in his career, as his merriest period as a bowler. In the first Test itself, he ripped apart the West Indian line-up with what Michael Vaighan described as “one of the greatest spells by an English bowler”. He returned with figures of seven for 12 (the cheapest seven-wicket haul in Test history) in the second innings of the first Test.
The series was also the first time when Harmison’s intimidation became too tough to handle, with his ability to generate steep bounce at great pace subsequently drawing comparison with Curtly Ambrose in the Caribbean. He bagged 23 wickets in four Tests and also the Man of the Series title. The legendary West Indiana batsman Brian Lara, who recorded Test cricket’s first and only quadruple century in that series, went to the extent of saying that England didn’t have a plan B in the absence of Harmison.
His reputation was only to grow from there on as the season proved to be fruitful with more success coming his way. Against New Zealand in August 2004, he bagged 21 wickets in three Tests, becoming a more reliable pacer to lead the attack.
Although the year didn’t end on a high note for him as he managed to take just nine wickets at the rate of 73.22 against South Africa, he was named Wisden Cricketer of the Year for his performance that year. In the 13 Tests that he had played, Harmison grabbed 67 wickets at an average of 23.92 in 2004.
The Ashes 2005
Months before the Ashes had started, a lot of expectations were riding on Harmison given his exploits in the year and a half preceding the series. By the time the series started, he had well established himself as the leader of the four-pronged pace attack that also comprised Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones.
The series started off well for him as he bagged eight wickets in the first Test at Lord’s that England lost by 239 runs. In what happened to be one of the most remarkable Ashes series ever, Harmison’s efforts were overshadowed by Flintoff and Jones. Although he didn’t pick too many wickets, he proved to be an effective new-ball bowler with Hoggard.
Shane Warne, while listing out the 50 best cricketers he has played against ranked Harmison 37th and stated, “On his day, he is one of the most awkward bowlers in the world. I hope he can overcome his injuries to lead the England attack again. He has returned some great figures and, although he wasn’t the leading wicket-taker in the 2005 Ashes, he set the tone with his bowling in the initial stages at Lord’s.”
England went on to win the series 2-1 and Harmison drifted away from the limelight that was hogged by his best-mate in the team — Flintoff. But that was characteristic of him. He wasn’t charismatic or attention seeking and in. The highlight of the series for Harmison was the wicket he produced of Michael Kasprowicz in the second Test at Edgbaston as the match could’ve gone either ways with Australia needing just three runs with the last-wicket pair at the crease. Also during the course of the series, Harmison hit Ricky Ponting with a nasty bouncer which resulted in blood. The bowler came under flak as he immediately walked back to the bowling crease instead of going up to Ponting to check if everything was alright.
Talking about the incident, Harmison defended his actions in an interview to the Independent saying, “I didn’t realise I’d hit him that hard, and by the time I did realise, I was almost back to my mark. But I wish I’d made sure he was all right. I’ve so much respect for him; he’s the best batsman I’ve ever bowled against. I bowled against [Brian] Lara, [Sachin] Tendulkar, [Jacques] Kallis when he was on fire in ’04-’05, but for front foot and back foot, steel, stubbornness, Ponting for me is streets ahead of everyone else. So yeah, that’s one of those things I’d like to forget.”
The next one year continued to be a good period for the pacer as he reached the top of bowling rankings, bagging wickets in England and outside. With injuries continuing to plague the other pacers, Harmison remained a fixed feature in the side. Through this, he was even picked in the ICC World XI to take on Australia.
In July 2006, he picked six for 19 off just 13 overs to help England bowl out Pakistan for 119 at Old Trafford. He followed it up with another fifer in the second innings to bag his first 10-wicket haul in Tests. It was also the best figures recorded by a bowler at Old Trafford since Jim Laker’s 19 for 90 against Australia exactly 50 years before that.
However, that happened to be the last of the best from the big man as his form in One-Day Internationals dipped and his commitment to the game came under scrutiny. The worst was to come at Brisbane in the 2006-07 Ashes. In what happened to be dubbed by mediapersons in the two countries as ‘the worst ball in cricket history’, Harmison started off the proceedings with a wide delivery outside off to Justin langer which was taken by his skipper Flintoff stationed at second slip.
