Harris revives memories of Merv
Among the more courageous chapters in the saga of Australian fast bowling concerns Merv Hughes on the 1993 Ashes tour. To carry a few extra kilograms on his mincing run to the wicket was typical for Hughes, but to do so while also nursing an injured and painful right knee was not. Allan Border's Australians had lost Craig McDermott during the Lords Test, and it was Hughes who led the pace attack, wonky knee and all, through six Tests and 31 wickets. By the time the tour reached The Oval, Hughes was struggling to walk, let alone bowl. The damage to his knee was such that he only played two more Tests, the last at Newlands the following year.
Two decades later and Hughes was on hand in Cape Town to witness what may or may not be another valedictory display by a stout-hearted fast man with a degenerative knee. Like Hughes, Ryan Harris put off the requirement of surgery to be a part of a major series, and has fought through considerable pain and increasing signs of deterioration in the joint to play his role. There were times during the second Test in Port Elizabeth that Harris might have pushed his body a match or tour too far, and he admitted to doubting himself ahead of the decider. But he stirred back to venomous life on day three at Newlands, delivering spells that he and Hughes will both remember.
For much of the time between Tests, Harris wondered whether or not he would be granted another match. His accuracy had deserted him on occasions in Centurion and Port Elizabeth, notably with a tendency to begin spells by dropping short. His knee was locking up more often due to the loose bone and cartilage floating around it, requiring him to stop in his run-up and kick it back into place on an unpleasantly frequent basis. While Harris will tend to downplay the issue, his fellow fast man Mitchell Johnson offered gruesome evidence that this is far from a minor niggle.
"You'll be sitting up in the viewing room when we're batting and he'll go 'feel this' and it'll be a little bit of bone in his knee," Johnson said. "You're a freak to be able to keep going [in that condition]. He's mentally strong and physically strong and it definitely pushes everyone along. It puts your little niggles to the back of the room, because if he can get through that, you should be able to get through anything as well. He should be an inspiration to a lot of fast bowlers out there and upcoming fast bowlers as well."
As his bowling coach, McDermott watched Harris' looming doubts and suspicions that his bowling action was getting ragged and his wrist position less than perfect, precluding him from summoning swing. Like Michael Clarke with the bat, Harris wished to bowl an extra session on the team's nominated day off earlier this week. Instead he was counselled to rest, relax and get cricket off his mind. McDermott offered the opinion that any issues with his action were the result of a heavy workload at St George's Park after the tourists were bowled out cheaply in their first-innings reply to a stolidly built South African total.
Nevertheless, Harris still turned up to bowl at training on the day before the Test, something almost unheard of in the present day and a testament to his desire for improvement. "I actually gave him a bit of stick because he came to training the day before and normally fast bowlers don't turn up to the optional session," Johnson said. "So he works extremely hard and he was quite frustrated at the way he'd been bowling. We all thought he'd been bowling fine, but he's a perfectionist."
Perfection can be fleeting, but every so often Harris locates it, whether first ball to Alastair Cook in Perth last year, or when utilising reverse swing to savage effect against Hashim Amla in his second spell on day three. Early on Harris had found a modicum of conventional bend against Graeme Smith, shaping a few deliveries in - including one that was wrongly referred for an lbw appeal - while also seaming others away. The projectile that flicked Smith's outside edge was a classy one - it had precision in line, length and movement - but it was a mere entrée for the Amla rocket.
Australia's pursuit of reverse swing was far more concerted than in Port Elizabeth, utilising Johnson's ability to land the ball on the leather rather than the seam to good effect. It was not yet 30 overs old when Harris began to gain some alarming hoop, beating Amla completely as he played outside the swerve. Johnson called it a "Steyn ball", after Dale's stump-pluckers to Brad Haddin - the only difference here was that the wickets were splayed rather than flattened. Harris confessed to feeling like a mere bowling machine against Amla at St George's Park; here he was Pro-Batter set to 11. The next ball almost cut Faf du Plessis in two.
Less spectacular but equally notable was Harris' deconstruction of JP Duminy, another thorn in Australia in Port Elizabeth. A series of old-ball inswingers had Duminy conditioned to expect the ball curling towards him, making the delivery angled across doubly dangerous. Watched in isolation, the edge looked profligate. But watching the whole over, it made far more sense. Subtle movement both ways has always been a prime element of the Harris method. It was far too good for Duminy, the 99th Test victim of a masterful practitioner.
Australia's progress was interrupted for a time by du Plessis and Vernon Philander, forcing Harris back for stints that came close to wickets without quite delivering. His 100th wicket in Tests will have to wait until the second innings, the final stop on a 12-Test journey that began at Lord's more than seven months ago. Harris often sets himself the goal of being on the plane with his team-mates at the end of a tour rather than an early casualty, and in South Africa he has managed it once more. The cost of these exertions will not truly be known until Harris checks in with his surgeon later in the month, and it may be steep. But as Hughes can attest, victory will be worth the pain.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here