Harris moves from facilitator to lead artist
"Maybe there's a quarter piece of wood on the shoulder," says Paul Harris when asked if there's a chip on his shoulder for being perceived as an ordinary slow bowler. Harris is a master at self deprecation so there's no wonder he cites perception as one of the reasons behind his success.
Thus it did not matter to him that, two days into the Indian tour, he was the most expensive South African bowler in the warm-up game in Nagpur - where he condeded 71 runs in 12 wicketless overs - which ended three days prior to the first Test. Considering his returns were thin in the recently concluded home series against England, where he was dropped for the series-levelling victory at the Wanderers, doubts persisted about his place in the team in the crucial Nagpur game.
On the eve of the match Harris received a shot of confidence from his captain Graeme Smith, who said he remained his go-to spinner. Harris, a surfer by nature, did not need any further motivation and set himself up to ride an Indian wave.
Though Dale Steyn had already swamped the Indians in the first innings, Harris lent an additional heft to crush the hosts' hopes with the key wicket of MS Dhoni immediately after tea on the third afternoon. That wicket proved a turning point for Harris, who would prove to be a key factor once again to stem India's fightback on a weary pitch in the second dig.
The fast bowlers had left enough footprints to aggravate the rough, and Harris did not waste much time bowling around the stumps. His job for the rest of the afternoon was to pitch the ball on the dented area and keep the Indians shackled. An advantage Harris has is that with his 6'2" height, he can release the ball confidently and then pitch it accurately. Like a conveyor belt, Harris kept walking back to his bowling mark, returned to the bowling crease few seconds later and kept pitching it into the rough while challenging the batsmen and simultaneously choking the run flow. Even the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Dhoni did not get enough breathing space to steal runs as Smith set a close ring of fielders around the bat.
Throughout his 38-over spell in the second innings Harris' sole intention was to attack the batsmen with a line that was either leg stump or behind the legs. Normally such a strategy would be termed as negative but in the existing circumstances it was positive intent and nothing else. After Dhoni's freakish dismissal yesterday, where the delivery jumped after pitching in the rough to take the edge off a limp bat, the Indians today were more circumspect and avoided taking an aggressive route. In the process they only played into the hands of Harris, who had tailored the situation to perfection.
Only when Harbhajan Singh came on and used the long handle did Harris have to fall back on plan B to curtail the run flow. Dhoni admitted later that it was really difficult to charge Harris. "He is not a big turner of the ball but some of his deliveries after pitching on the rough go straight. [In Kolkata'," he said. "We will try to play different strokes, like sweep shots. We can't just score 50-odd runs off a spinner who is bowling nearly 30 overs."
At one stage Harris had choked the run flow to an extent that he dominated the batsmen. Nearing the end of his second spell, his overall figures read 28-15-36-3 before Harbhajan did some minor damage. Harris had succeeded in what he set about to do: primarily his brief has been to keep the legs of the new ball pair of Steyn and Morne Morkel, who also happen to be his Titans mates, and keep Wayne Parnell fresh.
This was nothing new for Harris, despite being a favourite sandbag of the media. The man from Harare has been a facilitator to the fast bowling department for the last two years. On the victorious journey of Australia in 2008, Harris was the second-best South African bowler behind Steyn. Back home, on the return leg against Ricky Ponting's revenge-hungry soldiers, Harris once again kept the pressure on at one end to finish the series with 14 victims, just two behind the joint leading pair of Steyn and Mitchell Johnson. Incidentally, he recorded his best innings' figures of 6 for 127 at Newlands, which played a massive hand in the face-saving win in the final Test of the series that the visitors clinched 2-1. Importantly Harris was the lone South African to bag a five-for in that series.
Harris has never had pretensions about his job. What has also helped is being a fighter. When Geoffery Boycott famously called him a "buffet" bowler after a disastrous series in England in the early part of 2008, Harris decided the best way to chuck the pie back at the critics was bake good performances. So when he excelled in the Cape Town Test against the Aussies he made no bones about having "no respect for Boycott the person". A chirpy guy on the field, Harris had once slapped Steyn hard to just charge up his wilting strike bowler. So when he got Andrew Symonds out twice in the historic 2008 Perth Test, he couldn't help have a laugh at the Queenslander. "How shit must you be if I got you out twice," Harris quipped to Symonds.
Smith was elaborate in his praise of Harris. "I have got used to guys writing off Paul wherever we travel. No one really gives him a chance," he said. According to Smith, Harris a really selfless guy who knows his role and performs it well. "He allows the guys like Dale, Morne, Wayne and Jacques to perform their own roles they need to - he is the glue between all of them. To see him pick some key wickets today, [which includes] some important names is important to him and important to our side."
Clearly it was an important moment in Harris' life as he didn't waste time in plucking a stump out as souvenir seconds after Steyn had knocked back final India wicket. He had earned it.