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'People say I was just a defensive bowler, and they are 80% right'

Former South Africa left-arm spinner Paul Harris on winning in Australia, proving people wrong, and surfing

Interview by Scott Oliver |

"They were the best times of my life. We were all such good mates, and had such a great team spirit, which has left a huge legacy for the younger guys" © Getty Images

It was always nice to prove people wrong who thought I was rubbish. I never forget when I went to India for the first time. There was a press conference with about 2000 journalists there, and one of them got up and asked: "What do think that everyone thinks you're shit?" Those were his actual words. I said: "Thanks, sir, that's very nice of you". I got a few wickets on that trip and proved him wrong.

There's not too many fast-twitch fibres in my body, but I bowled seamers till I was about 13 or 14 years old. Then I grew about a foot in a year and the doctor said to me: "You can't bowl fast anymore. The only way you can make the seniors is either bat [which I was crap at] or you can bowl spin." So I said, "Okay, cool, I'll try spin." It was a good thing I grew so quickly, because I never would have been a very good fast bowler.

Graeme Smith took the captaincy at 22. At 22, I couldn't even look after myself, never mind 10 other blokes.

I was born in Harare. My mother was born in Zimbabwe, my dad in South Africa. He fought in the Rhodesian Bush War, then decided enough was enough. So we left and went to the States for two years, to Texas, then moved to South Africa.

My first Test wicket was Dinesh Karthik, but it wasn't out. So instead I tell people that my first Test wicket was Sachin [Tendulkar].

[Dale] Steyn was helped a lot by his action: he has the most beautiful action you can imagine. But he also has a great fast bowler's demeanour. There's something a bit axe-murdery about his persona, and all good quicks need that.

People say I was just a defensive bowler that allowed the quicks to rotate, and they are 80% right. I would have liked a more attacking role, but I'm not in any way upset. I would have played any role that South Africa asked me to play. It wasn't a glamorous role, but as long as the captain was happy and the players I played with were happy, then I was happy.

I don't have too many memories of isolation. I'm from a generation that was sort of in it, but not really in it.

I had a good relationship with Mark Boucher. I think a spinner needs a very good relationship with his keeper, and he was one of my favourite guys to play cricket with. A helluva nice guy and a magnificent cricketer. He played the same way I did. A very hard individual, very mentally strong. I think we had the same type of personality on the field. He really spoke my language.

I know people say you can't compare eras, but I'm going to. I think Jacques Kallis is by far - not even close - the greatest cricketer there's ever been. Better than Sobers, everyone. I know it's a very opinion-based thing, but I don't think we'll ever see another one like him.

"My action wasn't the smoothest thing, but I never had an issue with the mental side of the game"

Aside from Durban, where England played really well, we played all the cricket in that series. A bounce here or a nick there and it would have been 3-1. It was a tough pill to swallow.

I did nightwatchman quite a lot for South Africa. Trouble is, you do it well a couple of times, it's not even a question any more. You just put your pads on and out you go. I had some success in the evening - I only got out twice - but not too well in the morning when I came back.

Not many guys get the chance to choose when they retire. I was just fortunate to have played as many times as I did, and it's great now just to be a supporter.

By the time we got to Australia we were really battle-hardened. We played a lot of Test cricket in 2008, and had a lot of success. We were unbelievably hungry to beat Australia in Australia. Boucher and [Jacques] Kallis had been there so many times and got absolutely murdered by a brilliant Australian team, but we felt they were ripe for the taking. We felt it was our responsibility to stand up for those guys. Seeing the emotion coming out of them after Melbourne was incredible. It was worth all those losses just to beat them once.

The press in England can be a bit daunting, to say the least. I copped a fair bit at the beginning of that 2008 tour. They were saying we had the best top six in the world, the best keeper in the world, the best strike-bowling unit in the world, and then me. But it gave me a thick skin, and I realised that I didn't give a shit about the media.

