Older, Wiser And Better – Harmer Returns To The SA Dressing Room

Cricket News By TODAYLIVESCORE.INFO - Older, wiser and better - Harmer returns to the SA dressing room. Harmer is the leading wicket-taker in domestic first-class cricket in South Africa this season.

Older, Wiser And Better – Harmer Returns To The SA Dressing RoomHarmer is the leading wicket-taker in domestic first-class cricket in South Africa this season.

Like everyone, Simon Harmer has made mistakes. Calling yourself “the best off-spinner in the world” can only prompt eye-rolling and unflattering allusions to Right Said Fred's “I'm Too Sexy (For My Shirt)”. Likewise, lamenting the “lack of opportunity” and “zero security” in a society unfairly skewed to give you more than your share of opportunity and security doesn't go down without lumps.

But, considering what Harmer said in media files released by CSA on Monday, you have to hope he has absorbed the lessons of the realities that led to those errors: “Looking back, if you could impart knowledge onto younger players, or my younger self, it would probably be about self-awareness and understanding how certain things work; things that you can control and things that you can't control. It's been a process but I'm a better person for it and I wouldn't change it for anything.”

Another learning was never to stop learning: “My dream was to play for South Africa, and once I'd achieved that I didn't reassess – you've now achieved this goal. What's next? So one thing I've done over the last few years is to make sure I've got goals every year. Some of them might be out of reach, but they're things I aspire to each year and that's helped me a lot.

“It's also about realising that cricket isn't the be-all and end-all. There's a lot more to life. When I made my [Test] debut [against West Indies at Newlands in January 2015] I put so much pressure on myself to perform and to be that person. I was worrying so much about what everybody else thought of me – was I good enough? Now I'm a lot more comfortable in my own skin. I understand what I'm good at and what I'm not so good at; things that I can work on.”

Harmer is putting that into practice by studying towards a law degree – his next assignment is due on Thursday – in his quarantine hotel room in Christchurch, where he is part of the South Africa squad who will play two Tests against New Zealand, starting on February 17. Why law?

“I got myself into trouble when I was about 18 months out of school. I was kind of floating around and didn't know what I wanted to do. My brother's a doctor specialising in radiology. He's always been a really good student. I've always been the black sheep – always enjoyed my sport, never wanted to be in my room doing homework. My mom was a tennis coach. So I always wanted to be outside playing tennis on the tennis court or cricket on the tennis court. I didn't know what I wanted to do in terms of studying, and I got myself into trouble with the law. I found out through that that it's quite an interesting field.

“I've always understood that I've got my time in the sun in terms of my cricket career, and one day that's going to come to an end and the sun's going to set. The corporate world is something I want to move into. I don't necessarily want to be involved with cricket. I want to break away and have a different identity and do something different.” What legal avenue might he pursue? “Tax law is super interesting. There's always loopholes and no-one knows the exact definitions and rules.”

An off-spinner with ambitions to become a tax lawyer sounds like a caricature of someone who is planning to fade into beige middle age deep in middle class mediocrity. But what was that about a prickly brush with the law? Harmer didn't elaborate on the nature of the “trouble” and wasn't asked to do so. Efforts to find out proved fruitless, except for the detail that the incident happened in his hometown of Pretoria before he moved to the Eastern Cape in 2009 to take up a bursary at Nelson Mandela University, where he began his first-class career in November that year.

Not quite 10 years after that, Harmer was quoted shooting from the lip smugly and unhappily, as in paragraph one above. That was almost three years after Essex announced he had signed a one-year Kolpak deal with the county. He blazed a trail of blond ambition in England, taking 72 wickets at 19.19 in 2017 to help newly-promoted Essex claim their first county championship since 1992. A year later, with his contract extended, his 57 wickets at 21.77 wasn't enough to earn another title. But the 83 he claimed – the most by any bowler in both divisions that year – at 18.28 powered Essex to triumph in 2019.

Two days before that success was confirmed, Harmer captained Essex to their first T20 Blast trophy. And lead he did, taking 4/19 in the semi-final and 3/16 in the final. He hammered Worcestershire's Wayne Parnell for consecutive boundaries to clinch the decider, and was named player-of-the-match in both games.

Not bad for an off-spinner who, having taken 20 wickets in five Tests, all of them in 2015, found himself frozen out of South Africa's Test and even A sides. That Dane Piedt and Keshav Maharaj, the spinners who cracked the nod ahead of Harmer, are both brown became fodder for the fable that white players like Harmer aren't treated fairly because of South Africa's racially-based selection policies.

That Piedt earned his elevation for a Test in Harare in August 2014 by taking 55 wickets at 18.52 in the 2013/14 franchise season, when Harmer claimed 40 at 35.72, isn't often acknowledged. Harmer would have had a better argument about being overlooked in favour of Maharaj for the series in Australia in November 2016. In 2015/16, Maharaj bowled 409 overs for the Dolphins to take 36 at 32.00. Harmer had 31 at 22.41, and in 282 overs: just more than two-thirds' Maharaj's total. But Piedt, who took 39 at 22.33 in 261 overs that season, was also not in the squad.

As for the widespread bleating about CSA's target of at least six black and brown players, a minimum of three of them black, in every South Africa XI, that leaves five places uncategorised. So whites, who make up less than 10% of South Africa's population and have access to the best facilities and coaching, are able to compete untrammelled for almost half the number of spots in the national team. Thus they have been gifted close to 40% more berths than they represent demographically. In a country where exponentially more black and brown people play and follow cricket than whites, that is overly generous affirmative action.

But numbers don't play and follow cricket. People do. And all of them, at least some of the time, let wrongheaded ideas cloud their thinking. Kolpak allowed some of those ideas to fester and swell. Like the anger and resentment that dogged players who followed that path because it precluded them from playing international cricket. That was unfair, because the stipulation was made not by the players but by the counties. So shout at Essex, not Harmer. Yes, he agreed to play under those terms. Why not? This is about professionalism, not patriotism.

Besides, Kolpak did much for the careers of players like Harmer. Who's to say he would have become the fine cricketer he is, and the more mature man he has grown into, were it not for the superior and better resourced coaching and support structures available to him in England? Conversely, would Alastair Cook have become Alastair Cook had he been born in and remained in South Africa? South Africa and England compete as equals at international level, but England's cricket industry towers over South Africa's in every sense.

At the end of 2020 the Kolpak door banged shut and was locked, and the key was thrown away. If Harmer, Duanne Olivier, Kyle Abbott and the like wanted to keep playing cricket for a living, they had to return to the scene of their uncertainty to confront their own fragility. Parnell, Olivier and Harmer have since been picked for South Africa.

“One thing I've come to realise getting older as a cricketer is that things change and happen very quickly,” Harmer said. “One day you could be sitting extremely frustrated and not knowing where you are, and very quickly you could be back into a professional or an international environment.”

But not necessarily play in that environment. Harmer is the leading wicket-taker in domestic first-class cricket in South Africa this season, with 35 at 19.45 in six matches. Even so, he knows he is in Christchurch because George Linde is preparing for his wedding and Prenelan Subrayen has a groin injury. He also knows he is unlikely to be chosen over Maharaj.

“This opportunity has arisen because things have happened, but that's how sport works,” Harmer said. “I'm under no illusion as to why I'm here and how I got the opportunity. But I am here now. I've got to try and show people what I'm about, what my brand is about. It's been a long time since I was involved in the set-up and I think I've matured a lot. I understand what I need to do and how I need to go about it.

“Hagley Oval is probably the greenest, quickest, bounciest wicket in New Zealand. So the chances of us playing two spinners are very low. ‘Kesh' has done extremely well in his international career so far. I'm always going to be a supporting act to him. For this tour, it's about working hard and supporting the guys who will be playing, and adding value where I can – music in the changeroom, throwing balls, pushing guys to be better.”

Mistakes he has made, lessons he has learnt, and growth he has had. But Harmer cannot be accused of doing an Olivier – who had his original Test cap put in a glass frame after he thought his international career was over when he went Kolpak for Yorkshire in February 2019. Only to be selected for the series against India in December and January. He had to be presented with a new cap.

Where is Harmer's cap? “It's in my bag, here in the room. I've got all my caps that I've played in right through age-group cricket. My brother and I have this pact that, one day, if everything goes according to plan, we'll have a beach house. And the bar in that beach house is where all the memorabilia will go. All my South African stuff is in the bag that I was given when I made my debut. I wasn't sure it would see the light of day again. Fortunately it has. It was sitting in Kenton-on-Sea [in the Eastern Cape]. I got my mother-in-law to post it up to me in Pretoria, and it's made the trip over to New Zealand.”

If that isn't enough to convince you that Harmer didn't throw away his South Africaness when he went to play for Essex, or betray anyone or anything, or blaspheme against an unwritten code of how players should conduct themselves, he also said: “I don't know whether every cricketer feels this way, but there's something special about getting your new kit for the season; whether it's for your domestic team or county team or, like this, getting an international call-up. Things have changed since I last played. Now you get your name and number on the back of your shirt.

“That cliche about feeling like a kid at Christmas, that's exactly how it is. You're opening up this bag, you don't know what's going to be in it, you see all this kit – your playing shirts, the warm-up kit. The South African badge is on it. It's a really special and exciting time to get that kit and pack it all into a bag and get ready for an overseas trip.”

And so we leave the kid who hated being stuck inside now alone in a room and marooned under several layers of quarantine regulations, finishing a university assignment due on his 33rd birthday. How will the South Africans smuggle a cake into a stifling space where, Harmer said, “pre-ordered meals arrive in a brown bag”? How will Harmer light 33 candles indoors in health-and-safety obsessed New Zealand, where there seem to be more smoke detectors than sheep?

Happily, questions like those are not of the dire sort Harmer has likely pondered in recent years. And to which, it seems, he has found satisfying enough answers. Or at least earned the chance to show he has fixed his mistakes and to remind us of those made against him.

Welcome back, young man. Merry Christmas for the other day and happy birthday for Thursday. Please stay out of trouble.

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