Steve Harmison never quite realised the depth of the gifts that had been bestowed on him. He had height, bounce, movement and pace, most of all pace. When it all worked for him he was as exciting, intimidating and effective as any fast bowler there has been, who knew what putting the frighteners on was all about.
Yet he was beset by doubt, occasionally hamstrung by his own diffidence which the white heat of competition could never quite dissipate. As he confirmed his retirement yesterday in his local Sunday newspaper column he had it right: “I’ve had the utmost highs and the biggest lows, bowled some of the best balls the game’s ever seen and some of the worst.”
Two of those balls, one from each category, will be talked of for as long as the game is played. The first came at Lord’s in the first Test of the 2005 Ashes series.
After a slow beginning to his international career he became a powerful force, if one still prone to introspection and inconsistency. He had burst through to being the biggest in the big time with a ferocious spell at Sabina Park in 2004 when he took seven for 12 and was truly scary.
By the start of the 2005 summer he was the spearhead of England’s aspirations to regain the Ashes after 16 years. In the 11th over of the crucial opening Test, Harmison, coming towards the end of an extremely incisive spell unleashed a rapid bouncer at the Australian captain, Ricky Ponting. Harmison had already declared his and England’s intention with the second ball of the series which reared up to strike Justin Langer a painful blow on the elbow.
But now this ball climbed and clanged into Ponting’s helmet and burst through the grill. Blood was drawn. England meant business, the lines had been drawn and Harmison had drawn them.
His influence on that unforgettable series is too often underplayed. He finished it with 17 wickets but he never let Australia settle. He provided the hostility, which never lost the power to shock, in England’s Fab Four of fast bowlers that summer.
In the next match at Edgbaston, he bowled wonderfully on the third evening, and purveyed an improbable, cunning slower ball to dismiss Michael Clarke and turn the match England’s way. On the Sunday morning, Harmison it was who finally stopped Australia in their tracks with a bouncer which Mike Kasprowicz could only fend behind.
And then came one of the worst balls. In the return Ashes series 18 months later, Harmison was given the new ball at Brisbane. The ground was full, taut with tension. Harmison loped in and the first ball of the series seared a yard past Langer’s bat and ended up in Flintoff’s hands at second slip. It was typical of Harmy, from arch menace to clumsy clown.
He was honest about his shortcomings, never understood them, a pleasure to deal with. There is no point suggesting what he could have done because helping England twice to win the Ashes – he returned for the decisive match at The Oval in 2009, his final Test – was reward aplenty.
For all his international honours he loved nothing more in cricket than playing for Durham and showed sheer joy when they clinched their maiden Championship at Canterbury in 2008 with Harmison instrumental. But what he loved most of all was football. He came from a football family in a football town, Ashington, and played cricket to fill the gap between seasons. If Durham had not become a first-class county he would not have become a cricketer but they did and he did. What a career unfolded.