South Africa winning the rugby World Cup was one of the best days of my life. I was 17, at a youth camp, and we snuck out to watch it. It sounds clichéd, but it really did bring people together like nothing else. I honestly think it was fate.

Lots of guys that are more talented than me didn't have the career I had.

"I didn't care about the opposition's strengths. I just bowled. All I wanted to do was compete. Whether it was with Sachin or some club player back in South Africa" © Getty Images

Virender Sehwag, in India, was the most difficult player in the world to bowl to. Chennai was, like, 98% humidity. I didn't even think it was legal to play in those conditions. I tried over the wicket, round the wicket, I even thought about bowling underarm to him.

Graeme Smith has a presence when he walks into a room. Even now, high-powered businessmen will fall quiet. He just has an aura about him. I think he retired too early. It was a sad day for South African cricket.

It was a blessing in disguise that my path at Western Province was blocked by Paul Adams and Claude Henderson. Pretoria's more boring than Cape Town, so you focus more. Had I not moved up to Northerns, I don't think I'd have played for South Africa.

One day we were in Durban, bored. I had a game of table tennis with AB. He beat me about ten times, then switched to left-handed and still beat me. He's incredible.

You get the same amount of wickets for a No. 11 as a No. 4. But I bowled at the top order more than anyone else in our side. As soon as the tailenders came in, the fast bowlers came back on!

I wouldn't say Herschelle Gibbs was unfulfilled. He was just one of those guys who liked to entertain the crowds.

"I think Jacques Kallis is by far - not even close - the greatest cricketer there's ever been. Better than Sobers, everyone"

I didn't play South Africa age-group cricket. I actually didn't even play provincial cricket at school. I was more into surfing, going to the beach and growing my hair.

I hate nets with a passion, and one of the great things about county cricket was that you're always playing.

I was nightwatchman against Fred [Flintoff] at Edgbaston when all the old men couldn't see the yorker.

I got my highest Test score in Lahore. We were in a bit of trouble. Umar Gul got a little bit angry with Boucher and was really fired up. He bowled a real hostile spell at us, but we managed to come through. It was just a pity I tried to reach 50 in one shot. If I could have my time over, I'd have tried to get there with four singles.

My theory was that you've got more chance of dying in a car crash on your way to the beach than being eaten by a shark.

My action wasn't the smoothest thing, but I never had an issue with the mental side of the game.

I went to all the trials, but I don't think I fit the mould of the "short back and sides". I think I had a bit of an attitude as well, which possibly didn't go down too well. After I left school, and I realised it could be my career, I took it more seriously.

"I batted everywhere from No. 3 to No. 11 for South Africa. I used to joke with Kallis that I'd batted in more positions in the top order than he had" © Getty Images

It was rewarding personally to win the Man of the Match in Cape Town, with my family there and us needing to win to draw level at 3-3 over the back-to-back series, but there was a bit of a downer on it because we'd played shit in the first two games and let ourselves down.

I don't really remember what Jeremy Snape's dossier at the start of that Australia tour said I would bring to the win: probably abusing the opposition batsmen.

The best thing about Kallis was his ability to switch on and off. He was a really relaxed character. There'd be times when he was asleep on the floor of the dressing room - literally asleep - and you'd tell him to get up as he was next in. He'd get up half-asleep and would stumble down stairs, but once he took guard he'd just get straight into the zone.

Towards the end I wasn't getting as many wickets as the hierarchy wanted me to. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel under pressure. I knew Newlands would be my last Test for a while - the selectors were keen to have a look at Imran Tahir - but I didn't think it would be my last ever.

I batted everywhere from No. 3 to No. 11 for South Africa. I used to joke with Kallis that I'd batted in more positions in the top order than he had. I'd loved to have opened, but they weren't keen for me to do that.

Richard Pybus really backed me. He was the key guy in the early part of my career.

