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Russell Jackson

When Harris grimaced, Australia smiled

Equal parts carthorse and strike bowler, whether fit and firing or bruised and shrugging away pain, he bowled for wins, and more often than not he got them

Russell Jackson
Russell Jackson
Ryan Harris is congratulated on dismissing Virat Kohli, Australia v India, 4th Test, Sydney, 4th day, January 9, 2015

Rough and earthy on the outside, loved all over Australia  •  Getty Images

It's always fraught to start a sentence with the words "there are two types of people in this world", but I'm going to give it a go anyway. To my mind there are two types of cricketers in the world. Two interesting types, at any rate.
The first type are the ones who we quite erroneously believe are just like us - humble in victory, all too human in defeat - when in actual fact they're so much more. They just placate the narcissist in us, convincing us that with a bit of practice and luck we could probably pull it off too. We couldn't. Ed Cowan is one of those.
The second type of cricketer is the one who does things none of us could ever dream of, feats so stupendous as to take us out of ourselves and question how that shot, that catch, that delivery was even possible to create with human limbs. AB de Villiers, Kevin Pietersen and Shane Warne are and were that type.
This theory is a bit rubbish really and no cricketer proves it better than Ryan Harris, who retired from Test cricket last week after pulling off a wonderful, prolific late-career bloom as a world-beating bowler, and who could justly be described as a combination of the two types of cricketer I just mentioned.
By the final half-decade of his career Harris could do truly remarkable things with new balls, old balls, and somewhere-in-between balls, capabilities that came to him with age and experience and a lot of hard work. Like some tireless mathematician finally establishing the correct formula after years of barren toil he took 185 of his 303 first-class wickets - 61% of them - in the final six years of his 16-year professional career.
Having made that performance breakthrough and perfectly refined his bowling tricks, Harris no longer has a body that can match his mind, and so after 113 Test wickets in 27 appearances (the exact same analysis as Bruce Reid) we lose a bowler whose rough exterior and earthy persona made him as close to a universally liked Australian cricketer as you'll get.
The first time I saw Harris live he was playing for South Australia at the Punt Road Oval - now also decommissioned for the purposes of cricket matches - in an early-2000s Australian domestic game. That was a milieu in which there was a great distortion of perspective that created a sense of ordinariness; so dense a concentration of quite extraordinary players who couldn't get a game for Australia that a man like Harris couldn't possibly hope to stand out, even with his all-round talents.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a late bloomer so prone to injury, only two of his 13 seasons in Australian first-class cricket brought 30 wickets or more, a statistic that underlines how complicated the art of selecting fast bowlers for Test duty really is. For South Australia he took 67 first-class wickets at an unimposing 37, but the move to Queensland was inspired. There he claimed 101 at 23.38.
Over the past few years I developed a detailed, multi-layered fictitious character in my head - an alternative-reality Ryan Harris, one without cricket fame. He made it a little easier with the Southern Cross tattoo - a bogan Australian rite of the early 21st century that on Harris somehow, miraculously, didn't seem quite such a crass accoutrement - and that amusing episode in which he was denied entry to a Perth casino after enjoying Australia's last Ashes win a little too hard. No matter what he did with the ball, you could still also picture him as a knockabout tradesman reversing his Ute down your driveway, cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, arriving to build an entire pergola by sunset or re-stump your living-room floor.
Sometimes he'd bend down on his haunches and tug at the bottom of his shirt as though steeling himself to cart a fully loaded wheelbarrow of bricks to the crease
What this belies was the finesse in Harris' cricket - the wrist positioning, the variation of pace and line, the canny conservation and concentration of energy to bowl unyielding spells of hostile, accurate cutters and swingers; and the sturdy batting. By the end of a day's play he'd be shuffling back to his mark wearing an exaggerated grimace, beads of sweat rolling down his stubbly, sun-bleached face. Sometimes he'd bend down on his haunches and tug at the bottom of his shirt as though steeling himself to cart a fully loaded wheelbarrow of bricks to the crease. He'd be limping. He'd look broken - often he actually was - but then he'd just turn on his heels, bound in again and unleash one final blast of venom and guile to take a late-spell wicket and change the complexion of the game.
From that short, wonderful stretch of time (four years, 10 months) in which he was Ryan Harris, Australian Test cricketer, I'll always remember him as the unfailingly accurate, unflinching marksman he was on the day that Australia finally overthrew South Africa's resistance in the gloom of the third and deciding Cape Town Test in 2014.
Mitchell Johnson had hit South Africa with everything short of an actual blowtorch in that series, and almost maimed a few of them, but it was Harris - with the three key wickets of Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and JP Duminy in the first innings and then four more in the second - who ran through Dale Steyn and then Morne Morkel to finish off that decider in the nick of time. Morkel, padding wrapped so thickly around his chest that he had grown to the dimensions of a sumo, never stood a chance. When Harris castled him and sprinted out towards third man to be swamped by his ecstatic, relieved team-mates, all of Australia wanted to pile on top too and then probably carry him home in a sedan chair, showering him with beer.
We didn't have Harris for very long but he worked his way inside hearts in a manner that only the best and the most courageous can. His analysis in that final innings at Cape Town - 24.5 overs, 15 maidens, four wickets for 32 runs at the miserly rate of 1.30 per over - said best what an irreplaceable commodity he was: equal parts carthorse and strike bowler. With Harris on board no side was lacking in spirit or pride.
That Harris' final Test bowling performance for Australia ended up being a thankless and wicketless one against India as the drawn Sydney Test of January wound down seems in hindsight so unceremonious as to require some kind of formal correction, a ticker-tape parade perhaps, or the keys to every major city in Australia, or guaranteed entry to all licensed establishments.
Whether he was fit and firing or battered and bruised, Harris bowled for wins, and more often than not, he got them. Those were wins that made Australia the best again, and so Harris will now remain a symbol of that dizzying period of restored glory, the period in which a proud cricket nation finally got its shit together again.
When Ryan Harris grimaced, Australia smiled.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko