Steve Harmison: Home is where the Harmison is

In a rare interview, the England fast bowler talks about missing his family and taking on the Aussies

When I arrived at Durham's spanking new indoor cricket school in Chester-le-Street Stephen Harmison was just warming up. The 26-year-old had only bowled a couple of looseners, and was some way away from unleashing the 95mph thunderbolts that give international batsmen sleepless nights, when he asked that the aspiring youth team player facing him be replaced with his 19-year-old brother Ben.

When I arrived at Durham's spanking new indoor cricket school in Chester-le-Street Stephen Harmison was just warming up. The 26-year-old had only bowled a couple of looseners, and was some way away from unleashing the 95mph thunderbolts that give international batsmen sleepless nights, when he asked that the aspiring youth team player facing him be replaced with his 19-year-old brother Ben.

"Why?" the England bowling coach, Troy Cooley, asked inquisitively.

"Because I don't mind if I hit him," came the blunt reply.

Stephen struck Ben a painful blow on the arm at an earlier net, but this did not to perturb the left-hander who represented England at under-19 level during the winter. Ben was putting his pads on when I informed him of his brother's comments.

"He's got to be careful," Ben smiled. "Because if he isn't, I'll set me mam on him."

Needless to say, Stephen did not hold back against his sibling and Harmison Jnr was forced to take evasive action against a couple of deliveries that whistled past his nose and thudded into the back netting. But Ben came through the 30-minute session, (and another one after lunch) unscathed, so Stephen escaped a rollocking from his mam.

It would be disparaging to the other 10 members of Michael Vaughan's side to suggest that England's chances of winning the Ashes this summer rest solely on the broad shoulders of Stephen Harmison. England have shown in the last 12 months that they have several cricketers who are capable of changing the course of Test matches. At the same time it is difficult to see the hosts bowling out Australia's imposing batting line-up cheaply without their spearhead firing as he did during most of 2004.

With his confidence high and bowling action ticking like a Rolex Harmison is a fearsome proposition. He can bowl with breathtaking pace and extract steep bounce from the most benign of pitches. Batting against him becomes a nightmare. It is not only your wicket that you are trying to keep intact. Ribs, fingers, arms, head, the family jewels - they all feel as vulnerable as the three stumps a yard behind you.

In 2004, in 11 Test matches against the West Indies and New Zealand, he was almost unplayable, taking a memorable 7 for 12 in Kingston as Brian Lara's brittle side were skittled for 47. The Kiwis were treated in similar style and Harmison ended the summer having taken 61 wickets at an average of 21.44.

On England's winter tour of South Africa, however, the radar went haywire and his nine wickets cost him 73 runs a piece.

The cricket season got under way this week, and for most lovers of the sport the focus is already on the Ashes. For them the most tantalising question concerns which Stephen Harmison will turn up at Lord's to take on the Aussies on 21 July.

"I have sat down and thought about what went wrong in South Africa, but I am not going to beat myself up about it," Harmison says, relaxing with a pint at his local watering hole. "I know I didn't bowl very well during the winter but I don't feel I bowled as badly as some people have said.

"You can look at the winter and say I only took nine wickets, but if a couple of catches had been taken, and I had got my tail up again, I would have walked off on a couple of occasions with 3 for 45. And this would have allowed me to go into the next Test match with my confidence high.

"I also had a niggle in my calf during the final two Test matches. But I don't want to make excuses. I was fit enough to take the field, so I was fit enough to take wickets.

"The South African batsmen played me very well, especially Jacques Kallis who I bowled at a lot. He appeared quite happy to see me off and take my 100 balls out of a day's play.

"But I don't think the Aussies will do that this summer. I cannot see Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden consistently letting balls go a foot over off stump. The West Indies didn't and it was 'happy days'. Obviously the Aussies are better players, and if you put the ball in the right area six times out of six against them you might get hit for a couple of fours, but it will also take wickets.