"Dale Steyn has the most beautiful action you can imagine. But he also has a great fast bowler's demeanour. There's something a bit axe-murdery about his persona"

When Graeme batted against Mitchell Johnson [in Sydney] with a broken hand, I actually gave him my jersey - my curry-stained jersey from lunch. He didn't have any kit at the ground because he didn't think he was going to bat, so had to borrow everything. It was one of the greatest moments of his career - of all our careers - especially with his love-hate history with the Aussie public. To get that reception as an opposition captain was pretty amazing.

I loved surfing, but didn't get much chance when I moved up to Pretoria. The only waves up there are heat waves. Whenever I went back to Cape Town I'd hit the surf with my old mate Andrew Puttick. Cricket South Africa didn't have an issue with it, but if I'd got injured, there would have been a flat ban.

I didn't care about the opposition's strengths. I just bowled. All I wanted to do was compete. Whether it was with Sachin or some club player back in South Africa.

Boycott calling me a "buffet bowler" was one of those things. He's an abrasive sort of character. He does shout his mouth off and doesn't like it when he gets it back. We had a bit of a chat about it later. I wouldn't say it was resolved, but we agreed to disagree. No hard feelings. I could have handled that situation better than I did in that one press conference, but what happens happens.

"Virender Sehwag, in India, was the most difficult player in the world to bowl to. In Chennai I tried over the wicket, round the wicket, I even thought about bowling underarm to him" © Getty Images

It was nice to give Bouchy a few stumpings, because he didn't get too many in his career, but my favourite mode of dismissal, for right-handed batsmen, was caught at slip. I think that's as good as it gets.

On my first away series with South Africa, Pakistan prepared pitches to suit their spinners - especially the one in Karachi, which really spun square - and it backfired. They said we couldn't play spin, but I think we are among the best players of spin in the world. Kallis took a great catch at slip for me, and from there the confidence just grew. It was one of those special Test matches.

Sub-proing in English club cricket, I once made five hundreds in a row. I'd never made a hundred in any form of the game until then. I have to say, though, I was dropped about 60 or 70 times.

What Steyn did better than anyone else was seize the moment. Generally, when he sniffs a weakness in the opposition, he punches through. We played in India - in Nagpur - and the ball was reversing and he managed to get an eight-for on an unbelievably flat deck. I've never seen a fast bowler seize the initiative from the opposition as fast as Dale.

Monty Panesar was a magnificent bowler, with a dream slow left-armer's action, and he gave it a real rip. I think he was treated terribly by English cricket. They blamed him for not winning England that Edgbaston Test, but they forget that when Graeme was about 60-odd he gloved one to short leg and was given not out. Had that been given, it would have been a very different story. He was very unlucky in that game. Selectors often forget those kinds of things when they drop guys.

The great thing about AB right now is that often guys that are that talented don't reach their potential. He has, and it's so good to see what he's doing now. I honestly think his best is still to come.

I love hip hop: Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots. But I'd only get 30 seconds of my stuff on the team stereo, then it'd go off for the normal pop and crap.

I said to Graeme Smith recently that they were the best times of my life. We were all such good mates and had such a great team spirit, which has left a huge legacy for the younger guys, something that really came through in that Protea Fire advert last year.

I played my first and last Tests against India at Newlands, my home town. If I could have chosen anywhere, it would have been exactly that: my favourite ground in the world by a long, long way.

It was always nice to prove people wrong, but that's not the reason I played the game. The reason I played was to help win Test matches for my country and to have the respect of my fellow players.

Scott Oliver tweets here

 

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  • POSTED BY greig on | December 23, 2015, 16:29 GMT

    @AlexK400 Surely you saw Dane Piedt in the last Test. I think he will do a good job for us in the future. Not as economical as Harris but certainly more threatening. 100% agree with you, playing Tahir in test cricket was a massive mistake which our selectors have decided to make over and over again.

  • POSTED BY Zola on | December 23, 2015, 12:20 GMT

    Kallis was one of the greatest,Not the greatest. Love me some Cricket.

  • POSTED BY Rahul on | December 23, 2015, 6:41 GMT

    Lovely interview. The guy has tremendous sense of humor. It must have been a nightmare to bowl to Indian fab four in India. Wonder Veeru ever told him "Though should not bowl spin at me".