Talking about the incident, Harmison told The Australian, “When it came to bowling the first ball, I froze. I let the enormity of the occasion get to me. It all seemed so alien to me. My whole body was nervous. I could not get my hands to stop sweating. The first ball slipped out of my hands, the second did as well and, after that, I had no rhythm, nothing. I know my poor bowling was not for want of effort. I tried my nuts off. But I had a very bad day at the worst possible time and I won’t deny my confidence took a knock.”
Given his woeful form, there were calls for his axing for the second Test at Adelaide. However, he continued to play. The fact that he returned wicket-less from 29 overs he bowled at Adelaide only made the call louder. Although he bagged five wickets at Perth in the third Test, it didn’t help the team’s cause as they suffered a heavy 206-run loss and with it lost the Ashes. He continued to play through the series and did fairly decent, England were mauled 5-0 by the home side.
Multiple factors resulted in Harmison playing just 13 more Tests for England over the next seven years.
Harmison in ODIs
Quite unlike the longer format, Harmison never got his ODI career flying. In 58 matches, he picked 76 wickets at an average of 32.64. A large part of his fall came from his poor show in the 50-over format. However, here, he reserved the best for the Australians. His best moment was the fifer he picked against them in 2005 at Bristol to help England win by three wickets.
He wasn’t a regular feature in the England side, except for a brief period when he enjoyed an amazing run with the ball. Although he was a wicket-taker, he leaked far too many runs for his side’s good. He played his last ODI series when England toured the West Indies in 2009.
Harmison made his intentions and priorities clear when he said, “I have a family. I have kids that need me around and they will dictate the decisions I make on my career….My international career will finish when my family needs me to be around a bit more.”
On December 21, 2006, three months before the 2007 World Cup in West Indies, Harmison announced his retirement from the 50-over format.
Talking about homesickness, Harmison told Chronicle Live, “We went into South Africa and it was the first time really where I went into a trip where I was having one of these dog days, or episodes. That was the first time I had gone on to a trip feeling like that. I had a bad first week. I couldn’t train. I was struggling to breathe, I was hyperventilating and that’s when it dawned on me that I had a problem. I was panicky, the anxiety was hitting me and I had a lump in my throat, I was having bad heads, I was shaking, I didn’t want to let go off the ball.
“There was one night when I went back into my room and looked into the mirror and thought ‘what’s the problem?’ That is when it really dawned on me, ‘You have a problem, you’re not weak, you are going to have to sort it out. That was when depression was first mentioned. I still can’t get to the answer of what made me feel that way.”
His uncle Kevin, himself a disabled golfer, told in 2011 after Harmison made his admission of depression public, “Steve’s fine but it’s something he’s suffered from badly and something that we have tried to support him through. We’ve known for four of five years that what Steve has been going through and we’ve supported him. It hasn’t been easy.”
Harmison was a football lover, as most others from the quaint village of Ashington, who wanted to follow on the footsteps of the Charlton family. He has played local football for Ashington FC and been a lifelong supporter of Newcastle United.
He started his First-Class career with Leicestershire in 1996 before moving to Hampshire. However, he played most part of his County career at Durham. In July 2012, he joined Yorkshire on a one-year loan.
Even as he announced his retirement from professional cricket in October 2013, he made sure his sentiments for his local club were obvious.
“I had plenty of highlights in an England career that spanned nine years, during which time I became the world’s top-ranked Test bowler,” he told AFP. “But my thoughts always come back to Durham. The picture which gives me the most pleasure was of me walking off the field at Canterbury on the day we won Durham’s first Championship. One hand, with its wrist broken, is clutching a stump, the other is around my brother Ben. A handful of people have won Championships with Durham, but we are the only brothers.”
In all his reserved nature and inability to prioritise the game completely, Harmison has made a mark for himself in the annals of English cricket history.
Steve Harmison’s Career in statistics:
(Aayush Puthran is a reporter with CricketCountry. Mercurially jovial, pseudo pompous, perpetually curious and occasionally confused, he is always up for a light-hearted chat over a few cups of filter kaapi!)