Simon Harmer wants to set the record straight. He doesn’t say as much, but his body language and the look in his eyes tell a story all on their own. He squares his broad shoulders, clasps his meaty hands together and, after taking a deep sip of his lager, begins to tell his version of events.
“I think a lot of people don’t know the full story,” said the 30-year-old off spinner from a bar heavy on the leather and dark wood in London’s East End. “People come up with their own conclusions and are quick to make their minds up. Without speaking to me, they think they have this image of me as someone who turned his back on his country. Who only played five times for the Proteas, who got dropped, who gave up and then chased the cash in England. They see me as an opportunist and a sellout.”
He’s not surprised by any of this. He knew what he was signing up for when he penned his signature on the bottom of a Kolpak contract with English county side Essex at the end of 2016, instantly rendering him persona non grata in the eyes of South Africa’s cricket-loving public.
First, some context. Every English county is permitted one overseas player. But since Slovak handball player Maros Kolpak won his case against German club TSV Östringen in 2003 – allowing him to play for the side despite there already being the maximum number of foreigners – all citizens from countries with trade agreements with the European Union can work freely within the EU.
The Cotonou Agreement, signed in 2000 between the EU and various African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, meant that South African citizens, including cricketers, met the legal requirements of a Kolpak deal. The only catch is that once a Kolpak is signed, that player cannot represent South Africa for the duration of the contract.
‘Only so much bad blood’
It baffles patriotic fans why anyone would want to shut the door on an international career. Surely wearing the green and gold is worth all the riches stowed in the vaults of London?
“I grew up dreaming of playing for my country,” Harmer said. “It’s all I ever wanted. Earning that first cap [in the 2015 New Year Test against the West Indies in Cape Town] was the highlight of my career. But there’s only so much bad blood a person can take. I reached my breaking point and had no choice but to pursue another option.”
Harmer’s debut was a fortuitous affair. He was 25 years old and had fallen behind Dane Piedt, Robin Petersen and Imran Tahir in Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) spin hierarchy. On holiday in his hometown of Port Elizabeth while the Proteas prepared for the second Test against the Windies at St George’s Park, he bumped into spin coach Claude Henderson.
“He asked what I was doing the next day,” Harmer recalled. “I was free, so he suggested I come down to the nets to help the guys train. I was reluctant because I didn’t want to step on toes, but obviously I wasn’t going to miss it. I believe that chance encounter meant I made my debut.” That and Piedt’s shoulder injury, as well as Tahir’s unimpressive 3/108 in a meandering draw.
Not that Harmer was thinking about the hows or whys. “I’m not religious, but I’ve always believed in fate and the power of the universe,” he said. “It felt like things were working out.”
In a comfortable eight-wicket win in the final Test in Cape Town, Harmer bagged 7/153, the second-best return by a South African spinner on debut. But rather than a launchpad for greater honours, Harmer’s sojourn with the national team triggered a dramatic fall.
Vincent Barnes, the coach of the South Africa A team that feeds the Proteas, told Harmer that his spot in a match against the England Lions had already been filled by Piedt. A similar conversation was had with Warriors coach Malibongwe Maketa, who had promised a game to Colin Ackermann.
In the space of a week, Harmer had gone from making his debut for the Proteas to missing out on franchise cricket. The dramatic drop hit him hard.
“There comes a point when you start to question if the selectors and coaches just don’t like you as a person,” he said. “I felt that after my time with the national team, I was actually worse off in my career.”
He would get his chance to wear the Proteas’ green again in Bangladesh later that year. But the two Test series coincided with the monsoon season, which meant both games were washed out. Harmer took three wickets in 36 overs across the soggy tour.
“I always vowed I wouldn’t be the guy who just played five Tests in my career,” said Harmer. “I didn’t want to be a guy who faded away. I wanted to be someone people would remember.”
