Harris ready to fight for a recall
There is a side of Paul Harris not many people know. It's the side he is lying asleep on in his profile picture on a popular social networking site, with a tiny baby boy tucked into his arm. His young son, Aiden, is eight weeks old and Harris is spending the South African winter learning how to be a hands-on father. That side of Harris is not the side that is looking for a fight, but people probably don't know much about his aggressive side either.
Harris has been South Africa's defensive spinner in Test cricket for the last four years. The nature of his role called for little confrontation, he usually had to hold up an end and dry up runs. For 37 matches, he did that, earning criticism from some sides, but always the praise of his captain, Graeme Smith and his team-mates and taking 103 wickets in the process.
In January this year, Pakistani-born legspinner Imran Tahir became eligible to play for South Africa. A month later, Tahir had played one ODI, against the West Indies in the World Cup and was awarded a national contract. At the same time, Harris lost his. "I was quite surprised when I lost my national contract," he told ESPNCricinfo. "I was told they [CSA] were looking for a more attacking bowler, but I can't say there is any bad blood between us."
That explanation means that Harris is faced with the very real possibility of not playing international cricket again and that prospect is what is going to make his fighting side emerge. "I was offered a Kolpak contract about a month ago but I turned it down because I definitely still want to play for South Africa," he said. In a bid to prove his worth, Harris has left the Lions franchise and gone back to the Titans, where he played when he was first selected for the national team.
There, he formed part of a duel-spinner line-up, where, ironically, Tahir was his spin twin. "When Richard Pybus was coaching us, Imran and I bowled a lot together and we won a few trophies." The Titans won the SuperSport Series three times under Pybus with Harris and Tahir as key bowlers in their attack. Pybus now coaches the Cobras and Tahir has moved to the Dolphins, but Harris hopes to combine with Roelof van der Merwe in similar fashion to the way he did with Tahir.
"I really want to help Roelof with his four-day game, which is one of the reasons I am going back to the Titans," Harris said. van der Merwe has been a regular in the limited-overs line-ups but has not had a consistent run at first-class level. Of the pair, van der Merwe is without doubt the more aggressive, which probably means Harris will have to play a holding role again. That's exactly the point he is trying to make to the national selectors, that the function of a defensive bowler cannot be underestimated. "The thing is that if you have Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Tahir, they are all attacking so there is no-one to hold up the other end and that's also important."
Andrew Hudson, convenor of selectors agrees. "We will need someone to keep the other end tight," he said. "Now we have to decide if that will be a second spinner or a third seamer." If they go with a third seamer, it cannot be Jacques Kallis, with the focus on managing the all-rounder. Lonwabo Tsotsobe may be tasked with the donkey work or it may be shared between part-time spinners JP Duminy and someone like Jacques Rudolph.
The selectors could do worse than turn to Harris, who understands and accepts the job, albeit not the most glamorous one, well. "I really enjoyed the role," he said. "And I think I could do it again, particularly on the subcontinent, where two spinners is a real option." The truth is that Harris will do the job on any pitch, home or away, as long as he given the chance.
Hudson has not ruled that out. "The door is definitely not shut on him, I still think he has a lot of cricket left in him," he said. "But emergence of Imran Tahir and some really good performances by spinners at the World Cup has made things a little more difficult for Paul." New bowling coach Allan Donald also believes Harris isn't finished yet. "Paul Harris has some real competition, but it's a good thing. It means he has to fight for his place in the side."
It's a battle Harris is ready for come the start of the next season. For now, though, he is enjoying his time with Aiden. "I'm being a real at home pops," he said proudly, but his voice gave away that hint of hope that maybe by the time the summer comes, he won't have to be.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent