As the World Twenty20 runs on without The Black Caps, the time feels right for a reappraisal of the career of a man who might once have saved our blushes: Chris Harris, New Zealand’s pre-eminent cricketer of the post-Hadlee era.
Belying his thinning hair and hedonistic reputation, he pounced on seemingly impossible catches like a balding cat, regularly threw down the stumps from square leg with a grace that made grown men weep, unilaterally conjured up miraculous batting recoveries, and bowled dot balls when we needed them most. He was New Zealand’s face saver, a legendarily down-to-earth everyman who commanded respect when the rest of our team inspired ridicule.
A contemporary of the teary-eyed Wellington tradesman, Gavin Larsen, he took that same role of the mid-late order batsman/second change dibbly-dobbly swing bowler, but owned it with such effortless flair and jouissance that he transformed the very landscape of New Zealand cricket. From Harry onwards, the role of the seemingly unthreatening all-rounder became not a mere afterthought, but the essence of New Zealand’s one day approach.
He is the blueprint and spiritual guide for all our middle order all-rounders, who just about every match are expected to compensate for the under-performance of our top order batsmen, and wayward or injured frontline pacemen. Daniel Vettori is the most obvious proponent of the Harry Way, having trained under Harry, partnering him in many heart-warming, tail-wagging, respectability-saving stands. Jesse Ryder bowls dibbly-dobblies and has taken Harry’s booze-and-durries reputation and developed it. Scott Styris, unassuming, roguishly handsome, aged before his time, but heroically consistent, is probably the closest a modern NZ cricketer has come to capturing the soul or mystical aura of CZ Harris in his prime.
On November 20 this year, Chris Harris will turn 40, default upper age limit for international cricketers. Since last week’s decision to make former ICL players eligible for New Zealand, Harris hypothetically could make a return to the Black Caps, but the chances of this happening are sadly slim. Thus, barring a miracle, we have witnessed the end of one of New Zealand’s great cricket careers, the fading away of a prodigious talent and New Zealand folk hero, and one of cricket’s rare alopecians not to resort to the Advanced Hair Clinic.
He debuted in Australia in 1990, hinting at his future lynchpin role in the team, scoring 17 not out and taking a wicket in his first game. His batting form through the first few seasons of his career was patchy though, and while he was definitively one of the ‘Young Guns’, their golden moment, the 1992 World Cup, did not feature any Harry magic with the bat, for one because the top order largely fired, but more significantly because he was part of a revolutionary bowling lineup made up of almost entirely of dibbly-dobbly bowlers. (Gavin Larsen, Harris, Rod Latham and Willie Watson. The other key bowler was of course off-spinner Dipak Patel, who legendarily opened the bowling in a self-professed “captaincy masterstroke” by Martin Crowe.)
Harry took 16 wickets in the tournament at an average of 21.38, a figure that would have been even better had he not suffered a tonking at the hands of Inzamam ul-Haq in the heartbreaking semi final defeat against Pakistan. Appropriately, Harris ran out Inzamam in typically spectacular fashion with a diving side-on throw from point, but it was too late to prevent New Zealand’s dreams of World Cup glory being crushed. The loss was a hammer blow to the nation’s psyche, and perhaps marks the moment when New Zealand trudged downcast with resignation into the ’90s, realising that the decade was not going to be a new era of optimism, prosperity and sports supremacy over Australia, but just more of the same shit.
In a sense, Chris Harris’s batting performances as the ’90s progressed mirrored the state of our country at the time, providing an objective analogy to our own aspirations and frustrations. Just as we were hamstrung by recession, isolation, and an indefinable cultural/ideological malaise, Harry was prevented from ever being truly flashy and excellent by regular top order collapses.
As mentioned earlier, his gift was restoring respectability in difficult and sometimes appalling circumstances, which allowed him to deploy the batting equivalent of such parochial stand-bys as ‘Kiwi Ingenuity’, ‘the Number Eight Wire Mentality’ and crucially avoid the dreaded ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. No fear of being charged with arrant excellence when you’re coming in at number eight and forced into a situation like this (note plucky support innings from Harry’s young apprentice Vettori)
Conversely, it was the very same failures that allowed Harry to truly shine. Had it not been for the regular sub-par performances of our top and middle order, Harris wouldn’t have had the chance to come out and play those vital innings that made us feel okay about losing. When you trawl through Chris Harris’s higher scoring innings, the common thread in a noticeable majority of them is that they were New Zealand losses, not surprising in itself as the majority of New Zealand cricket performances in general are losses.
I guess what I’m trying to get to here is that Chris Harris actually needed New Zealand to be the wretched team they were in order to scrawl his legendary, indelible signature across the autograph book of cricket history*. (yes I know this is a lame metaphor, but hell this is sports writing right, this shit’s pretty much obligatory)
Occasionally though, his brilliance combined with the right team and the right occasion, and he had the rare satisfaction of taking the role of match-winner, as seen in the first two matches against Australia during the 2002 VB Series. In the first match at the MCG, New Zealand made a total of 199, only remotely defendable because of the gritty salvaging efforts of our hero and his plucky young protege Vettori. The two left-handers shared a record eighth wicket partnership of 72, taking New Zealand from a typically worrying 94 /7 in the 26th over to 166/8 at the beginning of the 44th.
Harry finished up with 63 not out, undoubtedly a truly great innings, given the situation on his arrival at the crease versus the final result. With Australia chasing 200, New Zealand’s bowlers put on an exemplary display of strike, spin and economy, Shane Bond (on debut) knocking the guts out of the Australian top order and Harry putting on the brakes, bowling 1 for 17 from seven overs. The Australians finished up all out for 176 after 42 overs. This is the archetypal perfect New Zealand cricket result really, what we wait for as fans of this mercurial team: a victory over the ultimate foe at the MCG, despite an inimitably flawed performance, thus making the victory all the more satisfying, human and truly glorious.
The second match in Sydney had strong similarities to the first, but with Harris coming in at a slightly more forgiving 137/5 in the 36th over, he brought a more insistent approach to the batting crease, making a commanding 42 not out off 43 balls. Defending 235, the New Zealand bowling attack once again took the Australians apart, with the last six wickets falling for 38 runs. Harris himself took three wickets of the six, as well as two catches. He was named Man of the Match in both of these deeply pleasing cricket contests, and I shall humbly and probably erroneously suggest that it was this moment that truly made concrete Chris Harris’ position as one of the few New Zealand cricketers genuinely respected across the Tasman.
These performances are heart-soaring, blessed highlights in the career of a cricketer who taught New Zealanders that the next best thing to saving a match is saving face. His determined stands in the path of total embarrassment were moments of hope and sheer joy amidst the dark and conflicted mess that is to be a New Zealand cricket fan. He was the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down.
The final stages of Chris Harris’s international career were confused by injury, and the corporate mess of Twenty20 and his participation in the rebel Indian Cricket League. This has all threatened to obscure the dignified bowing out of this great man from the traditional realm of international cricket. Whether or not he intends to keep playing cricket at the highest level possible until he simply drops dead, he is overdue a testimonial match to draw to a symbolic close his international cricket career and usher him lovingly into the world of commentary, punditry and after-dinner speaking engagements.
If not for Chris Harris, then for me, and the thousands of other Harry connoisseurs who quietly long for the days when his inventive, determined approach and captivating scalp dominated New Zealand one day cricket.
– James Milne