Harris still wants to be Australia's go-to man
Munching on breakfast in the Australian team's Perth hotel, before the Test match against India, Ryan Harris squinted at the television screen. The news ticker at the bottom of a morning program quoted Michael Clarke, the Australia captain, saying: "He [Harris] is as good a fast bowler as I have played with in my career."
Harris blinked, looked again. The statement was still there. He looked a third time, still not quite believing what he had seen. Clarke has played alongside some rather luminous bowling names, hasn't he? Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee among them. Harris remained a little incredulous. But there they were; those same unqualified words. Not sure whether or not he merited the praise, Harris nonetheless took the confidence they inspired, and set about helping the hosts demoralise India at the WACA. Days later, he still can't quite believe what Clarke said.
"I was a little bit shocked," Harris told ESPNcricinfo. "I had to read it three times to actually believe it. That's a great thing to have your captain say, and to have him compare me to some of the players he's played with is great. I don't compare myself to anyone else; I just go out, bowl and do my thing. But to have your captain say that shows that when I am fit and going he has got confidence in me."
That confidence was hard-earned in Sri Lanka, particularly on a Galle pitch that was concocted to assist spin, not speed. Harris was Australia's spearhead in Clarke's first match as full-time Test captain, and demanded the ball whenever a wicket was needed. Critically, he ended Mahela Jayawardene's second-innings knock at a time when he and Angelo Mathews were threatening something extraordinary. Harris said he liked being Clarke's go-to man.
"You're looking for him to throw you the ball and he has the confidence to do it. I want to be that guy who is given the ball if we need a wicket; I enjoy that situation, so it's nice of him to say that but I've also said to him a few times: 'If you need me to bowl I'm ready to bowl, no matter what'. That's my job, that's what I'm trying to do and to follow team plans while I'm doing that."
At the moment those plans are working for an Australian team that is still gathering itself after a year of introspection and change. Harris has been more of a cameo performer than he would like; injuries have kept him out of the team for six of the 10 Tests played since the start of the Sri Lanka tour. But he has been around the team enough to see how clear its vision has become, and how dedicated it is to returning to cricket's summit.
"That is what we're trying to achieve, we want to get that winning culture, those back-to-back Test match wins like we used to in the past. We knew it was going to be hard against India, so to be where we're at now and be 3-0 up it's really given the guys belief that we're able to play good cricket again, gel as a team, and win Test matches against one of the best teams in the world. With a bit of luck that winning culture will continue this Test [in Adelaide] and then hopefully in the West Indies."
Success away from home is something the Australian team craves, in apparent contrast to their quarry in the ongoing series. Australia's players were surprised and a little amused to be told "wait until you get to India" at various times in Perth, and Harris said victories overseas were the ambition of any team with a serious desire to be globally respected.
"I was a bit surprised when that came out; no matter where you go it is always hard to play in different conditions. When we were doing well, we were playing well in all conditions and that's what made us the best team in the world. I think that's what England are doing now and it is no surprise they are No. 1 in the world.
"If India want to talk about winning at home that's up to them; that's probably why they're not one of the best teams in the world, because they can't play well outside of India. That is up to them to sort out and make their players better when they leave home. We know when we go to India they'll prepare dust bowls and flat wickets for us, but that's a challenge that excites us, and we know if we win over there we would have won in probably the hardest place to play cricket in the world."
Patience is a valued trait on the subcontinent, but it also aided Harris in Perth. In each innings he bowled considerably better than his figures indicated; his economy-rate spoke volumes for the pressure he imposed. Wickets were scarce, but Harris did not grow despondent as one ball after another slid past the outside edge. It helped greatly that others were benefitting from his efforts.
"You just have to stay patient. It's easy to get caught up in trying to attack more and more, but you've got to weigh up the options," Harris said. "The way we're going at the moment the guys at the other end like Hilfy [Ben Hilfenhaus] and Sidds [Peter Siddle] are taking wickets, so if I'm beating the bat and putting pressure on that's all I've got to do. I'm pretty keen to get wickets, but in the back of my mind I recalled Craig [McDermott], Ricky [Ponting] and Michael [Clarke] pointing out that at the WACA it's also about building pressure."
That pressure told on Rahul Dravid in the second innings, even as he was constructing India's highest stand of the match with Virat Kohli. Concentrating on away swing, Harris drew Dravid into expecting the same delivery each time, then surprised him with a ball that angled back into Dravid and uprooted leg stump. Harris said there was an element of fortune about the dismissal, but it was overdue given some of his earlier work.
"To be honest I didn't plan that dismissal. He [Dravid] was set and I had the ball going away a fair bit; I was bowling a lot of dots to him, building lots of pressure and that's how I got the wicket. The ball I actually bowled him with I was trying to swing away, but it didn't swing and it went through the gap."
If anything Harris was more delighted with another ball he bowled to Dravid: a perfectly pitched inswinger the batsman jammed down to third man after the bowler and slips cordon had assumed it was whirring into off stump. The inswinger is not a trick Harris has mastered, and he said he was glad to see it come off.
"If I am going reasonably well and feel good I bowl that ball, and it came out quite well. I don't usually get it on target to the right-handers; it usually swings down the leg side, but it was good to get it right. I thought I had him with that ball, but building that pressure was huge and that's what we've done with most of their batsmen, and they've struggled."
Harris impressed plenty of observers in Perth, some who had never seen him up close before. But it was no surprise to his captain, the author of those words Harris had been so surprised by at breakfast.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here