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Steve Harmison admits contemplating suicide during England career

Harmison took 226 wickets in his Test career

Harmison took 226 wickets in his Test career © Getty
Former England bowler Steve Harmison has admitted that he suffered from severe depression during his international career and considered committing suicide before England’s 2004 tour to South Africa.

Harmison, who took 226 Test wickets and is regarded as one of England’s best bowlers of the last 20 years, reveals his struggles with mental health problems in a new autobiography, Speed Demons, which is being serialised in the Daily Mirror newspaper.

During the summer of 2004, Harmison was ranked the number one bowler in Test cricket and England won all seven Tests against New Zealand and West Indies. Harmison contributed 38 wickets at 25 and was a bowler at the peak of his professional powers. Yet off the field, he was struggling badly.

“As that summer went on I could feel the brightness growing darker,” Harmison writes in the Mirror. “The horrible truth was those same feelings which had consumed me on trips abroad were overpowering me again, and this time it had nothing to do with being away from home.

“The demons had not bothered to travel. They had come to get me at home, in the middle of a very successful English summer. That’s the thing with depression: It doesn’t care if you’re a millionaire, a successful doctor, a nurse, postman, airline pilot…and it doesn’t care if you’re the number one bowler in the world.

Harmison sought help from the England medical staff including the team doctor Peter Gregory and the physio Kirk Russell. He was asked if he had ever felt of harming himself. “The honest answer was “Maybe”,” he writes. “I can’t say there haven’t been some dark times where I thought it would be easier if I wasn’t here.”

Harmison had all the attributes to be a truly great England fast-bowler: height, pace, aggression. Although he bowled some brilliant spells – 7/12 against the West Indies at Sabina Park for example – and was a very good international fast bowler, he perhaps failed to hit the heights that were predicted for him. Often, he would frustratingly mix brilliance with mediocrity.

Some questioned his attitude particularly after his early departure from a tour to Bangladesh in 2003 and during the Ashes series in Australia during the winter of 2006/07 when he bowled ‘that’ ball to Justin Langer. His inconsistency of performances gave ammunition to those who sought to, perhaps unfairly at times, criticise his attitude but in light of these subsequent revelations, it is remarkable that he was able to perform at the level he did for as long as he did.

His struggles with depression and homesickness began on an England Under-19 tour to Pakistan in 1996. “Pretty much from the minute we landed, I wanted to come home,” Harmison writes. “I felt panicky and unsettled. Merely to call it homesickness doesn’t come near to how desperate I felt.” In the end, Harmison, who became good friends with Andrew Flintoff on that trip, came home early but he admits he was “scarred for life.”

There were issues that would resurface after that successful 2004 summer. England’s next assignment was a five-Test tour to South Africa. “As I get in my car, that’s when it really hits me,” Harmison writes. “I don’t want to go. I really don’t want to go to South Africa. Behind the front door are my wife Hayley and our toddler Abbie. I have just said goodbye to them. I did the same with our five-year-old Emily before she went to school.”

“I am sobbing my eyes out. For four days, I’ve been ill just thinking about this moment. The pains in my stomach are so bad I’ve had to lie on the floor, the lump in my throat so large I can hardly breathe. There are lots of roundabouts on the short drive to Newcastle airport. What if I pull out on somebody at one of them? If I do it right, I’ll buy myself another few days at home.

“In 2004, I had never felt worse. What was in that car, setting off to tour South Africa, was a broken shell. When I say I was thinking of crashing the car on the way to the airport, I’m serious.”

Harmison began to take anti-depressants, which he is still taking now, and was able to play another 35 Tests for England. That included an important role in the Ashes victory over Australia in 2005 during which he took 17 wickets – including that of Michael Kasprowicz on the final day at Edgbaston to win England that Test by 2 runs – and memorably hit three Australians on the helmet on the first morning of the first Test at Lord’s.

Harmison is not the first England cricketer to speak out about their struggles with mental illness. Marcus Trescothick, Michael Yardy, Monty Panesar and Jonathan Trott have all shared their difficult experiences with depression during their playing careers which has meant that these issues are more openly talked about within cricket than perhaps any other sport. That can only be a good thing.

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