The spinner says he has a lot of self-doubt despite having been a match-winner for Essex in county cricket
When he left South African cricket in 2017 – he was no longer part of the national set-up or the A team – his franchise future was hanging in the balance and he was unsure of himself and his abilities. Luckily, Essex came calling.
“I had a lot of self-doubt,” Harmer said, on his Test comeback for South Africa, five years after he believed his future in the country was over. “Essex gave me the opportunity and the platform to rediscover what made me successful. I learnt to be a match-winner for them and got comfortable with that role. The more I did it, the more I started to believe. That’s added a lot to my game, that self-belief, knowing that I can win games of cricket as an orthodox offspinner. If I could single out one thing, it would probably be that.”
“There’s still questions. Like am I good enough to play international cricket?” he asked. “I’ve done it for Essex, I’ve done it at county level, I’ve come back and done it for the Titans but am I still good enough [for International cricket]?”
He started to answer those questions on the second afternoon in Kingsmead when he knocked over Shadman Islam’s middle stump with a delivery that kept low. But it was later in the day, when Harmer delivered a glorious ball that pitched on middle stump and turned away to beat Najmul Hossain’s outside edge and hit the top of off stump, that the doubts about whether he is good enough seemed to have dissipated. That was a delivery that would make any spinner proud. A stunning catch from Keegan Petersen at silly-point off the next ball put Harmer on a hat-trick and though he didn’t get it, he claimed a fourth when Mushfiqur Rahim gloved him to Kyle Verreynne, whose enthusiastic appeal convinced Dean Elgar to review. Harmer finished the day with 4 for 42, in sight of a five-for on comeback, so surely he must now believe he is good enough? Or not.
“Four wickets doesn’t mean yes I am,” he said. “But coming back and putting in a performance for my own self-belief and my own mind is good.”
Instead, Harmer focused on talking up the improvements he was able to make because of opportunities he was given in England that were absent in South Africa.
“I had my reasons for signing Kolpak. For me it was about opportunity. I was only playing one format for the Warriors when I left here and I went over there, I played all three formats. That’s what it was about,” he said. “At the end of the day, currency is wickets and performances and winning games of cricket and trophies and I put my blinkers on and tried to achieve that.”
He succeeded. So much so that Harmer made it impossible for the South African selectors to ignore him once he returned and they took him to New Zealand as cover. He has since edged ahead of allrounder George Linde – who was unavailable for that series because he was getting married – in the pecking order, and is also proving himself to be competent with the bat.
Harmer notched up his highest Test score and shared in two partnerships over 30 in the South African tail to push their total over 350, and indicated there’s more to come. “I’ve been working really hard on my batting,” he said. “Myself and (South African batting consultant) Justin Sammons and (performance analyst) Matthew Reuben at the Titans have been putting in some long hours. It’s good to see some rewards.”
And there’s every chance of many more as the match goes on. Kingsmead is known to get slower and lower as play progresses and this pitch has already taken some turn. “It’s been a while since I’ve played red-ball cricket at Kingsmead,” Harmer said. “It’s got a reputation of turning. As the game goes on, it will turn more and more.”
Which means that by the end, Harmer may well have a definitive answer to his question about whether he belongs at this level, and a real reason to believe that he can win matches.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent