India in SA
Harris still SA headache
Paul Harris (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Rob Houwing
on why Paul Harris could face a make-or-break personal Test in the decider against India at Newlands.
The feeling you so often get from within the South African camp is that they are “comfortable” with Paul Harris as the ongoing first-choice spinner in the Test side.
Hmm. Is it perhaps time for that particular comfort zone to be challenged? Are you, like me, getting just a little “uncomfortable” by contrast about the left-arm spinner’s near-perennial presence?
I believe it is a topic worthy of debate as the Proteas regroup for the enticing New Year Test at Newlands, a favourite stomping ground for them but now scene of their quest to just win the series (sadly 2-1 would not be enough to unseat the Indians from top perch on the rankings).
This was penned prior to knowledge of the South African squad for Cape Town, but the humbling at Kingsmead – fast becoming a modern-day hoodoo ground – should have sparked at least some soul-searching among the team’s brains trust.
In fairness to Harris, a gritty, honest competitor and appealing character who knows his strengths and limitations, his is not the only name in the side not exactly bolted down securely at present, even if an array of alterations ahead of the final Test seemed unlikely.
There’s little doubt, after all, that it was in the batting department, where the Proteas had a notably rare collective nightmare, that they mostly blew Durban.
But the comprehensive, 87-run defeat there after winning a dream toss does require a post mortem and one of the things that has gnawed at me for a while, and arguably came home to roost on the quirky Kingsmead surface, is the length of the South African tail.
In situations where the specialist batting fails, and there is the prospect of Nos 8-11 having to stand up and be counted in a ding-dong encounter, I reckon the Proteas still look a little too “light”.
And it here where better capability with the willow would do Harris -- who is probably never going to be a prodigious Test wicket-taker, let’s face it -- the power of good.
It might, for instance, help buy his spot in the team more easily, in much the same way as Ashley Giles’ ever-upward strides as a batsman aided his right to the England spinner’s berth in his later years, despite reservations about his own penetrative abilities at his first trade.
We know that “Harro” can be a courageous, straight-batted night-watchman but he is also a limited stroke-player, meaning that runs off his particular bat are limited (Test average 11.04, first-class little better at 14.36).
Alas, too, after 36 Tests the slow bowler is not showing any pronounced signs of improving his average (presently 37.25) at his main area of responsibility – meaningful hauls of wickets by him are actually becoming more, rather than less, hard to come by.
His last “five-for” was all of 25 innings back, against England at Centurion, and there have only ever been three of them anyway.
Harris’s influence on this series thus far has been as ho-hum statistically as his Test career overall: three for 156 in 53 overs. Okayish, as they say.
He has not yet been able to do a “Harbhajan” – produce a sudden volley of wickets like the Indian off-spinner so pricelessly did in South Africa’s appalling first innings at Kingsmead.
It is so often submitted in Harris’s defence that South Africa are happy for him to bottle up an end, leaving the striking to the quicker men.
As it is, I reckon there is a slightly lopsided, longterm-unhealthy reliance on the exemplary Dale Steyn for consistent wickets, especially with veteran Jacques Kallis only an occasional presence in the attack and the first-change spot unsettled despite Lonwabo Tsotsobe’s successful bid in Durban to keep the doubters at bay for the moment.
With Harris largely considered a defensive presence, is the South African attack collectively perhaps not missing an attacking trick or two? This is just another wee fear I have as they come to Cape Town suddenly a team under some pressure.
Exactly when or even whether “leggie” Imran Tahir will qualify for the country remains at the mercy of Home Affairs.
But there is still the ambitious Johan Botha lurking, even if the off-spinning all-rounder (with a first-class batting average of 34.60, wouldn’t he be a very comforting presence behind Mark Boucher at No 8?) is arguably not quite the finished article as a Test bowling factor.
Harris will in all likelihood play at Newlands, and I just about back that: he boasts 20 scalps in five Tests there at 28.20, which is considerably better than his overall average.
It is where, on debut against the very same India four years ago, he snared 4/129 in their first dig – after a lovely little spontaneous demonstration of joy as he received his maiden cap -- and also venue for his best innings analysis of 6/127 in a big dismantling of Australia in March 2009.
I certainly wish him no ill, but I also think it is a non-negotiable for Harris to come to the party over New Year.
He must wield some degree of genuine “influence” beyond mere economy at a venue where conditions do tend to suit him, especially if the Cape Doctor blows and provides him with dip and drift.
Otherwise his Test future is more tenuous than ever, or should be.
Nothing if not a committed, conscientious, what-you-see-is-what-you-get trooper, I suspect Harris will know it ...