WHEN Steve Harmison was a teenager growing up in Ashington, he dreamed of becoming a professional sportsman.
For hours on end, he would be out in the street, honing his talents in the hope of one day representing his home-town team. But the sport was football and the team was Newcastle United. At that stage, cricket was something that other people did for a living.
“At 14 or 15 years old, I would probably have said, ‘What’s cricket?’” said Harmison. “I used to think that the only thing you did with a ball was kick it. I’d played a bit of cricket from the age of about 11, but at that stage, it was all about football.
“If you’d said to me when I made my debut in 1996 that I would go on to win things with Durham and England, I would definitely have laughed at you. I’d have thought, ‘This could be an in and out job’.
“I didn’t have a serious vision about a career in cricket and I didn’t really know anyone who had. It wasn’t really until 1998 that the penny dropped and I thought, ‘I can do this’. That’s when I started playing more regularly and knew where my life was going.”
Since then, of course, Harmison has spent the best part of a decade-and-a-half at the top of the English game.
The highlights have been plentiful, from that memorable 7-12 in an England shirt against the West Indies and a key role in the 2005 and 2009 Ashes triumphs to claiming the final wicket as Durham secured their maiden County Championship in 2008.
The “Ashington Express” has triumphed on the national and international stage, with his achievements even more notable given that he was once written off as too injury-prone and erratic to flourish for either Durham or England.
As he reflects on his career at the start of a benefit year that will help raise funds for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, he attributes his success to two things. The first, which we will come to in a moment, is the environment and people he has encountered at Durham.
The second is his upbringing, and a back story that is hardly stereotypical when it comes to cricket in this country. While the likes of Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss were products of the private school system are groomed to be England captain from a young age, Harmison was the son of working-class parents, Jim and Margaret, attended Ashington High School and started playing cricket in the junior ranks of Bedlington CC.
It is easy to see why he might have had to battle harder than many of his future international teammates in order to make it, and he can see echoes of his own steely resolve in a number of his fellow northerners who have gone to achieve great things.
“I think where you come from has a big influence on your life,” said Harmison.
“There are a lot of Alastair Cooks in English cricket, people who have been groomed to play for England from a young age. I don’t want to make too much of the north-south divide in our sport, but I would say at least two-thirds of those people are from south of the M25.
“The ones that are on this side are generally the ones that are hungrier to succeed, and maybe that’s why you’ve seen so many great players from up here.
“Andrew Flintoff was such a great player when you were looking for inspiration and someone to dig you out of trouble. I’m not making a criticism of private schools, but from a young age, Andrew never had it easy.
“When people have had it easy, sometimes they can struggle when it suddenly gets tough. The northern lads generally don’t have that mindset to overcome. Graeme Swann is another one who has always been tough and competitive, the same can be said of Michael Vaughan.
When the chips were down, they were the ones that came out fighting.”
Harmison would include both himself and Durham team-mate Paul Collingwood on that list, and the pair both benefited from Durham’s successful pursuit of firstclass status in the early 1990s.
Together, they have personified the county’s rise to the very pinnacle of the English game. They were there when Durham perennially finished bottom of the pile, there when the county finally started winning things and there as Durham Emirates ICG established itself as one of the leading cricketing venues in the country.
“If ever there was the perfect example of why so many people put so much selfless time and money into the dream of bringing firstclass cricket to the North- East, and the knock on opportunities it would provide for local young players, then Stephen fits the bill,” said Durham head coach Geoff Cook. “From a reluctant player to the the best in the world at his discipline is a simple summary of where he got to.”
Durham were an integral part of that process, and while the last three seasons have proved frustrating as injuries have restricted him to only a handful of appearances, Harmison’s love affair with his only professional employers has not waned.
He is currently pounding his way through a series of indoor net sessions in an attempt to give himself the best possible chance of starting the season in Cook’s first team and if, as looks likely, this is to be his final summer in Durham colours, he is determined to go out on a high.
“I hope to give Durham a full season playing,” he said.
“If I’m able to play for a full season, that’ll mean I’m playing well because Durham have some fantastic bowlers and even now I’m probably not first choice.
“I think you know when your time has come. I played with Michael Di Venuto last year and remember a game where he got 150 off 75 balls, but couldn’t move the next day.
“I remember sitting having a cup of coffee with him the following day and he said, ‘I don’t think I can do this any more’. It’s not for the want of trying, it’s just you can’t get out of bed. If that day comes in May or June, I hope I have enough respect for everybody to say that enough is enough.
“Beyond that, Durham is somewhere I want to stay involved. Whatever the role, large or small, I love the place and I’ll always want to be involved.”
‘The way Sir Bobby treated me was incredible’
STEVE HARMISON’S benefit year will raise funds for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, and having become close to the former Newcastle United and England manager, the Durham bowler claims the identity of his nominated charity was never in doubt.
Harmison first encountered Sir Bobby when Newcastle United’s fitness coach, Paul Winsper, invited him to train with the Magpies in 2003.
Over the next few years, the pair became good friends, with Robson regularly attending county matches at Durham Emirates ICG and Test matches at The Oval.
“The way Sir Bobby treated me was incredible,” said Harmison. “He was fantastic with me from the word go and I think the world of the man.
“He helped me out with my training when a lot of people were writing me off, and made me look at the people who were at Newcastle at the time – people like Alan Shearer, Shay Given, Steve Harper and Gary Speed – and I was able to see what you had to put in to succeed at the very highest level. They were fantastic role models and Sir Bobby made sure I learned from them.
“He used to spend a lot of time watching Durham. You knew when Sir Bobby was in because he had a big Rolls Royce and when it was parked in the car park, you knew he was around.
“He just used to sit and love to talk about cricket. He was such a vibrant man. I was at a crossroads in my career and he helped me out – that’s why there was only ever going to be one charity associated with my benefit year.”
So does Harmison have a favourite Sir Bobby anecdote?
“It was one of those surreal moments where you think, ‘Has that really happened’,”
he explained. “I was on an exercise bike with John Carver alongside me, and Sir Bobby was walking on the treadmill.
“He was watching the reserves and young lads train outside the window, and he obviously saw something he wanted to take notice of so he suddenly stopped walking. He stopped, but the treadmill was still going and he ended up flat on his face.
“He missed the metal bar by a whisker. I was next to John, and we looked at each other but we couldn’t laugh because it was Sir Bobby Robson. John went straight over and got him up, and he just shook his head, got back on the treadmill and started walking again.
“My tongue was so sore from biting it, and it was only when he left that me and John were on the floor laughing.”
Harmison Benefit Year: Events Diary
- Saturday, April 6 Pie, Peas and Comedy (Durham Emirates ICG)
- Tuesday, May 28 Golf Day and Dinner (Slaley Hall Hotel)
- Friday, June 21 Black Tie Gala Dinner (The Grange St Paul, London)
- Wednesday, June 26 PCA Masters vs Durham Twenty20 (South North CC, Gosforth)
- Tuesday, August 6 Ashes Dinner (Hilton Newcastle Gateshead)
- Tuesday, September 17 England Captain's Panel (Long Room, Lord's)
- Wednesday, October 9 Golf Day and Dinner (Close House)
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