Ryan Harris battles knee and self-doubt
Ryan Harris' wonky right knee has taken a battering in South Africa and so too has his self-confidence. Determined to squeeze one more Test series out of his 34-year-old frame before checking himself in for surgery, Harris has found himself struggling to claim wickets for the first time in his otherwise wonderfully late blooming career.
Between worrying about his knee, which has been locking up more frequently due to the bone fragments floating around its inner workings, and battling South Africa's batsmen, Harris has taken only three wickets at 74 in two Tests, opening up virtually the first questions about his place since his debut in 2010. Since then he has invariably played whenever fit, but now the selectors may be tempted to draft in the younger James Pattinson for Cape Town, and Harris knows it.
"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 of his knee. "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. I think I'll be fine to play body-wise, it's just whether or not form-wise I'm going alright. Three wickets at 74 is not great at the moment, and it's a big Test.
"So it's obviously up to Darren [Lehmann], Michael [Clarke] and John [Inverarity] to see what they do there. But I'm hoping I'll be alright. I guess I've been a little bit unlucky, but that's the way the game is. I haven't felt great to be honest. I've felt good in spells, the new ball has been good and a couple of spells with the old ball.
"But I think middle of day three in Port Elizabeth - we fielded for a lot of that game - when I was bowling to Amla he was just driving me for fun. I just felt like something wasn't right. So I've got a bit of work to do over the next few days. Day off and then I'll do some stuff with Craig [McDermott], and we'll go from there. But I know I'm not far away. My pace is still good. It's just a matter of consistency at the moment."
One of the issues seemingly caused by Harris' knee is a tendency to drop short at the start of each spell in South Africa, offering the hosts a ball to hit straight away and relaxing the pressure he has usually been able to exert on batsmen. Like a few other areas, including a lack of swing in this series and a variance in his accuracy from spell to spell, Harris is searching for a solution.
"I'm aware of it but it keeps happening," Harris said. "I keep asking Michael to put a deep point out because that seems to be where I get hit. It's just something I have to get better at I guess when I am told to start bowling. Whether I have got to do more run throughs or take more time to get right. It's not good enough, the first ball every time the batsman is sitting on the back foot waiting for a short ball and that's something I have got to get better at. On Thursday I will bowl a spell and then have a rest and work on having a break to rectify it."
Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson have all shouldered a heavy load over the first two Tests as the only three pace men in the attack. Shane Watson's looming recall as a No. 6 batsman and change bowler is something Harris hoped would provide the ideal balance for Newlands, where Australia are seeking a series-clinching win over South Africa to complete a highly successful summer.
"Having Watto back would be huge, having that extra bowler," he said. "We've seen when Davey [Warner] has to bowl a few here and there and Michael has to fill in, they're bowling Watto's overs so having him there is huge for our attack. South Africa have tried to do that with their attack but lost a bowler last game. Who he comes in for I don't know, the guys who are already in there, Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh, didn't go well last game but have done well. Who knows. But I think we need Watto playing."
Should Harris play, he has one personal goal ahead of him. Needing seven wickets for 100 in Test matches when he arrived in South Africa, he is still four away from the mark, something he did not expect to get anywhere near when he left the MCG during the 2010-11 Ashes with a foot fracture. A few wickets, a victory in Cape Town, and a date with the surgeon would allow Harris some peace of mind, and the chance to further prolong his unlikely career.
"It would've been great to have them [100 wickets] now, but if I get the opportunity . . . it'd be nice to get it here," he said. "I think back to the Ashes of three years ago when we lost in Australia . . . and [at the time] I thought that could be the end of me playing Test cricket, because of my knee. To think where I was back then to where I am now, even if I finished up . . . I'd take 95 wickets.
"It would be a nice little personal achievement to get to 100 but, as I've said all through the summer and with every Test I've played, you've got to treat [each match] as your last - you never know with this thing with my leg. In saying that - and I'm probably contradicting myself - getting it fixed up when I get home will, I think, give me a bit more time. The fragments that are loose are causing the swelling, so if they're not there hopefully the swelling stays down and it's easier for me to get through."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here