Sri Lanka v Australia, 2nd Test, Pallekele, 5th day September 12, 2011

Harris as valuable as he is fragile

Australia's success thus far in Sri Lanka could not have taken place without Ryan Harris and his combination of speed, swing and seam

Ryan Harris, all bustling pace and wickedly late movement, has become Australian cricket's most precious bowling commodity. The great pity for Harris and Australia is that at the age of 31 he is also among its most fragile. The heavy rain that shrouded Pallekele and ruined any chance of a result on the final day could not obscure the outstanding quality of Harris' bowling on a dead pitch. But a hamstring scare illustrated why Australia's team management had already discussed the possibility of resting Harris for the final Test in Colombo should the series be decided.

Those who first saw Harris bowling at little more than medium pace for South Australia, with the Redbacks keeper Graham Manou standing up to the stumps for him, have been endlessly amazed and fascinated by the leap he made in subsequent years. He gained in pace, accuracy and self-assurance, augmenting the amiable temperament that made him a popular team man even before first-class and Test wickets started to arrive in bunches.

Harris himself puts the change down to growing up, gaining in fitness and strength, and also becoming a little more comfortable in revered cricket company after years of uncertainty and single-season contracts with South Australia. Adelaide's rusted-on cricket culture, which alternates between extremes of lethargy, drinking and infighting, might also have held him back. Nonetheless, he was as quick, if not as confident, as he is today before he chose to leave. A move to Queensland - they offered a three-year contract following Harris' one and only full season with SA - completed the transformation.

Australia's success thus far in Sri Lanka could not have taken place without Harris' combination of speed, swing and seam, all achieved with a level of accuracy that has given the hosts very little room to manoeuvre. His run to the wicket and bowling action are things of more power than beauty, making his epithet "Rhino" all the more fitting. But he explodes through the crease with exceptional rhythm at his best, then utilises a strong wrist and seam position to gain the sort of deviation few batsmen can counter. In Pallekele, Harris defeated top-order opponents in each innings by conjuring the most dastardly of tricks, shaping the ball one way and then seaming it back the other.

On the first morning it was Tharanga Paranvitana who could not counter this, edging behind to Brad Haddin. But the collector's item was the wicket of Kumar Sangakkara, seemingly entrenched for a long stay to make the game safe on day five. Harris' first over with the second new ball had been met largely with the full face of Sangakkara's bat - he was seeing it well enough. Then in his second a straighter deliver curled subtly in the direction of leg stump before zipping towards the off. Sangakkara's bat was angled, understandably, towards wide mid-on, and the cut away from him resulted in an edge to Michael Clarke at second slip. Clarke's praise for Harris after the Galle Test was the warmest a captain could offer to his bowler, and on the evidence of this ball it was entirely warranted.

Among other international bowlers in 2011, perhaps only South Africa's Dale Steyn and the English quartet of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan can be considered Harris' equals or betters with the new ball in hand. Across the admittedly small sample of seven Test matches, an average of 20.90 and strike rate of 42.6 places Harris in the most rarified of company. Steyn's 238 wickets at 23.21 and a strike rate of 39.9 has him well out in front as the most destructive bowler of his time, but the comparison with Harris will be intriguing if the Australian can hold his body together for the Test matches in South Africa in November.

This, unfortunately, is a more open question than anyone would like it to be. Harris' career has been so speckled with injury troubles that the Australian team hierarchy is presently grateful to have him for however long he has, even if it is only a handful more matches. Following last year's Perth Ashes Test, in which Harris' nine wickets played a key part in securing Australia's only win of a dire summer, he spoke candidly about the battered knee that requires constant management and selective training to keep him on the park. He is closer than most are to their surgeon.

There was plenty of painful irony then at the MCG, when it was not Harris' knee but his ankle that fractured under the stress of his whole-hearted run to the bowling crease. The break ended his season, and he was not sighted again until the Indian Premier League, which he used as a warm-up to the upcoming Australian schedule with a program more dedicated to physio and rehab than the bars and parties that would have been his usual haunts in earlier years.