  • POSTED BY Ashok on | December 23, 2015, 4:23 GMT

    Harris' career economy rate of 2.65 pretty much explains why he got to play so many test matches.

  • POSTED BY Chris on | December 23, 2015, 0:33 GMT

    Meh...was an interested reader up to the point where he proudly displayed his utter ignorance of, and complete disrespect to, one of the rare cricketing geniuses, Sir Gary Sobers. The rest of his thoughts don't matter much if he can't even get close there...

  • POSTED BY Mike on | December 23, 2015, 0:06 GMT

    Interesting piece and sounds a pretty well-sorted guy. He's wrong about Kallis though. If Kallis could bowl wrist-spin at least as well as Tahir and finger-spin at least as well as Paul Harris, you might have grounds for comparing him with Sobers.

  • POSTED BY john on | December 22, 2015, 21:32 GMT

    another bowler in the Pat Symox mould and heritage. truth be told, the only reason why they beat Australia is because of the retirements of warne/McGrath!

  • POSTED BY diren on | December 22, 2015, 17:37 GMT

    what he said about kallis is so true...We will never see another kallis again. Once in a lifetime cricketer.

  • POSTED BY Manika on | December 22, 2015, 15:20 GMT

    Paul Harris had limited talent and he made a great use of that , a simple bloke who fought always hard with honesty for his team. He bowled defensively because his captain asked him and that was his job. AB is an icon and the stories we hear of him are incredible , lovely man . Future generations will say that these stories are a myth because very less people are multiple talented as AB is. But coming back to Harris , he did his job well and there was a reason he was picked. SA must groom spinners all year by playing them always , even if pitch is a green top ,that way only they can produce a great spinner. They wasted Paul Adams and Symcox and Harris to an extent even.

  • POSTED BY Aubline on | December 22, 2015, 14:57 GMT

    Why does every routine selection decision have to be made into a big drama? The reality with Monty is boringly simple. He was dropped because there was a better option available - Swann was at least as good a bowler and a better batsman and fielder.

  • POSTED BY raj on | December 22, 2015, 14:49 GMT

    "One day we were in Durban, bored. I had a game of table tennis with AB. He beat me about ten times, then switched to left-handed and still beat me. He's incredible." That's AB!

    "Seeing the emotion coming out of them after Melbourne was incredible. It was worth all those losses just to beat them once." - one of the best days of my life!

    Awesome interview Paul. I enjoyed seeing him in the national team - the days when we started our ascent to the top!.

  • POSTED BY greig on | December 22, 2015, 14:27 GMT

    As Graeme Smith said. SA rise to No 1 can be attributed to have Paul Harris in the team. He allowed our quicks to rest and consistently managed to get a couple of key wickets as batsmen relaxed a bit. Make no mistake, he didnt run through teams but he slowed the game down and created pressure. Something that Tahir is unable to do. Legspinners in general are a luxury.

    Paul Harris is the reason why we should ALWAYS play a spinner regardless of the pitch, similarly the way Australia does with Lyon. Plus, by the time you tour India at least your main spinner would have built up considerable experience.

  • POSTED BY Android on | December 22, 2015, 13:53 GMT

    He hardly did anything, Boycott was right, he can't even turn the ball.

  • POSTED BY Ryan on | December 22, 2015, 12:08 GMT

    Top player, great serviceman for his country. At the time his team needed a defensive spinner to hold an end, which he performed brilliantly for years. Stats only tell one side to a story.

  • POSTED BY Alex on | December 22, 2015, 12:08 GMT

    Nice interview and nice replies. He speaks truth. I would have have answered the same way to all the questions.

  • POSTED BY greig on | December 22, 2015, 8:53 GMT

    Wow, I love these player pieces. One of the best I have read for a long time. Its fantastic to get players stories from games. "We were in a bit of trouble. Umar Gul got a little bit angry with Boucher and was really fired up..." Brilliant.