July 19, 2012
He was South Africa’s most preferred spin choice for some time before fading away into the back-ground. Paul Harris, the left-arm orthodox spinner who picked up 103 wickets from the 37 matches he played for South Africa between 2007 and 2011, spoke to Subash Jayaraman about his career as a spinner in the South African team, Imran Tahir replacing him, his debut against India and various other topics.
What is it like being that rare breed, a spinner, in South Africa? What motivated you to pick up spin bowling growing up in an era that was dominated by fast bowlers?
It is actually a strange story. When I was young, I had hurt my back, so I couldn’t bowl fast. I wanted to be a fast bowler. So, I had to give up fast bowling, and took up spin. And from there on, that is what I’ve been doing. I started doing it, it worked out to be a good option, so I am glad I’m doing it.
In the 4-year period you played tests for South Africa from January 2007 to 2011, you appeared in 37 of the 42 tests that South Africa. So it wasn’t like you were just brought in as a stopgap player. But there was plenty of criticism of your bowling from media and the fans. Geoff Boycott is known to have called you a buffet bowler and fans have made fun of you as a spinner asking, “Has Paul Harris ever turned even a doorknob?” How did you handle all these criticism?
I didn’t really care. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I knew I had a job at hand. Mickey Arthur, the coach at that time, had assigned me a job. Graeme Smith had asked me to do a job in the side. I did that job. I was not in two minds. I could’ve gone for glory, look for more wickets and gone for more runs. They asked me to keep it tight, and that is what I did. I didn’t really think of others’ opinion on how I bowled and I didn’t really care what others think, to be honest with you.
Ever since Imran Tahir has been eligible to play for South Africa, your selection to the team has been overlooked. Do you feel hard done by that?
Look, at the end of the day, I think they gave him a chance. He had done very well in our first class cricket. They gave him a chance. Was I hard done by [it]? Probably, yes. I was a little hard done by [it]. There have been better cricketers in the world that have been hard done by. So, I don’t complain about it. I actually looked at the positive side of things, and the positive is that I played 37 times for my country. I’d still like to have my name in the hat, and I’m am not saying there is no way. I want to play for South Africa again.
What would be your advice be for any up and coming spinner in South Africa, based on your experiences?
Got to have a very, very thick skin. [Laughs]. Besides having a thick skin, they’ve got to be patient. South Africans don’t generally understand spinners. Moreover, they see guys like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel tearing in, which is a great sight, don’t get me wrong. There are no coaches for spin bowling in our country. I hope we can create a culture of spin bowling in our country and when I am doing with [playing], I hope to change that perception in our country.
Let’s talk about your test debut. It was January 2007 and it was Cape Town and it was against India. You were bowling to some of the best players of spin in Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. In fact, you got Tendulkar’s wicket in the first innings, in the process of taking a 4-fer. The series was tied 1-1 coming into the 3rd test, and the match turned on its head in the 2nd innings, during the partnership between Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar, where you bowled 20-odd overs for 50-some runs. What are your memories from that debut test of yours?
It is still a bit of a blur, that test match. I had been waiting to contribute and play in a test match for a long time. I almost played 10 years of first class cricket to get a chance to do it [play test cricket]. And it was my favourite ground in the world, Newlands. To make my debut there was great! As a young guy, this is what you dream of. To know that you bowled to two of the best players that ever lived, in that process, makes it more special. I really enjoyed it. It was something that Graeme [Smith] and Mickey [Arthur] had asked me to do, and to come through was great.
I want to touch upon something your former team mate Herschelle Gibbs had said in his book. You had been in the team for four years. He had said that there was a clique within the team involving Smith, Kallis, de Villiers and Boucher. In your experience how serious was that allegation by Gibbs? Are there actually cliques within the South African team – in terms of seniors and juniors, or even based on race/colour?