During that latest convalescence, the Australian selectors decided that in future they would use Harris as a Test match specialist, leaving him out of the ODI squad for Sri Lanka even though his record in the format - 41 wickets at 16.12 - is even more spectacular than his Test match figures. To that end Harris trained with longer spells and back-to-back Tests in mind, and in Pallekele he pushed himself through a number of punishing stints at the crease, extracting life from a pitch that had very little to offer once the initial moisture of the first morning had evaporated.

After Sangakkara he took one more wicket for the Test, his sixth, when Prasanna Jayawardene edged a ball that left him after the previous two had angled in towards his stumps. The celebrations were soon followed by the worrying sight of Harris heading off to assess a hamstring complaint, and there were plenty of concerned looks among his team-mates as he left. They know exactly how much Harris can add to the Australian attack when he plays, and how much is lost when he does not.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on September 15, 2011, 7:08 GMT

    It is nice to see people attacking arguments and not the people that make them. Good debate guys. Enjoying it - except VivGilchrist, that was a little unkind. Don't always agree with you, Hyclass, but you are making sense to me today.

  • Andrew on September 15, 2011, 1:23 GMT

    @Hyclass - happy enough to say that Harris has a good start to his career. As for Lyon - who knows how good he is currently or will be? I don't begrudge him getting a 5 for, even on a dodgy pitch, in Oz our poor spinners bowl on spin UN-friendly strips more often than not. So make hay while the sun shines I say! On the topic of Marsh, dunno whether which type of West Ozzy he'll be - Mike Hussey or Marcus North? Hoping the former. Just on the sample size, I knew that Harris's "career" is abbreviated thus far compared to 200+ club, the relevance IMO was that (excluding freak series), the Wickets Per Match doesn't vary greatly over a career. Usually it settles to a point & is maintained.

  • Christopher on September 14, 2011, 11:53 GMT

    @Meety..I enjoy your blogs,but you must be aware that i only operate on evidence.Im sure youre correct about the overall impression of negativity,but its the inevitable consequence of repeting evidence,when emotive peoples perceptions,refuse facts.I understand your purpose,but your sample differences are far too disparate to be relevent to each other.Over 200 wickets represents a career.31 wickets,little more than a series.Stuart Clark had a brighter start and went on to 94 wickets.Lets just agree that Harris is doing well,without the hyperbole.As for Lyon,he has 5/34 in one innings on this tour on an ICC sanctioned pitch,'The driest first day pitch ive seen',to quote Hussey.Herath had a day out as well.Lyon has 5 for 288 in his other 5 innings in SL at 57. The pitch at Pallakelle was flat and this SL attack,currently the worlds weakest by some distance.At 1st class level,SL pacemen rarely take 3 wickets a match average,despite their S/R.It suggests they only bowl new ball spells.

  • Andrew on September 14, 2011, 8:24 GMT

    @hyclass - mate, I agree with a lot of the things you put forward, however, the arguement you just put fwd regarding "...@Meetys comparison is with 200+ wicket takers and as an evidential exercise,is irrelevent..." has no basis (at least presented by you), to refute. What I put fwd was a bench-mark, & 4 wickets or better per Test is quite good. It is actually something that many commentators/experts say is very good at Test Level. Wasim Akram nearly made the Greatest XI of alltime judged by cricinfo with an INFERIOR wickets per match ratio. I know you have written supporting blogs for certain players, but its a fraction of the overall efforts. Oz are by no means home & hosed. There is still the eventual retirements of Punter, Hussey & Haddin to manage, but they are giving it a red-hot shot & I think currently deserve praise, not bagging. Lyon is bagged for having got wickets on a bowlers pitch, Marsh gets bagged for scoring runs on a flat pitch. Can only play whats in front of you-IMO!

