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QANTAS TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA 2018

Harris tells inside tale of Cape Town decider

14 June 2017
Our voices

In the late afternoon Cape Town sun, Ryan Harris digs deep and finds it within himself to will Australia to a memorable Test series victory

@AdamBurnett09
@AdamBurnett09

Adam Burnett is senior news editor of bigbash.com.au. He previously wrote for and edited at Inside Cricket magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK.

Ryan Harris isn't listening to the questions so much anymore.

Physically, he's present. He looks every bit the ex-cricketer, suitably attired in coaching garb after another day working with the country's finest up-and-comers. He sits beside the white picket fence surrounding Brisbane's Allan Border Field, his home nowadays in a new life not far removed from his previous one, though at the same time a world away.

And that's where his mind has journeyed.

To another time and place.

When his body could still bend to his bidding, provided he was prepared to demand from it the sort of output he knew would end in pain.


"There were a lot of painful nights," he says.

But he'd do it all again.

Given half a chance, he'd do it all again tomorrow.

That's how badly he misses it.


***


The feelings are still strong. The recollections vivid.

Day five, the shadows lengthening, bodies tired to the point of exhaustion.

"Mitch was cooked," Harris says. "He was done. He'd bowled a lot of overs.

"And James Pattinson was sore; he ended up with a stress fracture in his back.

"Michael came to me, and I knew the time was coming for me to bowl again."


***


Australia had savoured the rare feat of an Ashes whitewash over the 2013-14 summer. It was a hell of a statement at any time, but in the context of what transpired in the months before, it was monumental; the most successful nation in history had lost six straight Tests for just the third time in more than a century.

The humiliation stung like sweat in the eyes. But it galvanised, too. England had no idea they'd be met by a barrage of fire and brimstone Down Under and their attempts to cope were woefully inadequate.

Australia won in Brisbane, then in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne. England lost three of their best players along the way and were thrashed inside three days in Sydney.

Australia's road to Ashes glory

Five-nil.

Redemption was sweet, but it wasn't complete.

Destiny for Australia – and for Harris – was tied up with a return to the pinnacle of the world rankings, which meant beating the team that occupied top spot.

South Africa.

"That was a great period in Australian cricket," Harris says, remembering.

"A great group of guys."


***


"It's late in the afternoon, the golden ales have kicked in and you're being called every name under the sun," Harris says.

"You look to that certain part of the ground and see that sea of yellow hats of the Aussie supporters group, it's a nice feeling.

"You hear those encouraging words in that Aussie accent: 'C'mon Ryno!'

"It does give you that little bit extra."

Australia supporters on the Cape Town outfield // CATO

A three-match series was level at one-all.

Australia had dominated much of the deciding Test, played at the Newlands ground in Cape Town, at the foot of the spectacular Table Mountain. It was an appropriate setting for a title fight. The South Africans though, were unbeaten in 10 at the venue. And they could lean on a recent history of hanging tough; 16 months earlier, they'd endured for a day-and-a-half at Adelaide Oval to save a Test. It was an unthinkable result that burned the Australians. And it lingered in the backs of minds.

Harris, meanwhile, was fighting his own battle, on no fewer than three fronts. Twelve Tests in eight months were beginning to tell on a body ravaged by a cruel career choice. His chronic knee injury was making each step a struggle. "I put up with a lot of pain in my knee," he says. "Running in differently each ball, starting my run-up earlier so I could hit my mark with a bit of momentum. Those were the sorts of things I did."

But there was a hip flexor problem as well. An ailment that hadn't been advertised and for which he'd been undergoing painful needle treatment. Each night he'd spend hours on the physio bench, in the care of team doctor Peter Brukner. "He had sore hands at the end of it," Harris says with a smile. "The knee was minor compared to the hip."

Harris had learned to master the physical pain. At 34, he'd been dealing with it for more than a decade. But what he hadn't anticipated was the third front. A struggle that snuck up and implanted itself in his mind.


***


It hit him in Port Elizabeth.

Standing in the outfield of St George's Park, as the big brass band in the western grandstand beat and blew, the patrons imbibing cheap beers bounced and swayed, and the thousands of school kids on a day out cheered and hollered.

Harris had bowled just 13 overs, and was dealt with in a manner he wasn't accustomed to; hammered for 74 as South Africa built a second-innings lead from which they wouldn't be headed.

More than the runs leaked, was the feeling his opponents had preyed upon something he hadn't felt in 22 Tests previous.

