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Paul Harris hopes to be a star turn for South Africa

Paul Harris
Paul Harris (left) celebrates in the third Test against Australia earlier this year. He took 9-161 as South Africa won by an innings

By Jon Barbuti

When I told a friend I would be interviewing Paul Harris, he could hardly have been more underwhelmed.

"Make sure you rip him for bowling darts and not turning the ball," he said.

His reaction pretty much summed up the British cricket fan's view of Harris - at best an accurate, if hardly match-winning bowler, at worst the latest embodiment of South Africa's dearth of world-class spin bowlers.

If you're going to get compared to guys like Shane Warne and Murali you're going to come second every time

Paul Harris

In his four Tests against England, Harris has taken eight wickets at 42. Geoffrey Boycott witheringly described him on Test Match Special as a "buffet bowler".

Initial appearances can, though, be deceptive, for as the graph below shows, his record against England is not a true indicator of his overall Test success. And on the back of a match-winning turn against Australia last winter Harris is at the time of writing the third-best spinner and seventh-best bowler in the world, two places above the highest-ranked England player and comfortably ahead of England's leading spinner Graeme Swann and New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori.

Harris, though, has no intention of making a big deal of his new status as a top-10 bowler.

"I got told I was seventh, but I'm not too fazed. It's nice to have a bit of recognition, but if you're seventh there are six guys better than you."

Paul Harris stats

One of those guys is Sri Lanka's all-time leading Test wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan and Harris is under no illusions as to his place among such illustrious company.

"If you're going to get compared to guys like Shane Warne and Murali you're going to come second every time," he says.

"I know for a fact I haven't got as much talent as those two guys but I work hard at my game and I do what I do best."

For Harris, doing what he does best means sticking to captain Graeme Smith's orders and also trying to get under the batman's skin. It is a brave man who answers back a guy standing 6'5", even if he is bowling at about 50mph.

"In England I was asked to keep it tight at one end and that's what I did. I would have liked a couple more wickets as sometimes when you're playing the holding role you are an unsung hero.

"I didn't go for too many runs and we have some pretty good strike bowlers - they struck in that tour, but I was lucky enough that against the Aussies I struck.

"I'm also starting to get an understanding of my game and a better understanding of myself as a person and what I need to do to perform.

"With me it's a little aggressive, in your face and some guys don't like it, I'm sometimes a little 'gobby' as the English press described me.

"Spin bowlers cannot bounce a guy out so sometime have to have a little word in their ear.

"I've also worked at my game, the ball's coming out a lot better and I've worked on my fielding and batting as well. I'm not elegant, but I try to hang around and wear a few on my body. I feel I'm a lot better all-round cricketer than when I toured the UK."

Harris' rise has in many ways mirrored Swann's. Both were relative late arrival to the Test scene, both have forged solid reputations despite not being the greatest turners of the ball, and both are relaxed characters off the pitch - Harris talking to BBC Sport from poolside, while contemplating a holiday in Mozambique.

Paul Harris stats

"We've sort of matched paths in a way," he says of the man who will be in direct competition during the four-Test series.

"We both played quite a bit of cricket before our first Test and that helps as a spinner.

"Swann has bowled beautifully in the last six to eight months and he deserves all the credit he gets."

Harris' experience has also allowed him to be pragmatic when faced with batsmen intent on attack, a mindset he suggests discarded England bowler Monty Panesar would do well to adopt.

"When I'm bowling, I have a theory that you might hit me once, you might hit me twice but the third time you might mess it up, so I'm not too afraid to throw it up," he says.

"It's part of being a spinner - you're going to get hit from time to time, and it looks worse when a spinner gets hit because you tend to go a long way."

Planning is another key weapon in the Harris armoury. Having pored over the analysis he is well aware that certain England batsmen might be looking to dispatch him to the upper tiers, but it is a challenge he is prepared for.

Importantly, he has the confidence of his captain, something he believes is a big change from previous South African teams. Since their reintroduction to the Test arena, South Africa have struggled to find consistently threatening spinners. Although Paul Adams took 134 wickets at just under 33, Nicky Boje took 100 wickets but at a cost of 43 runs apiece.

606: DEBATE

Harris believes the cricket culture in his home country has now changed, with spinners seen as a valuable part of the attack rather than just someone to give the quicks a breather.

"There are guys coming through and doing well, but also they've been given the opportunity.

"I play for Titans and we've got a spin bowling culture, we've got the three top spinners in the country in myself, Imran Tahir and Roelof van der Merwe.

"I can see the Test team playing two spinners if we get a real turner in India or Pakistan and that's something that wouldn't have happened previously."

Against England, it would take something extraordinary for South Africa to pick a second spinner, but Harris believes Newlands should offer considerable turn for the third Test, while the series opener at Centurion might have something to offer.

With Cricket South Africa having allowed some of their pitches to slow, Harris could yet make Boycott choke on his words.



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see also
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Harris stakes claim for Test spot
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South Africa pick uncapped Harris
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Bears sign South African spinner
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Pragmatist Strauss set for battle
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Live cricket on the BBC
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England in South Africa 2009-10
17 Jan 10 |  England


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