Harris: Strangler, surfer dude
Paul Harris (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - He was seldom the sort of cricketer to thrill people through sheer weight of personal, statistical performance.
But Paul Harris, 34, whose signalling on Tuesday of retirement at the end of the summer almost certainly means his international career is over too, was easy enough to respect whilst on Test duty for the Proteas, all the same.
Fellow-South African spinners like Test incumbent Robin Peterson or the currently out-of-favour Imran Tahir are going to have to drop like flies through injury or collectively lose their lustre in a great hurry if “Harro” (we have always handed out such devastatingly original nicknames in this country, haven’t we?) is to add to his tally of 37 caps before 2012/13 has run its course and he swaps his cricket trunk for a just as cumbersome surfboard bag.
Not particularly long ago, I was just one observer who believed Harris might yet have a shot at returning to the Test frame, fancying that in circumstances where two specialist spinners might be the right brew - on the crumbly strips of the Subcontinent, for instance - the legendarily containing Harris (Test career economy rate 2.65) could still offer up a decent foil to, say, the risky, run-leaking skills of leg-spinner Tahir.
Keeping an end tight, Ashley Giles-like (and perhaps better?), was undoubtedly Harris’s forte for the Proteas: there is a case for saying that as a result of his strangulation, others - particularly in the pace arsenal - effectively pinched some of his wickets.
But for the moment Tahir has slipped from grace, too, and it is rather harder to imagine, for example, a two-pronged alliance of left-armers in the same SA team, in the form of both Peterson (a mere year younger, for the record) and Harris.
Having fought his way into the first-class frame from the reasonably unfashionable environs of Fish Hoek, first for Western Province and then in more long-serving duty to the Titans, Harris made his Test debut against India at Newlands in January 2007.
It is that nation which really book-ended Harris’s career for the Proteas, because his final Test appearance was against the same opponents and at the same ground in January 2011.
On that occasion, you strongly sensed in the immediate aftermath that Graeme Smith and others had finally lost faith in his potential ability to be a day-five match-winner: Harris got nought for 29 in 30 frustrating overs as the Indians very safely blocked or padded out a fourth-innings draw to split the series 1-1.
But he was always capable of key, sometimes under-appreciated little cameos in Tests - like when he suckered out a flying Kevin Pietersen, on 94, in the Edgbaston Test of 2008 which South Africa later won to ensure a landmark series triumph.
While well short of a Usain Bolt for athleticism, which may go a long way to explaining why Harris’s land-it-on-a-penny bowling ability only ever saw him win three ODI appearances, he was a stoical figure as a tail-end Test batsman, and often logical choice as nightwatchman as he was commendably prepared to get in line, play straight and absorb a few dings to the ribcage.
Press conferences were often illuminated by his honesty and the seldom-absent twinkle of mischief in his eyes, and he was the sort who would mostly have a good rapport with close-to-the-boundary spectators or young autograph hunters worldwide whenever he was lurking as a slightly ungainly fielder in that rough vicinity, too.
Harris will stop short of going down in the pantheon of global spin bowling legends, but then so do many other South African tweakmeisters, when you think about it.
He will more assuredly, however, be documented as an eternally honest, willing and competent servant and an appealing, often animated character for his country. For instance, many of us may never forget the spontaneous little gesture of unbridled chuffedness (if you’ll pardon the concocted expression) when he received his maiden Test cap amidst an appreciative on-field huddle of team-mates.
There are immeasurably worse crimes than those characteristics, aren’t there?
I won’t be the only one wishing the following: thrive in your post-cricket landscape, Harro ...
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