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Exclusive Interview : “Jadeja Was More Difficult To Face Than Ashwin”, Says Simon Harmer

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Simon Harmer has taken 20 wickets from 5 Tests For South Africa. (Image Courtesy : Associated Press)

Indeed, a sportsman’s career is best characterized by the juxtaposition of the balmy days of summer and blustery lashing of winter. After making an impressive debut for the South African Test team three years ago, it appeared Simon Ross Harmer would end South Africa’s long hunt for a quality Test  off-spinner. But the 27-year old all-rounder was dropped from the Test squad immediately after the Indian debacle in 2015/16 that saw hosts India dismantle then-reigning emperors South Africa  from the throne of Test cricket. Despite boasting a modest Test record which comprises of 20 wickets from 5 Tests played across South Africa, Bangladesh and India, Harmer was snubbed by the CSA selection committee when the Test squad to tour Australia was named in late October.Not one to get bogged down during such torrid times, Harmer has taken his exclusion from the national side as an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and get his act together with a view to force his comeback into the South African dressing room.

Fortune however decided to smile warmly on the Pretoria-born cricketer after he was handed over the captaincy of the First-class side of South African franchise Warriors following Colin Ingram’s decision to step down from his post owing to a knee-injury a month ago. Harmer will also be seen plying his trade in the English  county circuit with Essex CCC next year, having signed a one-year Kolpak deal with the club. An aggressive off-spinner in nature, Harmer has scalped 301 wickets @ 32.90 besides scoring 2571 runs at an average of 25.96 from 81 First-class matches.

In a wide ranging conversation with Cricfit correspondent Ritam Basu, the recently appointed Warriors captain looks back on his acquaintance with the sport and talks about his unfulfilled academic ambitions, earning the much-coveted South African Test cap, the lessons he learnt from the 2015 tour of India, his plans of staking his claim as an effective limited-overs all-rounder, the feeling of being discarded from the Test team, the dominance of his compatriots down under and his forthcoming stint with Essex CCC.

Q: How did cricket begin for you?

Harmer: I started playing the game at a very young age, probably when I was three years old. I used to play with my brother in our garden back then.

Q: Was there any role model who inspired you to become a cricketer?

Harmer: I loved watching Shane Warne, Andrew Flintoff and Greame Swann. I think these are the players who inspired me to take up cricket and be a better cricketer.

Q: Did your family members support your decision to choose cricket as a profession? Did you face any hurdle in the process of reaching your goal?

Harmer: They did support my decision to choose cricket but they obviously wanted me to get a degree under my name before I completely chose to go the route of being a cricketer, which I think was a wise decision. I enrolled myself in B.Com (Law) at NMMU in Port Elizabeth which I haven’t yet completed as cricket took the driver’s seat and I didn’t get enough time to finish my course. I don’t know if you could call it a hurdle but it was a challenge to live away from home and come down to Port Elizabeth where I knew absolutely nobody. I had to start my life from scratch but in hindsight, it was one of the best things that could have happened to me.

Q: You studied at the Pretoria Boys High School; the same institution which has also produced Eddie Barlow. Did you hear stories about his greatness during your childhood?

Harmer: When I was at school, we heard a lot about the cricketers who had come through the ranks, Eddie Barlow being one of them. He set a lot of records at the school level and most of us knew about those. Then there were also the likes of Maurice Aronstam and Johann Myburgh who played there. They are more from my generation and we used to follow their progress while they were playing for the Titans.

Q: You have now grown into an all-rounder but you started off your career as an off-spinner. How did you develop an inclination for batting?

Harmer: I actually started as a seam-bowler and took to bowling spin only after I was fifteen (years old). During the initial days, I was primarily a seam-bowler who could bat a bit. I have always enjoyed my batting and it’s something I take very seriously. I love scoring runs which is a big motivation in itself.

Q: You have gradually risen through the ranks. You made your debut for the provincial Eastern province before being promoted to play franchise-cricket for the Warriors. In spite of hailing from the Highveld, why did you opt to move to the Eastern province?

Harmer: See, there are a lot of cricketers who get lost in the system. The way things are structured in Pretoria…. for example, people live at home and generally don’t move out of Pretoria to pursue their ambitions. I wanted to pursue a career in cricket and felt the best way I could do that was by moving down to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Province. There was Shafiek Abrahams, the national spinning coordinator at that time (in 2008/09) who was coaching at the varsity, and then there was also the EP (Eastern Province) Academy which is being run by Piet Botha. He was also the Eastern Province Amateur coach, so it made sense for me to wander over to Port Elizabeth.

Q: In the 2011/12 First Class season, you topped the domestic bowling charts by bagging 44 wickets @ 31.75 for the Warriors. Did you embark on that season with any different plan/mind-set?

Harmer: Not at all. I was extremely happy to be playing franchise-cricket and wanted to contribute to the team’s cause as much as I could. So I only wanted to bowl long spells and take wickets.

Q: Despite having a fruitful domestic season in 2011/12, you were snubbed for a place in the senior South African team due to the presence of a couple of senior players in Paul Harris and Imran Tahir. Do you rue your exclusion from the team back then?

Harmer: No, my philosophy has always been that everything happens for a good reason. I reckon had I been picked at that point in time, it could have  turned out to be a premature selection. Hence, I wasn’t disappointed by my exclusion.

Q: Has the South African team management always shown more favourable attitude towards pacers than spinners?

Harmer: The wickets in South Africa generally tend to suit pace bowlers and all the South African teams of the past two decades have had seam-oriented attacks. Things have started to change in the last few years though. There are plenty of spinners who are involved in the system and there’s a lot more competition among them today, as opposed to what it was like say even seven or eight years ago.

Q: There has been a sort of tussle between you and Dane Piedt for the off-spinners slot in the South African Test squad over the last couple of years. Piedt got his international break a year before you received your Test cap. Do you enjoy competing with him?

Harmer: I think a bit of healthy competition is always good as it pushes you to be a better version of yourself. I enjoy that sort of healthy competition.

Q: You have a slightly round-arm action. Does that help you extract more spin?

Harmer: I think I have got an orthodox off-spinner’s action. The most important aspects of off-spin are the release point and the wrist position. These two things help an off-spinner generate turn and drift.

Q: Lets now discuss your Test debut. You received your Test cap from Michael Holding. We dont see a former player handing over the Test cap to a debutant from the opposition too often. How was the feeling?

Harmer: I felt privileged to receive my Test cap from a man like Michael Holding who was an exceptional player himself during his career for the West Indies. I don’t think South Africa has the tradition of flying in an ex-player to hand out the Test cap to a debutant when the team is touring abroad unlike Australia.

Q: What was the transition from the domestic level to the international level like?

Harmer: The only thing that changed for me (upon stepping up to international cricket) was that the grandstands got fuller, with support from a large section of the public. At the international level, your performances and bowling action are always being scrutinised by the commentators and the Television experts. Obviously at this level, people are always on the lookout to point out your mistakes.

(Image Courtesy : AFP)
Harmer celebrates a wicket with his South African teammates. (Image Courtesy : AFP)

Q: What did the seniors like AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla & Morne Morkel tell you to make you feel comfortable prior to your first international game?

Harmer: The culture in the South African team is such that the seniors make you feel at home, they don’t treat a newcomer any differently. As a result you don’t feel as if you are sharing the dressing room with anyone other than your mates. The ambience in the change room is absolutely fantastic!

Q: What was going through your mind when you were handed over the red cherry in Tests for the first time?

Harmer: To be honest, I had butterflies in my stomach before Hashim Amla (the erstwhile South African captain) informed me that I would be bowling the next over. My entire body was numb as I prepared to deliver my first over in Test cricket but thankfully, everything worked out all right in the end.

Q: The tour of India in 2015 turned out to be a forgettable affair for the South African team as a whole but you personally had a good series with the ball. How challenging was it to play on those wickets?

Harmer: Don’t forget there was pressure on our spinners to take wickets as well, especially after witnessing the exploits of Ashwin and Jadeja on those turning pitches.
As far as my personal display is concerned, I was dropped from the Test squad immediately after that series. I don’t think the selectors felt the same way about my overall performance in India.

Q: Which bowler was more difficult to face? Ashwin or Jadeja?

Harmer: Personally I felt Jadeja was more difficult to face because he bowled incredibly fast for a spinner, which made it difficult for the batsmen to ascertain which ball would turn and which one wouldn’t. While one would turn massively, the other one would go straight. The ball turning away from the bat posed the greatest risk.

 Q: As an off-spinner, did you relish bowling on those sluggish Indian tracks?  

Harmer: Yes, absolutely. As a spinner, you crave to bowl on such turning wickets. I really enjoyed my time in India.