"I have to make sure that if they hit a good ball for four I don't get too hyped up. I have to concentrate on getting the next ball in the right area."

Australia's batsmen are likely to target Harmison. Graeme Smith, the South African captain, questioned his mental strength before the winter series, and Ponting is sure to instruct his batsmen to get after the England star, in an attempt to undermine his confidence.

Opposing captains will look at Harmison and believe he is something of a soft touch, chiefly because of his problems with homesickness, a disorder he makes no attempt to hide.

How much Harmison misses being at home with his wife and two young daughters struck me on the night England clinched the Test series in South Africa. At the conclusion of the fifth Test he was sent to hospital to have a further scan on his injured calf. Andrew Flintoff and Robert Key - his two best mates - were returning to England and Harmison was hoping the scan would reveal an injury that allowed him to join them. It didn't, and he had no option but to stay for the seven one-dayers which followed.

While his team-mates celebrated Harmison just stood at the hotel bar with a face like thunder. Mischievously, and knowing he was staying, Flintoff and I sarcastically congratulated him passing his fitness test. He was not amused. I will not repeat what the big-fella said but it was along the lines of: "Go away you two or I will be forced to thump you very hard." Harmison had no intention of carrying out his threat but he was close to tears.

"I will never overcome it because I never really want to be away," he tells me. "It would be brilliant if I could sort it out but I know this is never going to be the case." Harmison does not enjoy being away from his family, but admits it is more complicated than that. The real problem appears to be leaving English shores: the pains in his stomach, and the lump in his throat, do not appear when he is travelling around England.

"I went away with the missus and kids to Paris a couple of weeks ago for four days," he says by way of explanation. "I was surrounded by the three people that mean the most to me. It wasn't as bad as it often is, but I still had the jitters whilst I was there. I must be allergic to me passport."

Harmison is a doting father, and watching him at home playing with his children it was difficult to comprehend the type of fear he can put into grown men when he has a small red leather object in his right hand.

"We spend one hell of a lot of time away during the summer," he said. "During the one-dayers last year we spent five weeks on the road and I never felt a thing.

"I am not the only player who struggles. I mean we spend seven or eight months away from home each year, living with each other, and it is tough. You watch the Bowyer-Dyer thing the other weekend, and we haven't come close to that in the England side, but you can understand why it happens."

Harmison is already facing up to the fact that his homesickness may cut short an outstanding career. "I cannot see myself playing for England when I am in my mid-thirties," he says. "I have a family. I have kids that need me around and they will dictate the decisions I make on my career. My family have always been 100 per cent behind me and it is they who pick up the pieces when things are not going quite right. My international career will finish when my family needs me to be around a bit more."

"Even now I cannot see myself playing a lot of one-day cricket after the 2007 World Cup. It is something I desperately want to play in but, even forgetting the homesickness, the workload will eventually become too much and I just cannot see my body coping with it."

Having spent more than a decade in and around the England team I know that very few of us are prepared to make such admissions in public because it will be viewed by opponents as a sign of weakness. But the fact that Harmison openly admits to missing his wife, Hayley, and his two lovely daughters Emily (5) and Abbie (3) is refreshing.

Harmison is a simple man who enjoys the simple things in life. He has an enviable talent, but success has not gone to his head and he has no ego. Playing for England will earn him more than £250,000 a year but his detached home sits neatly among the terraced houses of Ashington. In a world where we often over-inflate the importance of sporting events, and watch our stars behaving like idiots off the field, it is reassuring to see a sportsman who would rather have a pint with his father at his local than pose around the flash bars of Newcastle with hangers-on.

It would be wrong for me to condemn Ashington, after spending only five or six hours in the town, but it is fair to say there are areas of England with greater magnetism. Driving in on the A189 the occasional glimpse of a big wheel reminds you that this was once a thriving mining area. But it is power stations, and the network of electricity cables, that now dominate the skyline.

