Stephen Harmison: The ups and downs of a glorious cricket career

The Ashington Express wanted his final season to end with Durham lifting the County Championship, to not play a single first-team game was not in the script

Durham's Stephen Harmison
Durham's Stephen Harmison

Stephen Harmison’s brilliant cricket career fizzled out yesterday.

The last four years of it have been a major disappointment.

What the Ashington Express wanted more than anything was for his final season to end with Durham lifting the County Championship. To not play a single first-team game in it was not in the script, however.

Since handing him a four-year contract at the end of his England career, Durham have had very little bang for their buck.

If in hindsight it was a bad decision, it was done for the right reasons.

Harmison repaid them with just 19 First-Class matches and 57 wickets.

Whether or not it was mentally difficult going from constantly playing in front of full houses to spare county crowds, Harmison’s body did not co-operate either.

Phil Mustard accidentally broke his arm trying to hit a boundary at the Rose Bowl, a couple of ankle injuries were picked up treading on balls.

Harmison had wanted to give something back to the county – and still does – but was unable.

Durham’s intentions were laudable. They wanted to reward Harmison for a career which helped put them on the cricketing map, and show others who stepped up to international level they would be welcomed back and well looked after when that chapter had run its course.

Harmison took a pay cut in return for a contract which ran to the age of nearly 35.

Still the deal was big enough to have important ramifications for Durham. Next year the wage bill will be slashed from £1.9m to £1.2m a year, so severe are the county’s financial problems. Harmison unwittingly added to them.

It was hardly his fault he accepted their generous offer. Who could blame him for refusing to retire until left with little choice?

Rather than remember the player who ended his time with Ashington RCC in the Northumberland League, the North East should celebrate perhaps the greatest out-and-out fast bowler of his generation. Plenty had more guile, but in the words of former Durham and England team-mate Paul Collingwood, “Teams were literally frightened of” Harmison.

His England career was stop-start under management not fully understanding the depression Harmison was unwilling to talk openly about, until a spell training with Newcastle United in 2003-04 taught him about professionalism.

He went to the West Indies in 2004 and bullied them as their bowlers had so often done to England, taking 7-12 in Jamaica and 67 wickets in 13 Tests that year, topping the world bowling rankings.

Harmison set the tone in the 2005 Ashes. The scar inflicted on Australia captain Ricky Ponting on its opening day was still visible when Michael Vaughan lifted the recaptured urn on its last, a clear reminder Vaughan’s men were not going to be cowed.

In 2009 Harmison returned to win it again. The day they did was his last in an England shirt. He knew that as well as anyone but refused to retire, not wanting the attention. Inconsistency was levelled against him. He bowled seven consecutive wides in the opening game of the 2002-03 Ashes tour and a notorious one to start the first Test in 2006-07. “It gets wider every time they tell the story,” he said ruefully.

But Harmison was most proud of being synonymous with a county he did not even come from. Cricket fans the world over probably think Ashington is in Durham.

He made eight international appearances during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but while England team-mates were “resting” – and, he revealed, pressuring him to do likewise – he took 111 wickets as Durham won back-to-back Championships.

It says much about a globally renowned cricketer that he chose a North East newspaper to announce his retirement.

At least Harmison had the platform of a column in The Journal’s sister paper the Sunday Sun to ensure a decent send-off.

Durham only confirmed the release of three-time Championship winners Callum Thorp and Will Smith in two sentences at the end of a Press release on Friday, 11 days after The Journal confirmed the news, four after Hampshire announced Smith’s signing.

They deserved better.

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