South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 3rd day March 3, 2014

Harris revives memories of Merv

Ryan Harris' willingness to exert himself on this tour to South Africa, despite his badly deteriorating knee, and his effectiveness through the pain on day three in Cape Town, take one back to Merv Hughes and the 1993 Ashes

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Pankaj on March 5, 2014, 16:44 GMT

    He perhaps might not play a test in his career again but after such a second innings performance against one of the best sides of the world it is proved that he has sportsmanspirit. Just very sad because I wanted to see him and Mitchell to bowl one of the best bowling spells in Test history. With such talent, temperament and commitment, only his knee will stop him from becoming one of the best fast bowlers. But a salute to him......

  • andrews on March 4, 2014, 7:24 GMT

    MRiaz, how old was Harris when Blocker Wilson played his one and only Test? Work it out mate. When Harris was 24 he was bowling pies for SA. Many fast bowlers click at about 30. Jonesy, Australia has a brilliant bowling coach now.

  • Amarveer on March 4, 2014, 7:23 GMT

    Harris is such an impact player but sadly without longevity. Crossing fingers he can stay fit for longer and I can watch him live in England in Ashes 2015.

  • Patrick on March 4, 2014, 7:03 GMT

    @mriaz001, you really wonder why it took Australian selectors till Harris was 30 to pick him??? Because he wasn't very good until then mate!!!!

  • mohammed on March 4, 2014, 6:26 GMT

    I really wonder why it took Australian selectors till Harris was 30 to pick him when most fast bowlers are almost a spent force at that age. I can only imagine the horror he would have been to face at 24.Its not like that Australia were blessed with fast bowlers in the last 10 years what with the trundlers like Bollinger and Wilson and James Hopes being given many chances.

  • Prasanna on March 4, 2014, 6:23 GMT

    @jonesy2 , I am hoping after hope that Rhino has a successful surgery and comes back as fit as ever !! Positive messages work wonders !! All the best Rhino !!

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2014, 6:02 GMT

    Ryan Harris - you are a true champion buddy! Hope your knee holds up for a super display in the second innings. Best wishes.

  • Bryn on March 4, 2014, 5:57 GMT

    ryan goes down as a legend I don't think we will see much more from him after this test match but you never know he could get a new lease post surgery. I would employ him as bowling coach if he cant play though

  • Ragavendran on March 4, 2014, 2:24 GMT

    Absolute legend of Aussie cricket. It took great honesty and courage from him before the game to admit what he did in the media. He was too honest if anything and kudos to everyone in the team who supported and encouraged him after the first two tests.

  • Ben on March 4, 2014, 2:10 GMT

    Worth remembering the turn around for Australia happened when Rhino was re selected in England . Despite not many matches he has an average like Steyn and doesnt get many tail enders.

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