Uncertainty.

Harris reacts as the Proteas pile on the pain in PE // Getty

It was a foreign concept, and it landed like a hammer blow.

"It was the first time in Test cricket I'd doubted myself," he says.

"I just didn't feel right in what I was doing. I couldn't put the ball where I wanted to put it.

"I thought, 'This could be it for me'."


***


Michael Clarke's emotions have boiled over. The clock has ticked down and the pressure has ratcheted up. He's said things to highly-respected rival Dale Steyn he later regrets, and publicly apologises for.

"He was under the pump," Harris says. "It didn't look pretty. It wasn't pretty. But it was just that heat-of-the-moment thing."

Tensions boil over on the fifth afternoon heat at Newlands // Getty

Five days have become 20 minutes.

Careers have boiled down to this.

Back in Australia, it's the middle of the night. Sport is designed for these moments. When the tension and the climax is fraught with emotion and nothing else matters. A silent army of supporters dotted around the country carry out their vigils in the glow of their television screens. Hoping, praying for deliverance.

"I saw in the corner of my eye Michael was coming over to me," Harris says.

"So I walked away from the wicket.

"In my head I'm thinking, 'Don't come and talk to me'."


***


Harris wasn't even sure he was going to play. Not because of the knee or the hip. He'd manage the pain like he always had. But because he thought he might have lost it. His bowling gifts had made him among the very best in the world, but they'd always just come to him. He worked hard, no question. But the basics were there, rooted in place. They reassured and comforted like his oldest friend. He could always fall back on them.

But suddenly, he couldn't.

"I'd never had those negative feelings before," he says. "The way I bowled in Port Elizabeth, I thought I was nearly done."

And so he turned to an empathetic ear. Craig McDermott, Australia's fast-bowling coach at the time, was well versed in injuries and crises of confidence. The pair spoke. For all his doubts, Harris had taken 29 wickets in his past seven Tests. He'd swung and steamed his way into a nation's heart across the home summer. And while his body creaked, he wasn't washed up. He was also on the cusp of a significant milestone: four short of 100 Test wickets. He knew all those things. He just needed a little reminder.

Harris and McDermott talk at training // Getty

"We had a few words," Harris says. "He told me to stop thinking about silly shit.

"He tickled my back. Made me feel good."


***


South Africa needed a world record total of 511 to win.

Just six overs into their reply, they were 3-15. Harris had struck first, in his second over. And Mitchell Johnson had gone bang, bang. The result was a fait accompli. It was tea on day four.

"At that point I'm thinking I'm having a cold beer nice and early," Harris says. "We sent a shiver down their middle order, and it was a decent middle order.

"But those guys, they fight hard – that's what they do."

Aussies with work to do

The hosts took it to a final day. They went to lunch five wickets down. The pair now in the middle was steadfast. At one end was Faf du Plessis, hero of Adelaide.

At the other, AB de Villiers. The best batsman on the planet, with a rating of 935 by the International Cricket Council, among the highest in history. De Villiers had passed fifty in his previous 12 Tests – a world record he still owns. He'd been at the crease for more than five hours.

"They'd done it in Adelaide," Harris says. "We knew how they could stonewall and defend.

"A draw would've been like a loss."

Harris was in his 15th over. Sixteen hours earlier, flat on his back receiving treatment, he genuinely didn't think he'd be able to bowl on this final day. A shiny new rock in his hand had heartened him somewhat, but the central problem remained: de Villiers. The Proteas ace had proven immovable for 227 deliveries and had set his sights on grinding Australia's wilting bodies into the Newlands dirt. He'd batted more than two sessions, and needed only to survive two more. Less.

Du Plessis and de Villiers were keeping Australia at bay // Getty

"There's a funny story about that actually," Harris says.

The trace of a smile slowly spreads across his face as he remembers how it unfolded. He'll always be known for the 'Cook ball' in Perth – perhaps the best he ever bowled. But, given the significance, the 'de Villiers ball' is up there. That its origin stemmed from the helpfulness of standing umpire Kumar Dharmasena only adds to the mystique.

"It's funny how different umpires talk to you in different ways," Harris says. "He came up to me and said, 'Why are you bowling so wide? You've been closer to the stumps before'."

Fearing he would run into the no-go zone on the pitch in his follow-through, Harris was reticent to cop the tip. But Dharmasena assured him.

"He said, 'You're nowhere near it'."

