Shield final specialist Marcus Harris is keeping Ashes in perspective

Victoria opener looms as a key man in the final but says there's no added Ashes pressure given he joins Gloucestershire in a fortnight

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Marcus Harris marked the resumption of the Sheffield Shield with a century, Victoria vs Queensland, Sheffield Shield, MCG, February 9, 2023

Marcus Harris marked the resumption of the Sheffield Shield with a century  •  Getty Images

Victoria opener Marcus Harris has a staggering record in Sheffield Shield finals. In four appearances, he has scored three centuries and an 81, and has two Player-of-the-Final awards.
But his success has come on the back of a valuable lesson he learned in his first one, playing for Western Australia in March 2014.
"It didn't start well," Harris told ESPNcricinfo with typical candour. "As a WA group at that time, we hadn't been anywhere near a Shield final. We built it up to be a really big thing and I remember we ended up losing the toss and bowling for a day-and-a-half. And then I remember I was batting No. 3 and, by the end of the first over, I was in and out of my pads and back in my shorts."
On that occasion, Cameron Bancroft and Harris fell for golden ducks in the first two balls of the innings to Josh Hazlewood as WA never got close to beating New South Wales in a rain-affected draw.
Harris' personal redemption was swift. WA were again on the wrong side of a draw against Victoria 12 months later, but Harris was Player of the Match in Hobart making 81 and an unbeaten 153-ball 158 amid a tough week for his family.
"My Nanna passed away the week before the Shield final, so I was really spurred on to do well that week," Harris said. "I think it sort of took my mind off the game being so big. I had to deal with Nanna passing away and the funeral and I probably had one of my best games ever in a Shield final."
Since leaving WA to join Victoria in 2016, he has been part of two winning Sheffield Shield teams. He scored 120 and 21 in a draw against South Australia in 2017 in Alice Springs to secure Victoria a third straight title. But arguably his best performance came in Victoria's 2019 triumph, when he made a sparkling 141 on a difficult pitch at Junction Oval against a high-class NSW attack in a game where only two other players passed 50 and the next highest score was 75.
"I just think I've always enjoyed playing in finals, even in club cricket for Scarborough and junior finals," Harris said. "I've always done okay. I just think I enjoy the big moment and I don't put too much pressure on myself. I try and enjoy the game but it's one of those things where I feel like it just gets me up and about."
The 2019 final had extra significance and added pressure. It was played with an Ashes tour looming in a summer where Harris was the incumbent Test opener, having earned his baggy green that season while also becoming the last batter to pass 1000 runs in a Shield campaign. While he was the Test incumbent and delivered in that Shield final, he was under pressure to keep his Test place in England with the looming returns of David Warner and Bancroft from their post-Newlands bans.
There are direct parallels to this week's Shield final. Then, like now, Harris enters the decider in Perth against WA as a key man to watch with a World Test Championship final in England and an away Ashes looming. Harris, 30, is not an incumbent Test batter but he is firmly in the frame for England having been part of Australia's Test squad for five home Tests during the summer without playing. He did not travel to India for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as Australia's selectors opted for a horse-for-course approach with Travis Head promoted to open when Warner got injured in Delhi. But during regular conversations with Australia chairman of selectors George Bailey and coach Andrew McDonald, it has been made clear to Harris that he remains on their radar to play in England because of his experience there.
"I feel confident in my body of work that I've had for six or seven years now and I feel like if I'm called upon that I'm ready to go and I can perform at the level I know I can. And if that stuff doesn't happen, so be it"
Marcus Harris on his English experience
Unlike 2019, where Warner and Bancroft loomed large on Harris' incumbency, it is Warner's place that is under the microscope, with Harris and Bancroft at the top of the list of candidates putting pressure on him. Bancroft, who will feature for WA in this week's final, has put his name back in the frame after scoring six Shield centuries across 23 innings in the last 12 months, including 141 against Victoria in last year's Shield final at the WACA and four more this season.
Four years older and wiser, having just got married to his partner Cat on Sunday, Harris understands that this week is not the be-all and end-all for his Ashes hopes given he is set to play for Gloucestershire in the opening round of the county championship in just over a fortnight.
"I think the key is just keeping focused on what I'm doing rather than what everyone else is doing," Harris said. "There's always chat especially around an Ashes series. It's the biggest series we play in. There's always going to be chat and speculation around who's doing what and who's going where. I think what I have in my favour and what I have confidence-wise is that this will be my third season in England in a row now.
"I'm probably not putting too much pressure on myself all the time to have to perform. I obviously want to perform every game I play in but I understand that I'm playing 12 months a year now. It's not like if I miss out this week in the Shield game I'm not going to be able to play cricket again until October. I know I've got another game in a week-and-a-half's time in England. I'm in a fortunate position where I can play all the time. And I feel like the game is in a good place now where I understand my game. I can constantly tweak and not feel like I'm hindering my game. I think that just comes with age."
If there are questions about Warner's place for the Ashes following his disastrous 2019 series, there will inevitably be questions of Harris in the same breath given he also averaged less than 10 in the six innings he played and was similarly tortured by Stuart Broad from around the wicket.
But Harris has more first-class centuries in England than any other Australian Ashes candidate currently outside the Test XI, having scored three in each of his last two seasons for Leicestershire (2021) and Gloucestershire (2022).
"I've enjoyed the challenge of England, rocking up to a different ground every week and having to problem solve a different way to try and make runs and I think that's helped me as a player," Harris said. "I feel confident in my body of work that I've had for six or seven years now and I feel like if I'm called upon that I'm ready to go and I can perform at the level I know I can. And if that stuff doesn't happen so be it. I know I've still got a season with Gloucester to play and I'll be back home for Victoria."
That's where his attention is this week, trying to win another Shield title for Victoria at his old stomping ground. Harris showcased his WACA experience on a difficult pitch last week, making 84 and 29 as the visitors beat the reigning champions to qualify for this week's final. Harris missed last year's decider because he was on tour in Pakistan. But he brings valuable WACA intel for a young Victorian line-up determined to cause an upset.
"I think the tough thing for younger blokes coming to Perth, it gets spoken about so much in the meetings and before the game and sometimes you can almost psych yourself out before you actually get out there," Harris said. "I think it's been good for us to be able to have the game here last week before the final.
"At the WACA, JL [Justin Langer] always used to speak about giving yourself 30 balls to get yourself in, just because it was so different to what we play on [elsewhere] and then go from there. But give yourself a chance early and then assess it as you go on."

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo