Home-loving boy who could be a real man of the world

The Interview - Steve Harmison: His country needs him, but the question is just how much he wants to play for his country. Stephen Brenkley meets the Durham enigma
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The Independent Online

Steve Harmison took his usual seat at St James' Park the other night and then went home to Ashington. These are probably his favourite places in the whole world, and the suspicion is that he would like to pack them in his kitbag and take them with him everywhere. Or, better still, never leave them.

Harmison is the great hope of English fast bowling, who has not yet realised his full potential and may never lose a reputation for being a reluctant international cricketer. On the day that he went to watch Newcastle United play Leeds United he had also been selected for England's tour of the West Indies. Of the two, the Magpies' 1-0 win might have made him happiest.

There had been unfounded rumours that Harmison might not make the second England squad of the winter, either through suspect fitness, or an aversion to being away from home that had proved too much for the management and his colleagues to tolerate. He himself thought that the odds were 60-40 on his selection, but by his own admission he would have been disappointed rather than devastated if he had not been chosen.

It is Harmison's misfortune that since he was first picked in an England squad in 2000 (though he did not actually play until two years later) he has attracted as much attention for his attitude to the job as his thrilling, raw pace. He could hardly fail to be aware of this, grudgingly he accepts it.

"It's something that's always been there," he said. "It's always when I go away, I hate being away. On any trip, for the first 10 days I'm unbearable and pretty useless to be with. When the cricket starts and I have got that for seven hours a day I am fine, but the days before can feel empty. I will even play golf to take my mind off it, and that's not something I do at home."

It is, it would seem, difficult to take the boy out of Ashington. He was born there, and still lives there; his dad, Jimmy, is assistant manager of the town's Northern League football team. Harmison will never leave Ashington. It is simply home, and everything he needs and wants is there.

He was married and became a father at 20. "My family comes before everything else," he said. "It is my family who will decide when I stop playing cricket. I'm from Ashington, and I see no reason to leave. My mates are the mates I have always had. They don't see me or treat me any differently, and that's what I like."

It is a small measure of his lack of side and unchanged character that he would never dream of contacting sponsors or club for tickets to Newcastle's home matches. He pays for his own season ticket. Fellow fans often point him out on the way to the ground. "A local mate of mine who plays football in America now and was back over recently didn't know it would be like that." Temperamentally, he is not cut out for the globetrotting that being a cricketer demands. Indeed, he has to make the best of a bad job. His longest tour to date was in Australia last winter. By and large, he acquitted himself well. He advanced his promise and he was invariably courteous and approachable.

He got by on that tour partly because of his friendships with John Crawley and Robert Key - his other big cricketing pal, Andrew Flintoff, was back home for a long stretch - but he would not deny that there was always something missing. When his family arrived and he was seen in the streets of Adelaide carrying his daughter, Emily, on his shoulders, it was as though a weight had been lifted from them.

Lately, of course, he has had plenty of time in Ashington, at St James' and at the National Academy in Loughborough. He has not been on tour with England. In October, he took nine wickets in the First Test victory against Bangladesh. The opposition were second-rate, but Harmison looked like the leader of the England attack. Then he came home because of a back injury and never returned either to Bangladesh or the Sri Lankan leg of the tour which followed. Some senior players have had plenty to say on the subject privately.

In the event, they might have been speaking out of turn. Although they were frustrated, Harmison had disc trouble from which he did not fully recover until three weeks ago. Still, you wonder if his pal, Freddie Flintoff, had been in Bangladesh, it might, just might, have made a difference. "I liked having Keysie about in Australia and Freddie when he came out. They pick you up," he said.

Harmison has nothing but good things to say about those who have helped his career to progress, those who have invested their faith in him, such as the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, and the director of the National Academy, Rod Marsh. "Grav had a chat with me about what he wanted from me and how he wanted me to go about it, but it wasn't an ultimatum. I've always got on well with Rod from the moment I went to the Academy in Adelaide. I think he saw I was willing to work hard, but I like the fact that if you are acting like a twat he'll tell you."

We still do not know whether we have in Harmison a special fast bowler who will not only frighten the opposition but also bowl them out, or somebody who can bowl fast but far too waywardly for it to matter. The heaviest, most welcome, clue came not in Dhaka in October but at The Oval in September. He was instrumental in bowling out South Africa in the second innings (4 for 33) and turned the match. He had also kept faithful company with Flintoff, his friend, take note, while the pair put on 99 for the ninth wicket, of which Harmison's share was three.

"I don't feel I have disgraced myself playing for England," he said. "My first run of matches was against Australia, and I began to find my feet. Playing against the best side in the world was a stepping stone. But it was The Oval that showed me what I could do and how I could learn. Martin Bicknell was fantastic in that match. Just to listen to him talk about gameplans and setting up batsmen was a lesson I'll never forget.

"That is the sort of experience from which I can learn. I would have liked to have seen Andrew Caddick in the party for the West Indies for that reason. The last Test match we played against Australia was at Sydney and we won. Caddick took 10 wickets, and for my money he was man of the match. He didn't get it but I think he should have."

If Harmison is sometimes wary, it is probably because he is unsure of himself and still has not come to terms with the fuss. Conversely, he has a healthy opinion of his talent. "I know that I've made mistakes and that I can be my own worst enemy," he said. "I am my own biggest critic. I know I will always have a reputation for waywardness, I'll just have to put up with it. In Australia last year in the one-dayers I couldn't stop bowling wides. There were no excuses, but I didn't think it was particularly a technical thing. I don't want to make excuses, I was just knackered.

"After I came home from Australia for three days, which turned into five after my flight was delayed, things were different. I went to South Africa for the World Cup, played in a warm-up game and bowled only one wide, which was for height. But I didn't get another go and I maybe can't blame them."

Harmison thinks he will be able to manage his injuries better in future. Three years ago he suffered from shin splints, and is now aware when they might be about to recur and can take evasive action. A similar strategy will apply to his back. In Bangladesh, a stiff back led to something more pronounced. He will recognise the signs now.

He is a loyal man who needs to trust people before responding. In mentioning coaches he paid tribute to the England bowling coach, Troy Cooley, who is a technical expert. "He has helped my body to be in a straighter line when I let go of the ball so there's more chance of the ball being in a straighter line. But the thing is he's a good bloke, and if somebody's a good bloke there's more likelihood that you'll listen."

At 25, Harmison is entering his best years and he has the equipment to lead England's attack. It is still possible to wonder about his confidence. "I feel as though I'm getting better, and after 12 matches I know what it takes to play Test cricket," he said. "I am learning about the game."

Apart from bowling fast, he may need his body language to be a touch more aggressive. Not Glenn McGrath exactly, but enough to let the batsmen know that they are not his pals. "This has been pointed out to me before, but I can't see the point of spouting verbals. It's not me."

It is up to him whether he has the will to go to the next stage. He probably does, but it is not straightforward. And he will always be waiting, aching to go back home.

Biography: Stephen James Harmison

Born: 23 October 1978 in Ashington.

A family game: brothers James (22) and Ben (28) play for Northumberland.

Represents: Durham and England.

Test career: 12 matches, debut v India at Nottingham 2002. Bowling: 41 wickets at average of 29.63 each (best 5 for 35). Batting: 90 runs at 6.42 (highest score 20no). One catch.

One-day Internationals: six matches, debut v Sri Lanka at Brisbane, 2002-03. Bowling: Five wickets at 49.20 each, economy rate 5.90. Three catches.

In a nutshell: blessed with good natural pace and owning a high action, but injuries have curtailed his progress. Toured South Africa with England A in 1998-99.