Australia's hale and hearty hero
Finally, Ryan Harris was injured. His right hamstring twinged, he had a final word with Australia's captain, Michael Clarke, then trudged from the Oval middle. Harris did not want to leave. Even though he had dismissed Kevin Pietersen, and greatly reduced Australia's chances of defeat by doing so, there remained the sense of a match unfinished. But Clarke insisted that Harris should depart, for he had given all that might have been expected of any bowler. Certainly more than had been expected of Harris, who in his near-34 years had never played four consecutive Tests.
In a series Australia lost conclusively in terms of margin if not the day-to-day run of play, Harris kept England honest. So honest in fact that on the slow, dry pitches of their coach Andy Flower's choosing, the same batsmen who had cut, pulled and driven Ricky Ponting to distraction in 2010-11 were not once able to compile an innings of 400 runs. Words like consistent, repeated, unerring, and persistent have been seldom applicable to the Australia team in 2013 but they are all apt for Harris. In keeping fit across the series and also managing to improve on the handsome Test-match record he had brought into the Ashes, he may even have surprised himself a little.
It would have been easy for Harris to think he was never going to reach the Ashes. The quality of his bowling had been belatedly recognised by selectors at state and national levels after his move from South Australia to Queensland in 2008, and Ponting then Clarke sang his praises generously but accurately whenever he had turned out for Australia after making his Test debut in New Zealand in 2010. But his body repeatedly failed at inopportune times, a long list of injury troubles accruing as steadily as wickets did whenever he was fit.
All told, it was quite a list. There was the knee surgery that forced him home from England in 2010; the ankle fracture that ended his Boxing Day Test later that year; a hamstring strain that kept Harris out of the third Test in Sri Lanka in Clarke's first series as captain; a hip complaint that sent him home from South Africa in Clarke's second; shoulder surgery that ended his hopes of playing any Tests in the 2012-13 summer; lastly an Achilles complaint that ruled him out of the backend of the 2013 IPL. That last ailment left Harris with precious little time to regain fitness and form ahead of the Ashes, and lingering concerns about its effects kept him out of the first match at Trent Bridge.
So it was not until Lord's that Harris entered the fray, and he started as though making up for plenty of lost time. Two wickets in the first hour, three on the first day, and five in the first innings. He had set a cracking pace, and would barely let himself flag again until The Oval. Each Test can be treasured for at least one passage and usually more in which Harris earned admiration among spectators, team-mates and opponents alike. Recalling poor spells from Harris over the series is about as difficult a task as remembering poor shots by Ian Bell. His fielding was equally full-blooded, and his batting stubborn.
All the while, Harris succeeded through methods that were simple yet subtle, thoughtful yet instinctive, and aggressive yet measured. Bluff and bluster are no more a part of Harris' repertoire than fancy footwork and switch-hits are of the indefatigable opener Chris Rogers - all energy, effort and aggression is channelled into his bowling, including a bouncer more venomous than any sledge could possibly be. He excelled in confusing Alastair Cook with subtle movement either way, dragged Jonathan Trott across his crease, and in Durham humbled Joe Root with an away-cutter the equal of anything to flick Clarke's off stump.
English admiration for Harris was near enough to universal. His wickets were applauded warmly, the quality of his bowling recognised without exception by the local writers. A lack of histrionics makes Harris something of a throwback to another time - he is solid, reliable and knowledgeable where Australian cricket has become flashy, flighty and forgetful. The Oval crowd may have directed boos at Clarke on the Ashes presentation dais, but there was nothing of the sort for Harris. In contrast to Mitchell Johnson, it is impossible to imagine the Barmy Army composing a song to belittle him.
Whatever Harris offers on the field, he replicates away from it. Adam Gilchrist has noted previously that as a team-mate he is genuinely interested in hearing the thoughts of others, whether about cricket or life - a quality increasingly rare among the egos that populate international sporting change rooms. A tale emerged from the end-of-series drinks shared by the two teams that summed this up quite artfully. Harris was engaged in discussion with Stuart Broad when Australia's coach, Darren Lehmann, sidled up to the pair, wishing to join their chat. Instantly realising the history between the other two, Harris gave them room, and the timing of his earnest observation "I think you two need a moment" is said to have brought the house down.
Critical to Harris' longevity in the series, and his chances of now going on to inflict more damage on England in the return matches at home, is the decision by the national selectors to keep him and Peter Siddle away from the limited-overs formats. This is despite the obvious temptation created by Harris' ODI bowling average and strike rate, which are likely to remain frozen at an eye-popping 18.90 and 23.40 respectively. Like at The Oval when his hamstring went, Harris is very keen to return to play at all levels for his country, but has grown to understand the wisdom of allowing him to rest.
Once Harris had walked from the field on the final evening of the series, he underwent a quick examination of his hamstring, then sat down for a well-earned break, taking off his boots as he did so. What washed over him at that moment was a bittersweet mix of emotions. Disappointment over the result of this Ashes bout, but pride at the efforts that would rightly earn him Australia's Man-of-the-Series garlands. Most of all, a sense of relief and accomplishment at meeting his own goal of getting through the series without having to fly home early. In recognition of his Ashes exertions, the boots will now be placed on display at Lord's. Fortunately for Australia, Harris himself is not yet ready to become a museum piece.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here