So in he went. So close to the stumps in fact, he felt like he was jumping over them. It created a new angle. Third ball he found the edge of de Villiers' bat. Brad Haddin took the catch.

"It was a good ball," Harris says. "I remember that one. I couldn't believe I actually bowled it. I've never watched it back. It probably wasn't much of a difference. But it was just enough."


***


And so to Clarke and Harris. South Africa's second innings had survived 134 overs, it needed to last five more. They continued to cling on, by just two wickets.

"Michael came and put his arm around me, said, 'How you feeling?'" Harris remembers.

"I said, 'Not great to be honest … but what do you need?'

"'Well it's either you or me'.

"I said 'What do you mean?'.

"'Well either I'm going to bowl or you are'.

"I said 'mate, you're not going to bowl. You're not going to win it for us'."

Clarke and Harris in South Africa // Getty

A humble Harris recalls that final line with a sense of tongue-in-cheek, but the sentiment was nonetheless fact. It was up to him. Dale Steyn had survived 43 balls, scoring a solitary, meaningless run. He and Vernon Philander, who was on 51 at the other end, having faced 105 balls, needed to stonewall for another 30 to see it out. Harris took the ball from his captain, summoned his last reserves.

"If I'm not bowling my overs, your mates around you are suffering, your captain's suffering, your team's suffering," he says. "That was our mentality. That's the Australian way. And in that situation, when you've got a chance to win a Test match for your country ... that's the sort of thing you dream of. Unless I physically couldn't bowl…"

Steyn didn't last another ball.

"I still don't know how it hit the stumps," Harris says, shaking his head. "Where I delivered it from, the line it went on."

A full delivery had beaten Steyn as he attempted to jam his bat down on the ball, and unbeknownst to Harris, it had somehow deviated from a footmark and cannoned into off stump. The jubilation of Haddin and the slips cordon revealed to the fast bowler what had transpired.

The Aussies celebrate as Steyn is bowled // Getty

It was all he needed.

"I got that second wind," he says. "I knew I was going in for surgery with my knee, so it didn't matter what happened with that. As long as I could get through the overs, it didn't matter if I couldn't walk off the ground.

"One final push."

Morne Morkel came to the middle. Not an accomplished batsman by any means but far from the worst No.11 Harris had bowled to. But the wily old quick had his tail up.

"I backed myself," he says. "The ball was just doing enough with reverse, so with Morne, I knew I could stitch him up."

He immediately went around the wicket to the left-hander. From the grandstand, Australia coach Darren Lehmann was trying to get a message out: Go around the wicket. Harris didn't need to be told. This was his show now.

Morkel lasted two balls.

"The plan worked beautifully," he says. "I managed to execute and put it in the right spot."

Angling in, fast and full, tailing late and clattering into off stump. South Africa's No.11 stood helpless. He'd not had a chance.

The jubilant Australians pile on Harris after the final wicket // Getty

***


"That was proper Test cricket," Harris says. "We all sat in the changing room as a bowling group, looking at each other.

"We didn't expect to be bowling 130, 140 overs. We were in the ground. But we came through. We did it."

Later that night – though not late, by any stretch – Harris and his bowling comrades sat in the hotel lounge, falling asleep on their partners. Fatigue had settled upon the group.

"We were wrecked," he says. "It was a proper day. One of the hardest days."

Aussies bask in series win

They flew home as the world's number one Test nation, satisfied and elated in the knowledge they'd achieved what they had set out to do. Harris had surgery, and played another three times in Baggy Green. But never again a match like that one.

"My knee was sore, it was always sore when I played," he says. "But you're mentally drained as well. You're thinking about the what ifs.

"In the end, that was all weighed up.

"I'd had enough of the pain."

To the victors go the spoils // Getty

***


Back in Brisbane, more than three years on, the physical pain has faded. Harris has ventured down memory lane and the result is compelling viewing in its own right. He's wistful, emotional as he recalls the scenes of his greatest glory. He returns to the present, but with that comes a void he hasn't yet learned to fill.

"Even now and then I wish I was still playing," he says.

"I really do still miss it. Just being with those guys. And that feeling of putting that famous cap on.

"People in the street still stop me and tell me they were watching. That it was one of the best moments they'd seen. When you hear that … you get a little bit chuffed, I guess, to know that people think of you that way, in that moment.

"It's a nice feeling.


"I'd love to have it back."

Join Cricket Australia's official tour to South Africa. Visit cricket.com.au/travel for more information or freecall on 1300 133 232 to book your trip.