Look, There is no issue on the basis of race and colour within the South African national team, I can assure you of that. There hasn’t been an issue of race and colour and there won’t be an issue on the basis of race and colour. I think the whole book by Herschelle, I don’t think Herschelle meant it in a negative way. There are certain individuals in the team who wouldn’t have been friends. That’s human nature. You are going to get along with certain people and not get along with certain others. It was mentioned that the team was going very well.
During your playing years for South Africa, you were known to be a fierce competitor and Sledger. One of the things that immediately come to my mind is that Cape Town test vs Australia, where you and Michael Clarke were having a go at each other.What are some of the memorable on-field exchanges you have had?
I will tried to keep what happened on the field, on the field, because they are not suitable for younger viewers [Laughs]. I think there is a time and a place for sledging. I think it gets neck-and-neck in test cricket. I think the more professional ones are the ones that actually bother people. If I said It wasn’t part of my game, that would be a lie. There are certain guys, at times, who get caught up in it. At times, it becomes an advantage for the bowler. But, I can assure you that if you don’t keep calm as a bowler, it can become detrimental. I’m from a tough, old school type of cricket. Obviously, we are all aware of boundaries that we shouldn’t cross.
Who do you think has the best sledges in the South African cricket team? We’ve all seen Youtube clips of Mark Boucher having a go at a lot of people. You were standing in slips. So, who in your opinion was the best sledger in the team?
I think Boucher, it was his role. Boucher was that kind of guy – a hard man, the kind of guy you want in the trenches. But there aren’t really many guys in the South African team who said things. If they were really pushed, then they might say a few things. Most of the guys were kind of quiet. They spent a lot of their energy in encouraging the bowlers. So, I think it was given to myself and Mark (Boucher) to get the opposition uncomfortable.
Talking about Mark Boucher, we have the most keenly anticipated series in a long time, England vs South Africa. SA lost Boucher to an unfortunate injury. How do you think this affects the team morale and the balance?
I think it is bad that it happened in the very beginning of the series, it is quite unfortunate. But since it happened in the very beginning of the tour, they have had a chance and enough time to get this out of their minds and get over it. They all know how tough a guy he [Boucher] is, So, no matter what happens, they will turn that negative in to a positive. They are also going to play for Boucher and play the series for him. That is what he would want, he is that kind of guy. I worry a little bit about AB de Villiers having to keep for some time. He is such a good batsman. He is so talented that he could keep wickets, and bat at four. And so, we can add an extra batsman or an all-rounder. The balance is there even after the loss of Boucher.
What do you think are the keys to a South African series win in England?
I think the key to South African win would be the top-5 batsman. I think Dale Steyn too, if he bowls hard he will give the batsman a very tough time. I don’t think spin will matter much. Maybe at Oval, the first test, a bit, if you bowl well. But, that is not for the first two days. It doesn’t really turn well at Headingley, and Lord’s is a pretty good batting wicket. I think Dale Steyn is the key, he is our X-factor. He has been the No.1 bowler for the best part of the last 5 years. For me, he is the key to the series. If he can stretch them, we will do very well.
Which battle will you be more interested in? The one between the England bowlers and South African batsmen, or South African bowlers vs the England batsmen? Which one would be more key?
For me, as a bowler, I would be looking forward to see our bowlers against their batsmen. I think we have a stronger top order than theirs. Having said that, their tail is a bit stronger than ours while batting. So, if our batting can push the bar up a little bit, I do think we will have the edge in the fast bowling, especially with Dale Steyn. Obviously with Vernon Philander, and even Tsotsobe and others. I do think our fast bowlers will be the key to the series. I do think our fast bowling is better than theirs.
What’s your prediction in the 3 test series?
I would go for a 2-1 or 3-0, with South Africa. If it is going to rain, it will be 2-1. If it isn’t for the rain, it is going to be 3-0, my prediction. But, I have been wrong quite a few times in my life. But South Africa are still very good away from home. I think it was in 2006 when we last lost away from home. So, we play well away from home. And we play well in England. It is going to be a good series, and whoever wins a test first, will win the series.
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