Ryan Harris: The Rugged and Unsung Hero of Australia's Bowling Attack

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

CENTURION, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 15: Ryan Harris of Australia celebrates after getting the wicket of Hashim Amla of South Africa during day four of the First Test match between South Africa and Australia on February 15, 2014 in Centurion, South Africa.  (Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

In the lead-up to this decisive third Test in Cape Town, Ryan Harris had been honest and forthright about his underwhelming performances in the series thus far. In his refreshingly gruff and no-nonsense manner, the aching 34-year-old reminded us through words—rather than his customary excellence on the field—of his value to this Australian team.

Despite a deteriorating knee and a rare bout of poor personal form, there was a workman-like feel to his media address. To Harris, this wasn't the time for contrived and pre-scripted statements, not the occasion for feigned expressions of unwavering confidence.

No, to Harris, this was a time for matter-of-fact honesty, the rugged right-armer displaying a frankness that is symbolic of Australia's get-on-with-it mentality. In essence, there was a job to do.

"It's getting to the stage where it's catching a lot more and clicking a lot more, there's all those fragments in there that are giving me the s---s," Harris said bluntly of his surgery-bound knee, according to ESPN Cricinfo. "But I'll push through this game, hopefully bowl better and get it fixed it up in a week-and-a-half or two weeks."

It was a statement indicative of a man unwilling to leave a task unfinished. While his captain still needs him, while there is a job still to be done, Harris' unrelenting presence will be there. 

It should have come as no surprise then that it was Harris who made the incisive early blows for Australia on the third morning in Cape Town. Yes, his weary-looking showing at Port Elizabeth had raised doubts about what he had left in the tank, but it would have been foolish to believe that a man with such high personal expectations would allow himself to repeat such a performance.

Indeed, Harris appears to be man who demands such excellence from himself, that he's often seen frustrated having missed a minuscule target by only the smallest of margins.

With the first ball of the fifth over on Monday, the bulky veteran dropped a touch short and strayed onto Graeme Smith's pads—a world-recognised blunder against the South African captain. Out of sorts and down on confidence, Smith missed the opportunity and saw the ball thump into his thigh-pad.

In a quiet huff with himself, a disgruntled Harris walked back to his mark with more purpose than usual, seemingly ready to drive an axe into a native South African Real Yellowwood when he arrived back there. 

His next three efforts were executed with precision, working the left-hander further across the crease; each precisely planned delivery setting up the opposition captain for a slightly straighter ball that nipped away from a middle-and-off line and found the edge. 

It was quintessentially Harris.

Later in the session, it was Harris again who landed the major blow, producing a reverse-swinging brute to dismantle the stumps of a serene-looking Hashim Amla; the right-hander's ruined castle reflective of that of his under-siege team. 

Yet, from Harris, there was only a steely glaze; there was a job still to be done. Not content with pushing the door open, the late bloomer wouldn't stop until it was kicked off its hinges, adding the wicket of JP Duminy with much the same precision that had been utilised to remove Smith.

In just a few hours, Harris had—alongside Mitchell Johnsonessentially ended the hosts' chances of winning the series, doing so with a defiance born from his own out-of-character opening to the tour. It epitomised Australia's recaptured cricketing identity.

The no-frills, get-on-with-it approach shown by the seamer reflected the hard and uncompromising nature of Darren Lehmann's developing side. While it's Johnson's unworldly form that continues to excite, it's Harris who embodies the character of his team.

It's also apparent that the rugged right-armer is the glue in Michael Clarke's attack. It is Harris who sets the standard. It's his miserly excellence that sets the platform for his devastating left-armed team-mate. 

It was no co-incidence that Harris' wayward performance at Port Elizabeth came in the same match that saw Johnson quelled for the first time in months. Certainly, the pitch was tediously slow in the second match of this series, yet it had been that way in Adelaide too when Australia's primary weapon claimed an emphatic 7/40 against England in December.

The point of difference in the performances was Harris' level of control. In Adelaide, he bustled in and conceded just 2.21 runs per over, tightening the grip for his savage counterpart. In the second innings at St George's Park, that number had ballooned to 5.69. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 05: Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson of Australia embrace after winning the Ashes series 5-0 during day three of the Fifth Ashes Test match between Australia and England at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 5, 2014 in Sydney, Au
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

It's tempting to feel a touch of sympathy for the bruised 34-year-old at times. Through both injury and the sustained excellence of his predecessors, Harris owns a career that feels unjustly cut short.

In his 24 matches, the New South Welshman has claimed 99 scalps at a tick over 23 and a strike rate under 49. It's a truly world-class record, and one that could easily have been even finer had a degenerative knee and names such as McGrath, Gillespie and Lee not blocked his path.

In fact, upon claiming his next victim, Harris will be the oldest ever Australian to reach 100 Test wickets, nudging out both Michael Kasprowicz and Terry Alderman.

But perhaps it's his grounded, down-to-earth nature that prevents one from drifting towards empathy for Australia's banged-up veteran. For it's not the Harris way. He's got a job to do. Talk to him when he's done it.

Like his 36-year-old team-mate who opens the batting, there's a compelling desire to celebrate his short-lived brilliance under the baggy green, rather than to lament what could have been. The team-first spirit that emanates from Harris transcends the field and rubs off on us as observers, leaving the warm glow of camaraderie to extinguish any remnants of affinity for the late bloomer's stunted career. 

Of course, there are no guarantees that Harris will return from his impending knee surgery as the same unrelenting bruiser he is now. But picturing the burly Australian walking into the operating theatre almost brings a smile to your face. You can almost imagine Harris cutting the flesh open himself to apply some electrical tape to the wonky bits before walking out to finish off that South African Real Yellowwood.

It's the Harris way, and this Australian team is far better for it.