Bulls pave Harris' road to the Ashes
A few months ago, still waylaid by shoulder surgery, Ryan Harris was unable to say for sure whether or not he would be able to bowl effectively again. Even accounting for the fact that Harris is typically pessimistic and perfectionist about his art, his doubts were real. A few false starts in January did not help, and even when he did return to the bowling crease for Queensland in a limited-overs match at the MCG, he was blowing hard within a couple of overs.
Gradually, however, Harris has regained his former verve. The limited-overs final, also against Victoria, showed his capacity for the striking spell. A first Sheffield Shield appearance against Tasmania reaped wickets if not consistency. He pulled it all together last week against Western Australia in Perth, plucking eight wickets and making critical runs to help the Bulls achieve the win they required to elbow into the final. Now he is in Hobart, limbering up for the competition decider - another wholehearted performance and the Ashes will hove into view.
"It's crucial for me to keep bowling now," Harris told ESPNcricinfo. "I bowled a couple of near to 10-over spells in Perth so it's getting better and better. There's still some more improvement left, but from that day in Melbourne when I came back I've definitely improved. The more I bowl the fitter I get. I'm back to about 75-80%. I've narrowed that down from the first game I played. To get back to Test cricket those bad balls have to be almost none per over. So it's crucial I get back to putting it consistently in the right spot."
Among the country's best judges of "the right spot" may be found in Tasmania's batting line-up. Not only does it contain Ricky Ponting, the senior statesman of Australian batting, but also Alex Doolan, George Bailey and Tim Paine. The opening pair of Jordan Silk and Mark Cosgrove has quickly established a reassuringly stable union. As a former club and state teammate of Harris in Adelaide, Cosgrove has battled Harris as often in the nets as in the middle. Whether it be friendly chatter after play, or edgier banter in the middle, there will be plenty of feedback on offer for Harris.
"[The final] is going to give me a good test as to where I'm at and give me a good gauge," Harris said. "I'll speak to Ricky after the game and get a bit of feedback from him, which he's always pretty happy to give. That's a good thing about it, to hear from the batsman's point of view about how it's hitting the bat and how it's going past them.
"I'm not worrying about whether I'm going to play or not. I want to play, but it's out of my control. All I can do is make sure I'm back to being consistent and at the standard I need to be at to go and play Test cricket. I'm not putting too much pressure on myself, I know the more I bowl the better I get."
The quiet confidence Harris exudes now is a direct result of the time he has been able to spend around the Bulls' squad since his return to the crease. Their culture of attacking cricket, mutual responsibility but also plenty of fun is widely admired, and not dissimilar to Tasmania's. In two seasons under the leadership duo of the captain James Hopes and the coach Darren Lehmann, Queensland have won every trophy on offer.
Those looking for a symbol of the triumph for the collective over the individual did not need to look far this week, when Bulls and Brisbane Heat players were absent from every domestic team of the year. This drew outrage from some quarters, but quiet satisfaction from others.
"We've got really good players and everyone chips in a long the way but we haven't really had your superstar players that some of the other teams have had," Harris said. "If it's not me taking wickets or playing it's someone else coming in, whether it's Ben Cutting or Cameron Gannon or Ali McDermott or Luke Feldman or Matthew Gale. Everyone chips in.
"Pete Forrest has had a disappointing year but now Joe Burns has stepped up to an extent, and Chris Hartley and Hopesy. Everyone chipping in at the right time. Not that other teams don't do that but we seem to do it more often. The feeling amongst the group is unbelievable and it has been since I arrived in Queensland but probably more so since Darren's taken over. He gives guys the belief they can go out and play their way. There are guys who've struggled who in most states probably wouldn't be in the team at this time of the year but he's backing them."
Something Queensland and Tasmania also share is an ideal blend of youthful players and more seasoned stagers. Their balance is of the kind that Australia benefited from in the first 18 months of Michael Clarke's captaincy, but that the retirements of Ponting and Michael Hussey has now made damagingly elusive in India. Harris is mindful of the issue as he thinks increasingly of an international return.
"You've lost two very senior guys with Hussey and Ponting gone over the summer. It's a very hard thing to replace," he said. "Those guys are leading the team, they're around guys at night having dinner with them and talking about cricket or about life and just getting to know them. It's a big thing to lose out of a team. I'm sure if we lost myself, James Hopes and Chris Hartley all at once this team may struggle for direction and performance.
"You take that out of any state, like [David] Hussey, Cameron White and Chris Rogers out of Victoria and they'd struggle. That's why I hope [Michael] Hussey and Ponting go around again next year because it's not just the guys who play with them but the guys who play against them learn so much as well. In our game you can't buy experience, talking to experienced guys and learning the game - we don't have enough of it. Grade cricket's suffered because they don't have enough old guys and hopefully state cricket won't just yet because those guys hang around."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here