Signposts direct you to collieries but these days it is tourism, and not coal, that attracts people through the gates. Almost 5,500 worked at Ashington colliery in the 1920s but following its closure in October 1986 the retail, business and industrial parks provide the town with today's employment.

On the outskirts of Ashington sits the local football club, which is managed by Stephen's father Jimmy. And not to be left out, James, Harmison's other brother plays non-league football for Bedlington Terriers.

On the face of it there is little in the town to suggest that this is a cricketing hotbed. But then, on the corner of Woodhorn Road, I found a pub called the Rohan Kanhai. It is named after the former West Indian captain who played for Ashington CC in the mid 60s. However, even there the only pictures are of Jackie Milburn and the Charlton brothers. The local hero has a few more wickets to take before he enters their league, though the arrival of the Australians in June offers him a window of opportunity.

"The Ashes is the ultimate," he says. "It's far bigger than the World Cup for me. I have taken wickets against good sides and helped England to success in the last year, but I have only taken nine wickets against Australia and they have cost 50 runs each. I want that to improve and I believe if I can get it to in a major way we can win the Ashes.

"We cannot afford to play as we did in South Africa or we will lose. Australia are a magnificent side and if we are to win the Ashes all 11 of us have to perform. When we beat them in the ICC Champions' Trophy we were confident and we went for it and this is how we have to approach the summer."

Harmison intends using Durham's early season games, along with England's two Test matches against Bangladesh, as a platform from which to launch an assault on Ponting's side. Durham's opponents include Lancashire and Yorkshire, when he will be bowling against Flintoff and Vaughan. I asked him whether he would cut down his pace to avoid risking injury.

"Will I shit," he said. "Obviously I would be disappointed if I broke a finger but there is no way in the world either of these two can walk out with a cap on and think they can get on the front foot to me."

Harmison received a boost from an unexpected source before he had bowled a competitive ball this season when the Australian fast bowler, Glenn McGrath, stated that his bowling would be the key to the Ashes.

"When someone like him says something like that about you it is nice," he said with a smile on his face. "When I was young he was a hero of mine and what he said did give me a little bit of a lift. A comment like that helps me to believe that I am as good as what people are saying. He is a wonderful professional and a smashing bloke off the field. I have been lucky to have two or three chats with him."

I asked Harmison whether McGrath had passed on any tips.

"Not really," he said. "We just chatted about bowling in general. But through talking to him you get an idea of his attitude towards bowling. He has a presence about him. His voice carries and he stands out. It's a bit like Alan Shearer at Newcastle. When I was training with them he had the same aura about him.

"McGrath is a great. Hell, he has 500 Test wickets to his name. I would love 400. I have been through a bad patch but I know for a fact that I can get through it and go on. I have 111 Test wickets at the minute and my aim is take more wickets for England than any other bowler. I would like to be considered as one of England's best bowlers when I finish my career. But there is a long way to go and a lot of cricket to be played, starting with the Aussies in July."

Testing times: The Ups and Downs of Steve Harmison

DOWN: 2002-3 v Australia

Selected to tour Australia after taking five wickets on his Test debut. In the opening match in Perth he bowled seven consecutive wides, and on his return for the third Test he lost his run-up.

UP: 2003 v South Africa

Left out of the fourth Test, which was lost, and recalled for the fifth at The Oval, where he helped secure a win with four second-innings wickets. In the winter he took nine against Bangladesh.

DOWN: 2003 v Bangladesh

Pulled out of the second Test against Bangladesh with a back injury and returned home. The same ailment prevented him touring Sri Lanka, prompting questions about his commitment.

UP: 2004 v West Indies

Produced one of the most devastating spells of fast bowling with 7 for 12 as the West Indies were bowled out for 47 in Kingston. By the end of the season he was ranked the world's best bowler.

DOWN: 2004-5 v South Africa

England supporters expected further fireworks but he lost form and confidence. In five Tests he took just nine wickets and returned home with his reputation once again being questioned.

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