Simon Harmer then, now and tomorrow

“It’s still ingrained in a lot of cricket cultures that spinners almost shouldn’t bowl; that it’s a fast bowler’s game.” – Simon Harmer, recovering fast bowler.

Telford Vice /Old Trafford

SOMETHING about Simon Harmer seems off. He’s at the other end of a video call, looking like he always does. But also not. For one thing, he isn’t wearing sunglasses. For another, he’s in an Essex shirt. For still another, it’s mid-April. Or more than two months before South Africa’s squad for the Test series in England is announced.

Harmer is talking from a hotel room in Birmingham after a training session the day before the start of a match against Warwickshire. He should, therefore, be in an Essex shirt. But that’s what’s wrong with this picture: it’s not a South Africa shirt.

How quickly the subliminal narrative changes. Since Harmer played the first of his 185 matches for Essex, in April 2017, he has appeared for South Africa only three times, including the Old Trafford Test. Thus we should regard him as an Essex player exponentially more than as a South Africa player. But, emotionally, for many South Africans, that is impossible.

Especially not in the wake of his successful return to the international arena in the Test series against Bangladesh in March and April. Keshav Maharaj was the headline hero with 16 wickets in the two matches, but Harmer was only three off that pace. No other South Africa bowler took more than four.

Less measurably, more viscerally, Harmer’s bristling presence evokes Allan Donald, Dale Steyn, or Kagiso Rabada. Aggression sparks from his serrated blond fringe as he darts for the crease, where he bursts into a whirl of electric urgency. He bowls as if he might hurt someone, not just dismiss them. He couldn’t be more South African if he tried. Or, in another sense, less. Who does the off-spinner think he is impersonating a fast bowler in a country that brims with some of the best speed merchants?

“I grew up as a fast bowler,” Harmer told Cricbuzz. “I idolised the South African quicks — Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis. Only when I got to halfway through high school, when I was about 15, did I realise I was never going to bowl express pace. My batting was keeping me in teams, but I felt like I could add more. That’s when the experiment with bowling spin started.”

So, he’s a recovering fast bowler. That helps explain his attitude on the field. But there’s more to his sustained success than that: “When you go to a net session you’ll always see a fast bowler bowling spin and you’ll see a spin bowler bowling fast. You always want what you don’t have. But coaches realised there was something there: I could turn the ball. With fast bowlers, you can either bowl fast or you can’t. It’s very similar — you can’t teach a spinner to turn the ball. They’ve either got it or they don’t. You can teach control, but not putting revs on the ball. That foundation of fast bowling helped me so much with my spin bowling in terms of my positions at the crease, etcetera. It was the right progression rather than bowling spin from when I was young.”

His former life in the game has informed other aspects of how he plays, including unusually intense bowling mechanics for a spinner: “I need to get energy onto the ball, and in order to do that I need to generate momentum to the crease. If I’m too slow, I feel like I’m relying too much on my action at the crease. If I’ve got some momentum going to the crease — which maybe stems from my fast-bowling days — I feel like it allows me to think about what I’m trying to do with the ball, versus thinking about what my left arm’s doing or where my head’s going.”

The allround package is an attacking off-spinner; a modern rarity, especially outside Asia. In South Africa, in particular, spinners of any sort haven’t often been deployed as wicket-takers. They’re tasked with keeping it tight if they even get a bowl in the first innings, and if they’re lucky and the pitch deteriorates they’ll see more action later in the match. But most of the responsibility for dismissing the opposition still rests with seam bowlers. At least, that’s how it used to be.

For the past five seasons, the most successful bowler in South Africa’s first-class competition has been a spinner. Twice, that spinner has been Harmer. Once, Maharaj. Slow bowlers have occupied four places among the top five wicket-takers twice, and three times also twice. The equation is skewed by the fact that South Africa’s quality quicks don’t play much domestic first-class cricket. Rabada, for instance, featured in only two such games in the country during the same five seasons. But it is also true that confidence in the threat posed by spin is growing.

Harmer has done his bit to make that happen — especially in South Africa but also in England, where he took 308 wickets at 20.19 in 64 first-class matches for Essex from 2017 to 2021. Harmer was the leading wicket-taker in the first division of the county championship twice in those five years, and finished out of the top five only once. So far this year, he is the leading spinner in the competition with 46 wickets from nine matches. 

Why was attacking off-spin having its moment? “The cricketing world has evolved a lot from where it was maybe 15, 20 years ago, and orthodox spinners have come a long way as well. Graeme Swann did it to an extent in his international career and if you look at what Nathan Lyon’s done, there’s a strong case to make to say spin is becoming very important in how teams are made up. In terms of balancing attack versus control, teams and bowling coaches are starting to realise that having an attacking spin option in your XI brings a dynamic that people are enjoying and is helping teams to be successful.”

No-one appeared in more Tests for England, bowled more overs or took more wickets than Swann, who took 255 wickets in 60 matches, when he was in their XI — and often in an attack that included James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Something similar is true of Lyon, who is still at it after 110 Tests in which he has taken 438 wickets. That’s 160 more than second-placed Mitchell Starc, who has played 41 fewer Tests and bowled 2,446.3 fewer overs than Lyon.

