Speed Demons

Published: 2017
Pages: 383
Author: Harmison, Steve
Publisher: Trinity Sport Media
Rating: 3.5 stars

When I was a lad there was John Snow, and then we had Bob Willis, both of whom had a yard or two more pace than other English bowlers. Graham Dilley briefly looked the part and, if Devon Malcolm got his radar right, he certainly did, but sadly that happened rather less frequently than we would have liked. There were always a variety of weather, pitch and the nature of English cricket related reasons given for England’s consistent failure to produce bowlers of real pace, and then Steve Harmison came along.

For someone who watched cricket through the last three decades of the twentieth century Harmison’s destruction of a still decent West Indian batting line up at Sabina Park in 2004 was breathtaking. He was then an integral part of the magical summer of 2005 before, finally, I got to see him in the flesh. It was the Friday of the Lord’s Test against Pakistan in 2006.

I spent most of the day watching Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell batting England into an impregnable position before, in the late afternoon sunshine, Harmison ripped out Salman Butt and Faisal Iqbal. As he ran in the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Impressive enough on a television screen, in front of a packed house at the most atmospheric cricket ground in the world in Harmison looked magnificent. Naturally there were days when Harmison wasn’t at his best, and overseas there were quite a number of those, but I have still never understood those ungrateful England supporters who would regularly criticise him.

In his playing days it was well known that Harmison was not a good traveller, but he was not alone in that and it still came as a surprise to learn, after he had left the game, that he had struggled with mental health problems throughout his career. In Speed Demons he tells all, adding to the recent accounts of Marcus Trescothick, Mike Yardy, Jonathan Trott and Graeme Fowler in putting cricketing mental health issues firmly in the public domain.

Speed Demons is actually written by John Woodhouse, the same writer who collaborated with Fowler on Absolutely Foxed, and he tells Harmison’s story just as well as he did Fowler’s. It must have been particularly difficult for Harmison, a man who kept the extent of his problems under wraps for his entire career, to be as open as he was, but his reader is left in little doubt that they have been given the whole story.

All of the books I have mentioned have described a career that represents something of a rollercoaster ride and Harmison’s is no different. There are some very bleak moments indeed, not least the way he felt before setting off for South Africa in 2004, but also shared are the highs, the chapter on that 2004 trip to the Caribbean containing a vivid description of the positive aspects of the touring experience.

At the beginning of the book is a foreword from Andrew Flintoff, and I can’t help but wonder whether Woodhouse helped with that as well, as if those are Flintoff’s own words, as opposed to merely his thoughts marshalled by someone else, then he really should be following a rather more cerebral career path than he is.

The strength of the Harmison/Flintoff friendship was something the world has long known about, but it is only after reading Speed Demons that it becomes clear just how close the pair were and for how long that had been the case. Indeed it seems that without Flintoff around to stabilise him we might not have many of the cherished Harmison memories that we now do.

The nature of Harmison’s relationships with his other England teammates is also interesting. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the respect he clearly has for Kevin Pietersen, something which inevitably was reflected in the way he felt and feels about some of KP’s detractors. On the other hand I hadn’t expected to learn that, by the time his playing career ended, Harmison and Paul Collingwood did not get on at all, although having read the book it is easy to understand why that was the case.

Unsurprisingly Harmison’s reader also learns his views on mental health. He writes with understanding about footballer Gary Speed, a good friend who took his own life in 2011, and with compassion about Trescothick and Yardy as well as Monty Panesar, the one who has yet to go into print on the subject of his demons*. What does jar slightly however is the harshness of his judgment of Trott who, fundamentally, Harmison believes was weak rather than unwell when his problems came to a head.

Trott’s first Test was Harmison and Flintoff’s last, and it is clear that Harmison did not expect to play for England again, so it is understandable that he would not have tried too hard to get to know Trott. There is only one reference in the book to the pair having met on the field and that was in a Championship fixture a couple of months before that Test, at which point Harmison would have been trying very hard to get his England place back. Wisden tells me that Durham won the match by ten wickets. The pitch is described as slow, but Harmison as hostile. Trott scored 25 and 32 but Harmison is critical of the lack of appetite Trott seemed to have for the short ball. Not for the first time whilst reading Speed Demons I was left wondering whether Harmison sometimes pays too much heed to his critics, and forgets just how good a fast bowler he was. Harmison’s comments on Trott do not sit comfortably with his having been in the pavilion watching Trott’s match winning debut century in that fifth Test. It is not clear from Speed Demons whether Harmison has read Trott’s book, published the year before Speed Demons, but if not it would be interesting to know whether doing so might change his views.

Overall however Speed Demons is a decent book. It is let down slightly, as any cricketing autobiography is, by the absence of an index or any statistics, although a fine selection of photographs does go some way to making up for those omissions.


*The Full Monty, a new book from Panesar, is due from White Owl later this month

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