Australia failed to handle what Paul Harris dished up on the fourth day © AFP

It was less than a year ago that Paul Harris was described by Geoff Boycott as a buffet bowler because "you just help yourself". The Australians must have been waiting for table service at Newlands, where they failed to handle what Harris dished up in a Man-of-the-Match performance that earned him his best match figures of 9 for 161.

It's a mark of a quality spinner to thrive in unhelpful conditions and on a surface where things could have gone badly wrong for Harris, he invented ways to be threatening. His second-innings return of 6 for 127 was even more impressive considering the comments of Australia's captain Ricky Ponting, who said that Harris might have turned a couple out of the rough to the left-handers but against the right-handers barely spun a ball.

A tall man at 196 centimetres (6 foot 5), Harris looks like he should be ambling in off the long run and sending down Jacques Kallis-like seamers. His seemingly innocuous style and his habit of making self-deprecating comments about picking up wickets only because batsmen try to slog him add up to create an image of a gentle giant, a joker who perhaps feels he doesn't belong at Test level.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Harris is a fierce competitor and it was on display on the final day in Cape Town, where he had a verbal clash with Michael Clarke, a man he has dismissed four times in the past three months. He didn't end up getting Clarke's wicket but he did ensure that things didn't stagnate as Australia's middle order began to make steady progress.

"Boys will be boys out on a cricket field," Harris said. "You say a few words and it gets a bit heated every now and again. Clarkey plays the game hard and I play the game hard, and that's why we have good Test matches against Australia. I have no ill feelings towards Clarkey. He's a hell of a cricketer and a nice bloke. It's just the fact that we both play hard cricket and we both played hard today."

As well as being tough with his words, Harris is a smart bowler. Whereas Australia's various spinners over the past six Tests have battled to have any real impact, he has picked up 24 wickets at 32.58 and has been an under-rated part of South Africa's attack. He has found ways to affect matches and at Newlands, on a flat pitch, he constantly drifted the ball into the pads and altered his speed and length.

He's the kind of bowler who can be carted over the boundary for 26 in an over by Mitchell Johnson, as he was in Johannesburg, yet retain the confidence to toss the ball up. It takes a brave and skilled spinner to do that and get away with it. It also takes a tough man to shake off the harsh criticism that Harris received in England last year, from Boycott and others, and become a stronger Test player.

"I dreamt about [this kind of match] but whether or not I thought it would happen, I don't know," Harris said. "It's an interesting question. I'm just happy that it's come full circle. I know I've already said it's my favourite ground but I'll say it again, it's my favourite ground in the world. To come back here and play in front of my folks and my wife, it's been a great day.

"The last three months, I've probably bowled the best I've bowled in my career so far. To play under guys like Graeme [Smith], and Jacques [Kallis] in this Test match, it's a dream for every boy growing up to play with these guys. I'm living a dream and I hope it carries on for a long time."

Harris has long since shrugged off the criticism from Boycott but there is a lingering resentment. When asked if he had a message for Boycott, who was in the Cape Town crowd to watch Harris' career-best performance, he couldn't resist a dig.

"Look, everyone is entitled to their opinion," Harris said. "I think he gets a bit personal sometimes. That's his way of doing things. No-one ever stands up to the guy. I recently stood up to him in the press and said what I think of him, so it's not a secret. I respect him as a cricketer but I don't think I respect him too much as a bloke."

Harris, on the other hand, is winning respect for his on-field efforts. The buffet is officially closed.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo