How to quietly rattle Aussies’ cage

Paul Harris had this damnable trick. As he shambled to the crease, the left-arm spinner would abort shortly before delivery. Naturally, it drove batsmen mad. You could see them strain to preserve the expression of benign neutrality on their face as they scratched out their guard for the seventh time that day.

If the Proteas were playing away, the watching crowd went dilly, shouting abuse from underneath their gold and green sombreros at deep square leg, spilling their beer over the poor unfortunate in front.

He had another little gem in his repertoire, more tic than trick, truth be told. If a batsman played and missed or misjudged in some way, Harris would flap his arms like a restless seagull. From afar it looked vaguely demented but you knew that his antics were rubbing the opposition up the wrong way. Even the umpires were chuckling under their breath. Fans underneath their sombreros, meanwhile, were going ballistic.

I remember his tic-a-trick brinkmanship freaking Andrew Symonds out on South Africa’s tour of Australia in 2008-2009. Even the normally cool Ricky Ponting was affected.

That was the tour, according to Harris, where Graeme Smith was always keen to “put his peg in the sand”. Session by session, the Proteas marched east across Australia, surrendering nothing, giving the home side not an inch.

It’s easy to spot parallels between then and now. Then, as now, the tour started in Perth. Similar to last time round, the Proteas suddenly have a settled side, with only JP Duminy making his debut in Perth as a replacement for Ashwell Prince in 2008. Then, as now, there was assiduous planning; Duncan Fletcher, “with his undying hatred of the English”, was part of the set-up. The current Fletcher role is being played by consultant Neil McKenzie.

“We thought if we could get 100 extra runs between us as tailenders, we’d be doing our bit,” remembers Harris. “I remember Boucher slamming Slazenger balls at me in the nets with a tennis racket for hours. ‘If you can handle that, the Aussie sledging will mean nothing,’ he told me. Boucher was a hard man.”

With Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander back in the saddle after the downward spiral of last season, Harris warms to the parallels.

“We had self-belief then and this side has that too,” he says. “Dale [Steyn] has won twice in Australia and so has Hashim [Amla]. Morné [Morkel] was there in 2008 and Faf [du Plessis] was there in 2012. I think the get-together before the one-day international series against Australia has really cleared the air.

“Some harsh words were spoken and guys didn’t pull their punches. I’ve been a harsh critic of the coach (Russell Domingo) for being too soft in the past. I think that has changed.

“A month ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt that the South Africans would start as slight favourites, but now I think that’s the case.”

Despite the intriguing parallels, Harris remains unconvinced by the blather about the need to play four pace bowlers in Oz. This not only offends his spinners’ sensibility but he feels the side lists badly without a spinner, something not really addressed by playing Duminy in the role.

While he isn’t convinced with the seven batsmen recipe (one of whom will be Quinton de Kock) and muses about the absence of an all-rounder like Chris Morris, he thinks this is the way the selectors will go.

“I’d be brave and go for the Chinaman bowler, [Tabraiz] Shamsi,” he says. “He offers something different and he’s got the googly and I love his attitude. I’ve been impressed.

“I’d be looking to play him with Vernon [Philander] because Vern can hold up an end and bowl one side of the wicket. He’ll only go for two an over and you can hold the game. If they decide to go with Morné, I think that then you might like to look at [left-arm spinner] Keshav Maharaj because he can play that slightly defensive role.

“I wouldn’t go into the series without the spinner,” he adds.

Another reason for giving South Africa the slight edge, says Harris, is that the quality of the Aussie sledging has deteriorated, a symptom of their leaky confidence. Steve Smith is clearly no Ponting; he certainly isn’t a Steve Waugh.

While this Australian side either find themselves or their inner mongrel (or both), it could be a good time for Du Plessis’s men to burgle the opener. “I was quite surprised how a couple of Australians came out in the one-day series,” says Harris. “Matthew Wade, um, wades in and shoots his mouth off at our guys. I think that’s pretty embarrassing when you’re averaging 25 with the bat.”

The first Test starts in Perth on November 3 and Harris says the first session will be vital. David Warner can be horribly destructive and the South Africans are obliged to start well, particularly as Hobart is where they’ve been posted for the second Test ahead of the night Test finale in Adelaide at the end of that month.

“Adelaide shouldn’t hold too many terrors, it’s a good deck, liable to be as good on day five as it was at the start,” he says, noting in the same breath that he knows precious little about Hobart. “I’ve never played there and I’ve never been there,” says the man who rattled Aussie cages so wonderfully way back in 2008 and 2009.

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