Q: How difficult was it for the then No. 1 Test team to swallow the 3-0 series defeat in India?

Harmer: It was extremely difficult (to come to terms with the outcome). I don’t think we were well prepared to play on the kind of tracks that were given to us. We always knew that the pitches would offer turn but didn’t expect them to turn so early especially  from the first ball of Day 1 as was evidenced by the results of the Mohali and Nagpur Tests.

Q: There had been lots of talk about the nature of the wickets during the course of the series against India. Whats your stand on this? You admitted that you support wickets that are designed to yield results.

Harmer: We all know that in India, spinners come into play from Day 3 onward. As hosts, India was entitled to prepare wickets as and how it wished. Their spinners bowled better than our spinners and that’s what made the difference between the two sides in the series. The top order batsmen of India also exhibited ample determination which made the task even grimmer for us.

Q: Which particular player from the Indian camp demanded extensive planning by your team?

Harmer: We didn’t take any player for granted. We made sure we did sufficient homework on all their players. 

Q: Did the task of bowling with the SG ball make the circumstances tougher for the visitors on the Indian tour? 

Harmer: No, I didn’t see it posing any significant difficulty. The balls that were used for the Test series in Bangladesh were quite different from the SG balls used in India. They (referring to the balls used in Bangladesh) were relatively softer and bigger as compared to the ones that were used for the series in India.

Q: What have you learned from that tour on a personal front?

Harmer: Ummm…. (pauses for a while and continues..) yeah, one lesson  I learned was not to try too hard when the wicket is turning; like in the second innings in Nagpur, I could have bowled a lot better. That said, the entire experience of touring India was amazing! We got a rousing reception from people all acros the country and it was heartening to see the kind of love and passion the people of India have for the game. It was also a great opportunity to come up against some of the best batsmen and spinners of the world.

Q: Has it been difficult for South Africa to deal with the departures of Greame Smith and Jacques Kallis from the Test squad?

Harmer: I wouldn’t say it has been very difficult but players of that stature and calibre are always going to leave a void once they leave the scene. It goes without saying that Greame Smith was a special player as he would often score vital runs for the team in the second innings’ of matches. Second innings runs are ‘gold’. And what shall I say about Jacques Kallis? He could win you matches both as a bowler and a batsman. Things have been a bit difficult for the team in this regard since his retirement. Earlier, the team management had the luxury of choosing a side with four seamers and a spinner including Jacques Kallis whereas nowadays the bowlers have to shoulder added responsibility in his (Kallis’s) absence.

Q: You are often looked upon as a Test specialist in the realms of South African cricket. Do you regret your absence from the Proteas limited-overs set up?

Harmer: I am always looking to work on my game and trying to find ways to overcome my shortcomings. Opportunities are few in the South African domestic circuit and you need to make the most of them. You never know, if you have an exceptional domestic season with the white ball, you might well be rewarded with a call-up to the national limited-overs side, so I don’t rue my absence.

Q: How have you been trying to improve your limited-overs game?

Harmer: I am trying to add variations to my existing bowling inventory and also trying to hone my power-hitting skills.

Q: How do the tactics of an all-rounder change when he switches from First Class Cricket to the shorter formats?

Harmer: While bowling, the way you construct your overs is a lot different in First-class cricket as compared to your approach in the shorter formats. For example, in First-class cricket, you would want to bowl six cosecutive deliveries at one particular batsman, while on the other hand in One-Dayers or in T20s, if you bowl two dot balls on a trot, you would look to prevent the batsman from getting off strike. Your lengths will change when you switch to the shorter formats. As far as batting in limited-overs cricket is concerned, it’s all about rotating the strike and clouting the loose balls for boundaries.

Q: Colin Ingram stepped down from the Warriors captaincy before the commencement of the on-going South African domestic season. How has it been leading the Warriors in the Sunfoil series so far?

Harmer: It has been a brilliant experience so far. We have  an excellent group of players who want to improve. Four-day cricket has been the Warriors’ cause of concern over the last few years and it is one area which I have taken very seriously. As a captain, the biggest challenge for me at present is to come up with the right game-plan for our bowlers and batsmen. It’s a good challenge which I am nonetheless relishing at the moment!

Q: The Warriors management has opted to go into the season with two different captains in you (for the First-Class competition) and J.J Smuts (for the limited-overs competitions). You reckon the multiple captaincy theory is a good policy to hire?