Along with Piedt and Tahir, Harmer was part of a three-pronged spin attack that was dismantled in India in 2016. Across four matches, Ravichandran Ashwin nabbed 31 Protea wickets with Ravindra Jadeja collecting a further 23. Between them, South Africa’s twirlers – including part-timers Dean Elgar and JP Duminy – procured 34 scalps.
Heads were always going to roll and with just five caps to his name, Harmer’s neck was on the chopping block. His last act as a Protea was to leave the field having been bowled around the legs by Ashwin.
“It hurt, I’m not going to lie. Getting dropped is gutting,” said Harmer. “But what hurt more was being told that I blew my chance by [selector] Linda Zondi. He said I had my opportunity to impress but they were going down a different direction. On top of that, he said they were going to go with Keshav Maharaj in the A team, so I was effectively out of the national setup.”
Harmer is a well of contradictions. He is self-effacing and introspective, insisting on several occasions that he “is not a big deal”. At the same time, he refers to himself in the third person with booming authority: “I have to do what’s best for Simon Harmer and that’s all that matters.”
He does not consider himself a casualty of the CSA’s selection targets along racial lines. “Our country needs to transform,” he said. But he does feel that transformation and performance on the field are not compatible in the short term. “You have to have one or the other,” he said. “That’s why 90% of Kolpaks have left. It’s not a fair competition.”
With this in mind, Harmer stood at a crossroads. He could either continue on the route he was on, hovering near the top of the wicket-taker’s chart on the South African domestic circuit, or pursue an alternative path.
A slot as an overseas player with an English county was unlikely. When his agent proposed joining as a Kolpak, his horizons broadened. Essex had just been promoted to the first division of the County Championship and needed a front-line spinner. Harmer signed with the knowledge that he had one shot.
“That contract was worth less than what the Warriors were paying me, even when converted from pounds, and was only for six months,” he explained. “I had a small window. If I didn’t impress, I’d be out of a job in the UK, people back home would consider me a failure and I might have to quit professional cricket. It was all on the line.”
In his first season in Chelmsford, about 65km east of London, he took 72 wickets at 19.19 apiece as Essex won its first title since 1992. He followed that up by ending 2018 as the world’s most prolific first-class bowler, claiming 106 wickets for both the Warriors and Essex.
“From the moment I arrived in the UK, I began loving my cricket again,” Harmer said. “No one cares about the bullshit here, about the politics or the drama. They just want to play and win cricket matches. It’s been so refreshing. My game has thrived and I am back in love with cricket.”
Harmer finished the 2019 County Championship season as the tournament’s highest wicket-taker with 83 at 18.28, claiming 10 five-wicket hauls as well as a second winner’s medal. He also captained the Twenty20 team to a first-ever title.
After their battering at the hands of India in October, Proteas captain Faf du Plessis bemoaned the fact that Kolpak players were not available on the subcontinent.
“It’s sad for South African cricket not to have the option of their best players,” the skipper said after an innings defeat in Ranchi, India. “Simon Harmer has had an unbelievable season. It would have been great for South Africa to be in a position where they could go, ‘He’s done well overseas. Let’s bring him on tour with us.’”
Brexit and Kolpak
The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union may end the Kolpak ruling as we know it, thereby cutting off the option for South Africans to choose a county over their country. Harmer, however, still harbours dreams of playing Test cricket.
“I’d love to play for England,” he told the Mail Online newspaper in September. “I’ve shown I have the potential, ability and work ethic to play international cricket again.”
That comment will rankle South African fans, just as similar sentiments from fast bowler Duanne Olivier did in February. The pair are teammates at Jozi Stars in the Mzansi Super League. Harmer, who unsuccessfully tried to set up a WhatsApp group with his fellow Kolpak players in England called The Black Sheep, is unperturbed.
“I have to look after my own interests,” he said. “I’m proudly South African. I see myself as an ambassador of the country and always tell people to visit if they can, but my own career and life is my priority. I’ll continue to do whatever is best for me. I’m not bothered by what other people think of me.”