But the battle for spin remains a long way from won in countries like South Africa, despite the evidence of recent seasons. “It’s still ingrained in a lot of cricket cultures that spinners almost shouldn’t bowl; that it’s a fast bowler’s game,” Harmer said. If you’re not an off-spinner, nevermind not an attacking off-spinner, you may be puzzled. Aren’t offies the second-class citizens of cricket, begging for a bowl in the queue behind the quicks, the wrist spinners and the left-arm orthodoxes? Aren’t they always waiting for a left-hander to arrive so they can finally turn the ball away from the bat?

Good luck telling Harmer that: “I feel a lot more in the game against right-handers than I do bowling to left-handers. Yes, the ball is turning away [from left-handers] but there’s a lot more I feel I can do with the ball in the air to a right-hander, and bring fielders catching around the bat into the game, than you can necessarily do with left-handers.”

That squares with the fact that, in Harmer’s first seven Tests, 18 of his wickets have been those of left-handers and 15 of right-handers. He’s taken most of them wearing sunglasses, a quirk he knows doesn’t sit well everywhere in the game. And which has become more than an affectation.

“I know it can come across as arrogant. But growing up and seeing my idols wearing Oakley sunglasses, all I ever wanted was a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Then guys like Graeme Swann, Johan Botha and Shane Warne started bowling in sunglasses. That’s probably where it stems from. I feel so uncomfortable now when I don’t have them on. They’ve become almost like a safety net. I feel like the batters can see where my eyes are going.

“I almost feel a bit insecure when I don’t have my sunglasses on. I feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin [wearing sunglasses]. As I’ve got older, probably because I play with sunglasses, my eyes have become more sensitive. So I probably rely on them more than I did at the start of my career. But the root of it was seeing all these guys who I idolised growing up wearing sunglasses.”

Harmer wouldn’t be asked to explain his thing for shades, and everything else about his career, if it wasn’t for Essex. Too much has been made of Harmer’s decision to go Kolpak with them in 2016, not least because he didn’t do himself any favours in justifying his move. Lost in that often spiteful conversation is the fact that English cricket has the resources and the focus to get the best out of players like no other arm of the global cricket industry.

That’s been true since Tony Greig left the Eastern Cape in the early 1970s as a distinctly ordinary allrounder and was transformed, by Sussex, into a daring, dashing captain who retired with a Test batting average of 40.43. Then came Allan Lamb, Chris and Robin Smith, and Kevin Pietersen. They were followed by Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott. None of them would likely have reached the heights they did had they remained loyal to South African cricket — not because they’re white but because the game in their country simply isn’t developed enough to find, nevermind keep, enough of its better players.

It used to be that apartheid-induced isolation prompted privileged players to look to England. Then Kolpak opened a door that was shut at the end of 2020, which would have come as a relief for CSA. The shoddy way cricket was being run in the country and the impact of the pandemic on the economy far beyond cricket have further shrunk the game in South Africa. If a clearer and more viable route to England existed, doubtless South Africans would be lining up to take it. 

“The English game, because of the funding, is comprised basically of international teams who operate at domestic level,” Harmer said. “At Essex, who I don’t think are up there with the highest-earning counties, it’s a 6,500-seater ground. But you have two physios at home games, you have a batting coach, bowling coach, head coach. You’ve got sports psychologists who come in for a certain number of days per year, you’ve got strength and conditioning people. It’s so much more professional.

“Coming into an environment like that made me realise I needed to raise my standards. Because I could see how these guys operated. It helped me rediscover what made me successful — be hardworking, find ways to get better and evolve as a cricketer. It all comes together in county cricket.

“There’s so much bad press going around about county cricket and how it’s causing English cricket to be this, that and the next thing. But from an outsider’s perspective and as a professional cricketer, they don’t know how good what they have here is. I fell in love with cricket again because of my time at Essex. It’s a lot deeper than just walking into a professional environment; it motivated me to want to be better and contribute more.”

Take a bow, county cricket and especially Essex, for giving back to South Africa a player who, at 33, is as close as he is going to get to complete. So close that he and Maharaj, who since his debut in November 2016 has taken more wickets for South Africa than everyone except Rabada, are mentioned in the same breath. Harmer doesn’t consider that a rivalry, a view backed by the frequent sight of him and Maharaj in close conversation as they walk across the training ground together.       

“There’s been chat around me versus him, but what about me and Keshav; not me versus Keshav? He’s done unbelievably well in international cricket. I don’t think anybody can question that. South Africa have traditionally gone in with a fast-bowling allrounder, and I think the discussion is now starting about a spin-bowling allrounder. It’s a hell of an opportunity.

“There is competition in terms of both of us pushing one another to be better. I don’t think I’m ever going to take ‘Kesh’s spot in the team. But I hope the way we train together and bowl together in games is naturally pushing one another to be better. You want to win Test matches, so there isn’t an element of me wanting to out-perform Keshav.

“Cricket is a performance-based sport, and there are going to be days when I do well and days when I do badly. I wouldn’t say there’s competition against one another, but it creates competition in our training that we’re always pushing one another to find ways to be better.”

Harmer probably didn’t think, when he said that, that South Africa would have shambled to 76/5 by the time he took guard at Old Trafford on Thursday. Or that Dean Elgar would be banking on him and Maharaj keeping the visitors in the game. That’s if the contest is alive come the fourth innings.

If it is, it could be a game made for an attacking off-spinner.

First published by Cricbuzz.

Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.

Simon Harmer then, now and tomorrow