Hamer: Personally I don’t think so.

Q: You were recently signed by Essex on a Kolpak deal. What are your expectations from the ensuing county season? Do you see it as a challenge to make up for the absence of club greats like Graham Napier and David Masters?

Harmer: (Responds with an enthusiastic tone) It’s an incredibly exciting challrnge for me, I have always wanted to play county-cricket, so being able to achieve the dream is a special feeling and I just want to make sure I am contributing to the team’s success as much as possible. The retirements of players like Graham Napier and David Masters are certain to create a void in the side but hopefully I can contribute to Essex by taking wickets and scoring runs on a regular basis.

Q: Do you think you will evolve as a spinner by getting to bowl regularly on those seamer-friendly English pitches?

Harmer: Absolutely so. The more a spinner bowls, the more he matures and it’s imperative for a spinner to bowl as much as he possibly can in order to make progress.

Q: Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi made it to the South African squad for the away series against Australia. Your exclusion from the squad has raised a few eyebrows owing to your good form of late. What is your take on this?

Harmer: I have no control over selection, I can only concentrate upon my own performance and that’s what I have got to do. I went to Mumbai a few days ago to work with a person called Umesh   Patwal with a view to identify the areas I need to work on which will help me take my game forward. My sole focus at the moment is to work on those areas that fall within the purview of my selection.

Q: What did you discuss with Mr. Patwal?

Harmer: We talked about batting, bowling, cricket in general and of course life.

Q: The Proteas have performed exceedingly well in the Test series down under. Your thoughts on the same….

Harmer: I think they have shown their class and that they are worthy to be at the top of the rankings again. It has been a great team performance and certainly very inspiring to watch.

Q: You have scored 319 runs and picked up 32 wickets from your last 8 First Class games. Are you satisfied with your current form?

(Image Courtesy : Gallo Images)
”Captaining the Warriors in First Class cricket has been a brilliant experience so far”: Harmer (Image Courtesy : Gallo Images)

Harmer: Not really . You can always score more runs and I want to be doing that. I would also like to add more wickets to my name. You can never rest on your laurels.

 

Q: Rapid Fire Round Questions.

Nickname- ‘Big Red’.

Favourite cuisine- Pizza.

Favourite holiday destination- Any beach destination.

Favourite ground- St. George’s Park, Port Eliazabeth.

Favourite movie- Any movie starring Denzel Washington.

Favourite actor- Denzel Washington.

Favourite actress- That’s a toughie, but I think it would be Cameron Diaz because she is unbelievably attractive.

Song played most frequently on iPod- ‘Mr. Jones’ by Counting Crows.

Hobbies- Playing golf, fishing and cooking.

Favourite soccer team- Arsenal and Orlando Pirates.

Favourite soccer player- Again a tough one but I will go with Mesut Ozil based on his current form.

Superstitions- I normally pick a seat in the stadium and pretend as if one of my family members is sitting there. It helps me concentrate.

One thing you cannot live without- Music.

The following are a few qualities. Match these with the corresponding players in the South African dressing room.

(a) The biggest prankster- Definitely Morne Morkel.

(b) The laziest guy- Sorry, I can’t answer this.

(c) The most stylish person- Faf du Plessis.

(d) The most boring person- I am not sure.

(e) The best cook- I would like to think that I am right up there. Faf enjoys cooking as well.

Most difficult bowler you have ever faced- Probably Jadeja.

Toughest batsman you have had to bowl against- Owais Shah. I have always found it extremely difficult to bowl against him.

AB de Villiers is special becauseHe is the world’s best batsman in my opinion and one of the nicest human beings you will ever meet. He is a complete family man and has no airs and graces.

Favourite cricketing moment- Making my Test debut for South Africa.

Best compliment ever received- I am not sure.

If not a cricketer, then what?- Definitely a lawyer. I really enjoyed doing a part of my B.Com (Law) and I am in the process of finishing the course.

Message to fans- I don’t know how many fans I have. I don’t see myself as a person having numerous fans but I would like to thank all those people who have extended their support to me through thick and thin.

Q: The last question. What does the 2016/17 season mean for Simon Harmer?

Harmer: I have signed a Kolpak deal with Essex CCC, meaning I won’t  be  able to play for South Africa for a year. I want to emerge as the best player that Simon Harmer can be, work as hard as I possibly could and become a key-player for both Warriors and Essex..

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