Harmer puts positive spin on enforced break

Given he hasn’t played cricket for almost 12 months it seems the obvious place to start our interview with county cricket’s most prolific off-spinner.

So, has Simon Harmer ever seen an episode of The Only Way Is Essex?

“I’ve maybe watched a few episodes but there’s a couple of the younger guys in our dressing room – I don’t need to watch it because they can perform it for me,” he tells TheCC. “They can show me all I need to see.”

A guest appearance for Harmer on the cult ITV show would probably cap a four-year love affair with the county champions, which began when he left South Africa to join them on a Kolpak deal that was announced back in October 2016.

In modern county cricket, it’s hard to think of a player who has had such a striking impact, with his three-season stint incorporating two County Championship titles. Last September, the 31-year-old also captained Essex to their first ever T20 Blast title to complete a remarkable double.

Now, with his eyes on buying a property in the county and becoming a naturalised man of Essex, Harmer couldn’t feel more at home. Particularly when he’s bowling in front of a packed house at Chelmsford.

“I don’t think the crowd is as malicious there as other grounds I’ve played at in the UK,” he says. “It can be incredibly unpleasant elsewhere in terms of the abuse you get,” he says.

“At Chelmsford, under lights, when it gets to half past eight, nine o’clock, and the lagers start taking effect, it does become quite jovial. The atmosphere can be quite brutal but I think it’s more tongue in cheek than elsewhere. But when you’ve got 6,500 people in there, it doesn’t sound like that when the crowd is in full swing. It’s definitely a fun place to play.

“I would consider myself an Essex boy but I wouldn’t say I was up with all the Essex lingo. A few of the youngsters, listening to how they speak and how they carry on, I think it would take me a while to get there.”

Given the speed at which Harmer took to English domestic cricket, he can be forgiven for taking slightly longer to perfect the dialect.

Harmer’s 72 County Championship wickets – taken at a cost of just 19 – in his first season at the club delivered Essex’s first title in 25 years. They didn’t have to wait too long for another, with Harmer contributing 83 wickets as Ryan ten Doeschate’s pipped Somerset to their second crown in just three years in 2019.

In between, Harmer took 57 wickets, bringing his Championship tally to 212 in just three seasons – an astonishing return for a bowler who arrived in England with warnings of unresponsive pitches in the county game ringing in his ears.

“I think I’ve exceeded my own expectations of how things would go, especially with all the talk about spin bowling in England – everyone says it doesn’t turn, it seams and it swings but spinners don’t do well,” he says.

“I’ve really enjoyed my stint so far and, hopefully, long may it continue. I don’t look at other bowlers around the world and say to myself ‘I’m better than them’. But I do look at other bowlers around the world and think, I want to be better than them.

“As a professional sportsman you’re always looking for stuff that drives you, that motivates you. I’m always looking at how I can be better. It’s fine that I’ve taken 80 wickets in a season or 70 wickets in a season but once that’s done it’s a case of what’s next.

“I’m always looking around and trying to find ways of getting better, looking and seeing what other spinners are doing. I don’t look around and say: ‘I’m better than them’, but I do look around for motivation and inspiration.”

It’s that kind of attitude that has turned Harmer into perhaps the world’s premier off-spinner. The great shame, of course, is that no-one can watch him perform on the international stage.

“At Chelmsford, under lights, when it gets to half past eight, nine o’clock, and the lagers start taking effect, it does become quite jovial. The atmosphere can be quite brutal, but I think it’s more tongue in cheek than elsewhere. But when you’ve got 6,500 people in there, it doesn’t sound like that when the crowd is in full swing. It’s definitely a fun place to play.”

Since arriving in England, having agreed to a Kolpak contract with Essex, Harmer has kissed goodbye to the opportunity of adding to his five South African Test caps and his current tally of 20 wickets in the game’s longest format.

He can’t be blamed for looking for the kind of security that a Kolpak contract offered, particularly given that he wasn’t part of South Africa’s plans when he put pen to paper.

There have been plenty of questions swirling around the possibility of him one day playing for England instead. But it’s a question that Harmer understandably handles with a degree of caution – knowing that a straight answer in the affirmative would send hares running, not just in England but back home in South Africa too.

“It’s quite a tricky question and there would be a lot of eyes on the answer,” he says. “There’s just speculation at the moment. There are rumours that the Kolpak thing will fall away at the end of the year which means that that path to England is completely off the table.

“To be brutally honest, my first port of call is to try and naturalise in the UK and buy a property and set my roots down here. I’m not really focused on trying to play for England. Would I like to play international cricket again? Of course I would. The pinnacle of cricket is the international game, but there’s so much uncertainty, so many unanswered questions. I can’t give you a honest answer, but to say that I would want to play international cricket again.”

With that pathway currently shut in South Africa, it’s not outlandish to suggest that that second chance could come with England, although he could be in his mid-30s by the time the opportunity presents itself.

By then the TOWIE inpersonators in the Essex dressing room may have taught Harmer a few more phrases. It’s also perfectly possible that by then, he would have helped add even more silverware the county’s already bulging trophy cabinet.

Something that regulars at the Chelmsford County Ground would no doubt raise a glass to.