Simon Harmer reaped rewards for a career marked by hard work and sacrifice, writes Alan Gardner on the Pretoria-born cricketer who was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in the Wisden Almanack 2020.
It was the defining week of the best season of Simon Harmer’s career. But, at the end, his overriding emotion was relief. Spin-bowling spearhead of Essex’s Championship challenge, as well as captain of the Twenty20 side making their first finals-day appearance since 2013, Harmer admits he felt “extremely anxious” as the county took aim at an unprecedented double. He need not have worried.
Twice in six days he lived up to his billing as domestic cricket’s premier spinner, and guided Essex to silverware; individual accolades would come too, as well as a fitting amount of fizz for a man who loves to give his off-breaks a rip. These were rewards for a career marked by hard work and sacrifice, though Harmer still had plenty he wanted to prove.
His central role in Essex’s second Championship in three years was no great surprise, though a haul of 83 wickets at 18 apiece surpassed even the 72 at 19 he had managed in 2017. But T20 success – the club’s first, after more than a decade and a half of trying – bore a more personal stamp. Harmer had only just taken the reins, and saw his team manage two wins from their first ten games, before striking a vein of form. On finals day, Essex’s armoury could not have been more Harmer-y: figures of four for 19 and three for 16 (his two best hauls in the format) kept Derbyshire and Worcestershire tied down. But someone had to finish the job with the bat. Step forward the captain, to hit the winning runs from the last ball. “The stars aligned,” he says. “The way I played at finals day will be something I look back on for many years.”
Less than 48 hours later, Essex were at Taunton, looking to dampen Somerset’s hopes of a maiden Championship title. They were helped by the weather, but there was enough time for Harmer to claim his tenth five-wicket haul of the season (the most since Mushtaq Ahmed’s 11 for Sussex in 2006). With Somerset unable to force the win they needed, Essex’s players could start popping the champagne corks again.
Simon Ross Harmer was born on February 10, 1989, in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, where he spent his “whole life” – at least until he finished at Pretoria Boys High School. The son of a geologist, Jock, and a tennis coach, Barbara, he developed his love for cricket by playing with his older brother, Matthew, in the backyard (and bowling seam-up until the age of 15). Despite being more interested in sport than homework, Harmer embarked on a law degree at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, which also allowed him to pursue cricket with Eastern Province. “My dad and I packed the car and the trailer, and made the ten-hour trip down to Port Elizabeth. I’d never been before in my life.” It wouldn’t be his last step into the unknown.
Before long, he broke into the franchise system with Warriors (his degree remains unfinished, but Harmer wants to complete it via distance learning). In 2015, he performed respectably in five Tests for South Africa, and even had the West Indian limpet Shivnarine Chanderpaul stumped, one of only two bowlers – with New Zealand’s Mark Craig – to do so in Tests. Yet, as transformation targets reshaped the sport at home, Harmer remained uncertain about his future.
Having gained promotion in the Championship in 2016, Essex were looking for a spinner, and offered him the chance to turn Kolpak – even if an initial six-month contract worth £30,000 hardly guaranteed long-term riches. But, given an opportunity, he grabbed it with one of those bear-like paws, raising the possibility of a return to international cricket, this time for England, though his ability to meet the qualification requirements was tangled in Home Office red tape – not to mention the tendrils of Brexit. Adding to the sense of flux is the fact that he can’t buy property, while his girlfriend can’t work in the UK.
“I’m very much a cricketing nomad,” he says. “I pack up my life, put it in boxes, store them and move on to the next place. It’s extremely frustrating because, as much as I love Essex, I feel like I don’t belong, because I don’t have somewhere to come back to.”
Not that he is complaining. “Excuse my language, but some cricketers are kissed on the cock, and things come easy. I feel like I’m a late bloomer in life and cricket: I’ve had to do things the hard way. I’ve had to put myself under pressure, which I think I quite enjoy. It’s just the way things have worked out.”
At Essex, things could hardly have worked out better. Tall and imposingly solid for an off-spinner, with fingers that look as if they could rip off a doorknob, he has, since his arrival at Chelmsford, claimed more Championship wickets (212) than anyone. Before the 2019 season, he had resolved to step things up still further.
“I felt more responsibility,” he says. “In the first year, I was just happy to be there, trying my nuts off to contribute. Then everyone’s talking about second-year syndrome: ‘Is he going to be effective?’ We didn’t play our best cricket as a team. So last year, I just wanted to be the best I possibly could be – taking responsibility for the attack, putting pressure on myself to be the guy that bowled from one end.”
That competitor’s spirit is what drives him, and motivates him to prove wrong those who doubted his ability, or his decision to quit South Africa. It is what prompts him to speak openly about wanting to play for England, or believing himself to be among the best off-spinners in the world. He says he would love to compete against the likes of Nathan Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin, “and see how I fare”.
Whatever comes next, Harmer seems well-equipped to forge his own path. “You’re always going to have people with an opinion, a lot of them ill-informed: people on social media, old coaches who didn’t really support me. When you turn your back on international cricket, you wonder: were you good enough, did you make the right decision? To come over here, and be the best spinner in England, makes me feel a lot happier.”
The 2020 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is out now