The Kolpak era is over but Simon Harmer is still part of the show. The leading spinner in the county game speaks to Taha Hashim ahead of his first season for Essex as an overseas player.
We’re speaking just under two weeks before the County Championship kicks off but Simon Harmer isn’t totally ready just yet. “I feel fit and strong,” says the Essex off-spinner, “but I definitely think I’m undercooked on skills at this current point in time.”
Having played a couple of T20 games for the Titans in South Africa last month, the 32-year-old’s stint in his homeland was cut short by the ongoing complications of travelling overseas. “The idea was that I was going to play a bit of four-day cricket as well,” he says while quarantining upon his return to the UK. “But that didn’t really work out with needing to get back to the UK and the length of time it would take for me to get back in the system. I’d hoped to play till about mid-March, which would have given me two four-day games – and if I’d then had a two-week period of not playing any cricket, I would’ve been quite happy with it. But with only playing two T20 games and it now being towards the end of March, it just means I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
And yet, Harmer will probably rock up at Chelmsford for the season opener against Worcestershire in the second week of April, wrap his fingers over the seam, rip a few offies through the gate and play his part in yet another Essex win. That’s just what he does nowadays.
Since joining Essex on a Kolpak deal ahead of the 2017 season, the man from Pretoria has taken 255 first-class wickets for the county in just 50 matches at a downright silly average of 19.55. In 2019 he topped the wicket-taking charts in Division One and last year he repeated the trick in the Bob Willis Trophy. Essex have claimed three red-ball titles since his arrival and he was skipper – and at the crease – when they won the T20 Blast back in 2019. Life in the shires looks an easy gig for him. Does it feel that way?
“I do feel incredibly comfortable when I walk on the field, but it’s always a challenge. It’s not just a button that you push and everything happens for you. It’s a constant process that you need to be working on, constant adjustments to my bowling action, little things. Bowling long spells, you start to get lazy in some aspects and then you need to go back and re-drill those. I definitely find it a challenge every time I walk on the field, but I’m incredibly comfortable with my skill and what I want to do with the ball.”
Still, Harmer has clearly hankered for bigger challenges. In 2019, four years on from the last of his five Tests for South Africa, the frustrations of his ceiling as a Kolpak player were clear when speaking to Wisden Cricket Monthly. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m the best off-spinner in the world,” he said. “But how can I say that when I’m not competing against the best batters in the world?…That’s who I want to be, but I can’t truly say that until I’ve played 60 Tests.”
Beyond the possibility of unfulfilled promise, another issue lurking in the background was what the UK’s exit from the European Union would mean for his future. Yet even with the end of Kolpak registrations, Essex have kept their star man by switching him to the status of an overseas player. Truthfully, why would they have ever let him go?
“It’s something I discussed with the club at least a year, about 18 months, before Brexit happened,” Harmer says. “We started the chat that, ‘Look, worst-case scenario if the Kolpak ruling does fall away, is the club happy for me to move from a Kolpak plan to an overseas plan?’ They were happy to commit to that. There was never any worry about me losing my contract.”
Technically, the opportunity is now there for Harmer to resume his international career back home. Upon signing a T20 deal for the Titans earlier this year, he made his ambitions clear: “I am always looking to be better, and I’ve still got aspirations to play for South Africa,” he said. Yet a potential comeback would still throw up some complications. “The intention has always been that I’ve wanted to play international cricket, but unfortunately it’s not as simple a decision as it might seem.
“There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of wheels in motion. I need to understand that I’m employed by Essex on a 12-month contract and playing international cricket would change that dynamic. It would leave a gap for them to fill for four, six, eight, 12 weeks in a season and that potentially wouldn’t align with where the club wants to be. I think there are a lot of decisions that need to be made. Of course I want to play international cricket but I think there’s got to be some common ground, or some commitment before I look to pursue that again. It’s a difficult question but I’m just of the mindset that I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. I’m here and looking forward to the season ahead with Essex and whatever’s on the horizon I’ll get to eventually, but for now my focus is the beginning of the season ahead with Essex.”
Back to Chelmsford it is, where the trophies just keep on stacking up. “I think Essex have got what money can’t buy,” says Harmer. “The togetherness and camaraderie in the changing room – it’s really just a bunch of mates who come together a few times a week to play cricket. And I think that goes a long way to getting guys to be at their best, to enjoy what they do, and, in my eyes, I think it shows in how the team’s performed over the last four years.
“When a guy like Dan Lawrence gets called up, there’s no envy. It’s just pure and utter happiness that one of your mates has taken a step to the next level.”
There’s little talk of forming legacies in the changing room, according to Harmer, though he isn’t afraid to talk up his own individual impact on the English game. “I think when I first came over in 2017, the talk was that the wickets don’t spin in England in April, spinners don’t play a big role, [they do a] holding job, etc. But over four years, I think I’ve opened some people’s eyes and made them realise that actually, in four-day cricket it is important to have a spinner who can bowl from one end and hold the game or take wickets and attack. Because the wickets in England do spin. Jeets [Jeetan Patel] has shown that. I think I’ve shown that at Chelmsford. The wickets turn, so you need a spinner.”
And are there any budding talents in county cricket who have really impressed him? “I worked with a young spinner, Jack Carson, at Sussex. I think he’s an exciting talent. As a spinner you can either turn the ball or you can’t. And he’s got what you need. Amar Virdi as well. I can’t understand why he hasn’t done better than he has because in my eyes he’s got an incredible amount of talent and skill when it comes to off-spin bowling. Maybe he just hasn’t unlocked what he needs, to take that next step in his career. But those are two young spinners in my eyes that definitely have a bright future.”
As for how English cricket can develop the capabilities of batsmen facing spin – an issue brought into sharp focus in the aftermath of England’s recent 3-1 Test series defeat to India – Harmer believes the answers aren’t going to be found at home.
“I think there is a way [for English batsmen to develop against spin], but I don’t think that solution lies in England or in county cricket. If you want to be a good player of spin, look at Tom Westley, in my opinion, one of the better players of spin in county cricket. He went and played a first-class season in Sri Lanka. That’s what you need to do. You need to go and play in those conditions. You can’t go down to nets that are green and practise spin bowling. Yes, it’s going to help to a certain extent, but you need to think out of the box.
“If you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done. It boils down to how badly do you want to be better, how badly do you want to be the best. If you do, then you’ll put steps into place that will take your game to the next level. If you can’t play spin, go to India and work with someone there or go to Sri Lanka. There are solutions, but it’s just how badly do people want it.”
For now, the sternest examination of spin in England will come from the right arm of Harmer. Ready or not, he remains county cricket’s leading man.
Subscribe to the Wisden Cricket YouTube channel for post-match awards, player interviews, analysis and much more.