  • Christopher on September 14, 2011, 6:48 GMT

    For those who like to AVOID evidence based criticism of their personal favourites,by ascribing it to negativity,in order to deflect adequate debate,here are players in recent times that i have written SUPPORTING blogs for,on Cricinfo,ALL born AFTER 1923,so I am told: D. Hussey,Katich,Watson,Clarke,Haddin,Copeland,O'Keefe,Hauritz,Hughes,Cosgrove,McDonald,Johnson,Rogers,North,Coulter-Nile,Wade,Maxwell,Nevill,Smith,Swan,Dilshan,Prasanna,Eranga. My criticisms have been reserved for a lack of integrity and accountability at CA,their processes,from appointments & BBL to selection & the retention of players for too long,out of form.I saw the SL attack as weak 1st class level,needing a 3rd paceman like Eranga,not Randiv.Dilshan bowls spin. On Marsh,Pattinson and Lyon,any statistical anomoly in the short term will almost certainly be repealed over a much larger time sample.Thats why players have averages.Hussey averaged 81 after 18 months.His Test average now reflects his 1st class average.

  • Christopher on September 14, 2011, 4:11 GMT

    @HatsforBats.Refusing to be drawn on hyperbole,is vastly removed from criticism.At no time have i criticised him in this,or any other article.@Meetys comparison is with 200+ wicket takers and as an evidential exercise,is irrelevent.Brettig saw in this article,the need to temper his optimism with facts,'An admittedly small sample'-7 games-31 wickets and 5 other bowlers,who are ahead of him,this year.Stuart Clark had 47 wickets after 9 Tests at 17.80,with 8 of the Tests being against SA and England.Are we talking about him as Steyns equal?I quote Bradman because Im aware that excellence and intelligence are timeless.The list of what i oppose is short and evidence based.That which I support dwarfs it.The Argus Review vindicates my position.Operate on accountability and merit principles and succeed.The ethics,order of selection and operation of Institutions that took No.1,were reversed by CA,as was their success.My interest is in restoring a timeless order to a fast evolving sport.

  • Andrew on September 14, 2011, 2:00 GMT

    @HatsforBats - as I said previously re: Copeland a big YES, but with some science as I dunno what the flow on effects would be. I agree with Hyclass - that extra pace may actually unbalance what makes Copeland click! Being slow (as the Brettig article indicated), may be Copeland's BIG weapon! I'd hate to see him end up like Reid though!! @AidanFX - I agree that Lyon has done well so far, (so well he didn't get dropped after the 1st test anyways... there's always time before the 3rd Test - LOL!). However, for mine O'Keefe must be given a chance (should the opportunity arises), BEFORE Beer or Doherty gets another crack. I think Hauritz is not gone & forgotten from a recall in Tests or ODIs. O'Keefe, needs to be looked at, as like Copeland he has built up a body of work (Shield Stats), that more than suggests he would be good at Test level, (NOT TwentyTwenty!). He also can bat, (something that I believe that Lyon & Copeland are more than capable of too).

  • kieran on September 14, 2011, 1:27 GMT

    @ Meety & hyclass: I'm not advocating Copeland hits the gym, packs it on with protein shakes and tries to bowl 145kph. The kid is a whippet and I don't think you'd find one bowler who would not say that some extra strength is a bad thing. At his age I'm sure he'll be due to start filling out in the next couple of years anyway. And I have to agree with Meety; how about some positivity? Harris has had a better start to his career than Steyn. He's taking his wickets @ 21, there is NOTHING there to criticise him about. And Marsh scored a century, which is something his stats suggest he shouldn't have. Credit where it's due.

  • Basil on September 13, 2011, 22:15 GMT

    Meety is right, hyclass you never have anything positive to say about anyone born after 1923. We're not talking about Bradman, Larwood, and Grimmet. The game has changed. Bradman didn't sweat - he was also 7'5 and could bowl 160mph in the nets too but he was too much the gentleman to allow himself to dominate with the ball as well I suppose.

  • Aidan on September 13, 2011, 8:31 GMT

    Of all the trialled spinners (assuming Hauritz has been ousted for good; whom I still rate as a very good bowler) Lyon looks the goods for mine. The guy is only 23 and has come from now where so he hasn't had a proper muscle and fitness development. If he tones up he could become a genuinely good offspin bowler. Even though he hasn't had much success second test, I still Liked the look of him; he has a lot of upside, more so than Krejza (no control) and Beer both of who are getting oldish. The selectors should bare long term pain and stick with Lyon; unless Hauritz recovers from injury and builds form and they re-award him a spot in the Aus squad.

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