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Paul Harris: upward and onward

At the end of the first day of the Perth test in 2008, South Africa’s bowlers had battled their backsides off and yet Australia had scored 341-9.

It seemed a huge score, especially after Makhaya Ntini had reduced the home side to 14-3 in the first 40 minutes and they were wobbling at 166-5 midway through the day. The bowlers had battled a fierce ‘Fremantle Doctor’ all day and they were red in the face, burnt equally by wind and sun.

One of them was duly nominated to speak to the media after the day’s play. It wasn’t the first time he’d drawn the short straw, but he was a willing victim. A ‘real’ man for a very ‘real’ situation. He always did say it like it was. No messing about, no bothering with the clichés.

Knackered and with blistered feet, he asked whether it might be possible for the few SA journalists on tour to come and speak to him outside the change room rather than schlepping to the official interview room. Only a pleasure. We’d been sitting on our backsides all day, after all.

Except that’s not how the Waca security man saw the situation and responded with a body-check and some unpleasant language, never mind the official accreditation cards around our necks.

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?! Get your hands off them – they’ve come to talk to me!” shouted Paul Harris.

Asked whether he was disappointed with the day’s play, he replied: “No way! To take nine wickets out there, in one day, on that pitch… you don’t realise what an effort that was. I don’t care about the runs, seriously. We took nine wickets on day one. I’m bloody chuffed to bits for the bowlers. Anyway, our batsmen can score 1000 on that pitch!”

As it turned out, they didn’t need to. They only needed 414 of them in the fourth innings. Harris, meanwhile, bowled 48 overs in the match and claimed a match haul of 5-155. Not many people will remember that. It may not have been his finest test match, because he contributed to many victories, but it was certainly one of them. But only a select few will ever know his full value.

Paul Harris was the school janitor, he drove the refuse truck, he repaired geysers late at night and he drove the kombi to collect desperate families from the airport at 4:00am. You get the picture? Nobody had a less glamorous job to do in the national team than Paul Harris. But he did it, time and time again. He rolled his sleeves up, got stuck in – and never complained. His teammates, like the desperate family, were deeply grateful. But the rest of us took him for granted.

Then along came Imran Tahir. Brighter, shinier, far more exciting… and Harris was gone, tossed aside with the same emotion a surfer feels on encountering a condom in the ocean.

There was no more stark reminder of the transience of fame and the bright lights of the international sporting stage than when ‘Harro’ called it a day this week.

I included the following lines in a news report for an international agency on the day he made the announcement:

“The left armer was a regular member of the Proteas test team between 2007 and 2011 during which time he played 37 matches and claimed 103 wickets at an average of 37.87.

“That statistic, however, will never do justice to the job he did in the team and the role he played in winning back-to-back series in England and Australia in 2008.

“His role was to put a brake on the opposition batsmen, allowing captain Graeme Smith to attack from the other end with a battery of fast bowlers led by Dale Steyn. His economy rate of just 2.65 runs per over is testimony to his effectiveness.”

Guess what? The part about the economy rate was edited out!

So in future, if you’re ever tempted to remember Harris as a journeyman, think again. He may very well be the most under-rated cricketer ever to play for South Africa.

He’ll be doing some work for SuperSport in the coming months and will be working for a company which specialises in mobile banking. He deserves every success. As Graeme Smith said, he “played a big part in getting the test team to where it is today.”

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