Sports

The Cult: Chris Harris

To anyone who followed New Zealand cricket through the 1990s, one name stood above the rest: Harry.
February 2, 2017, 2:20am
Monique Myintoo

This week's inductee to The Cult is a balding, beguiling mix of irony and skill; a rear guard folk hero whose doggedness and humour helped define New Zealand cricket for a generation. You can read past entries here.

CULT GRADE: DON'T WORRY; HARRY WILL SAVE US

When generations to come want to know who were the finest Kiwis to ever get their mitts on the willow and leather, Cricinfo stats and Youtube clips will provide them with easy answers.

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They will show, and people will tell, of Martin Crowe's belligerent grace at the batting crease, Sir Richard Hadlee's calculated elegance as a generation-defining seamer and Shane Bond's true terror as a quick.

All - along with the likes of Bert Sutcliffe, Glenn Turner and Kane Williamson - will be labeled world-class cricket players.

Yet if, then and now, you really wanted to know about a figure that existed in the essential beating heart of the Kiwi summer, you need go no further than Christopher Zinzan Harris.

Former New Zealand one-day cult hero Chris Harris played club cricket in Christchurch as recently as last summer. Photo credit: WikiCommons.

Harris; that all-time balding battler rolling the arm over with his dibbly-dobblies, suppressing the middle overs run-rate. Harris; the one-day specialist with a big goofy smile holding the New Zealand lower order together after yet another batting collapse. Harris; the plucky Cantab snaffling up the ball at point and firing it in for a logic defining run out.

He wasn't world-class, no way, but 'Harry' truly summed up what cricket was in New Zealand. Too small in population to churn out consistently brilliant players or teams, Kiwis instead rely on maybe one top notch player and a supporting cast that can bat, bowl or field well enough to keep us in the mix.

That is what Harris was; the ultimate drummer in the band and virtual cornerstone of the New Zealand one-day outfit from his debut, against Australia in Sydney, in 1990 – to his 250th and final match, also against Australia in Sydney, in 2004. He totally looked the part too; forever balding and forever giving it the full hundred.

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Regardless of the fortunes of the team at large, and most of the 1990s were ugly for Kiwi cricket; Harry - son of former test player Zin and distant cousin of ex-All Black Zinzan Brooke - always saved face.

With the bat in hand, Harry was the ultimate last stand merchant. Up on the embankment, you'd hear the whispers as a Kiwi collapse occurred; shall we leave?

Nah, people would say. Harry's left to bat. We've still got a chance. When Harry was given, it was time to pack up the deckchairs and chilly bin, kids. Time to head home.

A young Chris Harris featuring in a very bizarre Jeremy Coney cricket coaching video from the 1980s. Source: Youtube.

Harry could hit the ball, no doubt, but his skill was truly in finding the gaps and ticking the run rate over. A fine batting partner for a top order whizz, all too often Harris found himself patching together a Kiwi rearguard effort to bring New Zealand through to a presentable enough total.

Remember that gnarled 77 not out in the tied ODI against Zimbabwe in '97? The unbeaten 52 against South Africa in Perth later that year? The 63 not out, and gritty partnership with Daniel Vettori, at the MCG in '02? What a beaut, that game was.

Harris, who scored 4379 runs at 29.00 - has the most not outs by a Kiwi – 62. At one point in 1997, he went eight straight innings without being dismissed. Though his ability down the order saved Kiwi skins plenty of times, the ironic thing is that had the boys at the top been able to do their job better is legend perhaps would have never flourished.

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Once a quick, the Cantab – who was born in 1969 – was your classic take-the-pace-off-the-ball middle overs specialist, like Wellington Gavin Larsen. The run-up was short, the shoulder action loopy and the release wrong-footed, but Harris frequently cramped up batsman and allowed them little room for anything other than singles.

"I think in some ways my bowling action gave me some of my success, because I bowled off the wrong foot," he said. "It meant I didn't have much body momentum and I didn't get a lot of pace on the ball. I guess people tended to play earlier than they should have."

Harris and Larsen killed plenty of quick starts from an opposition, and claimed the wicket of any batsman who got overly complacent or aggressive facing them. Harry took 203 ODI wickets all up – the second most by a Kiwi after Daniel Vettori – as well as snaring a record 29 caught-and-bowled dismissals.

The fielding, too, was sublime. A star indoor cricketer growing up, Harry was New Zealand's infield jackal, devouring anything that came near him in the air – and deadly as it got in terms of run outs. Please refer to the Boonie run out, below.

Age, and staying in the game, is the final fundamental to the Harry legend. Making his first-class debut for Canterbury in 1989, Harris played for his home province until 2010 – as well as getting a few games for various Twenty20 outfits around the traps in his later years.

Chris Harris doing what he did best; taking spectacular catches. Source: Youtube.

As recently as last summer, Harry – now 47 - was still playing for Sydenham in the top Christchurch club grades against blokes that weren't even alive when he made his New Zealand debut in 1990. He'd pick up the award for club player of the year, last season.

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"Honestly, I still think I'm 30," Harris told the New Zealand Herald, the year before his first-class retirement in 2010. "I just don't know where the last ten years have gone. I suppose we all have a bit of the big kid in us … maybe I just don't want to grow old."

In many respects, Harry was a man ahead of his time. His international retirement came in 2004, just before the Twenty20 revolution broke. His combination of economic bowling and opportunistic batting would have been prized in the IPL and Twenty20 leagues the world over.

"I would have loved to have played international T20 cricket," Harry once told Cricinfo. "When it first came out I thought as a bowler, as a slow bowler, a spin bowler, you think you're probably going to get hurt quite badly.

"I think now T20 cricket has shown that the spinners have got a massive role to play. From that perspective, I would have had an all-round role."

ENTRY POINT: THE 1992 WORLD CUP

Any Kiwi cricket fan speak, at length, about immense tension and weight that finally rolled off their shoulders when Grant Elliott hit that glorious semi-final winning six at Eden Park in February 2015.

Finally, New Zealand was into a World Cup final. More important that, the ghost of Inzamam ul-Haq - who had haunted childhoods and Kiwi cricket's collective soul since 1992 - had been put to bed.

'Harry' was watching from the covers that day when Inzy, then young and slim, bashed 60 off 37 balls and Pakistan stole the World Cup semi from us at Eden Park.

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Just 22 back then, Harris was the one who ran Inzy out, but he'd had a bad day at the coal face. His bowling was utterly spanked - Harry took just one wicket and conceded 72 runs off his ten overs – while he managed a limp 13 when at the crease.

Fast forward to exactly 13:00 minutes through this clip of David Boon's century against New Zealand in the 1992 World Cup opener to see Harry's classic run out. Source: Youtube.

Though he didn't do too much with the bat (just 31 runs at 7.45), Harry launched himself as a one-day star for New Zealand in '92.

Capped by the infamous semi, Harris played in all eight pool games snaring 16 wickets at 21.38 – equal with Sir Ian 'Beefy' Botham – and establishing himself, alongside South African Jonty Rhodes, as one of the world's finest fielders.

His stunning run-out of David Boon in the tournament's opening match will live forever in the hearts of Kiwi cricket fans of that certain age. Boonie had just bought up the ton, but needed to stay in if the Aussies were to have a wiff of victory.

Ian Healy hit into the covers for two, only for Harry to snaffle the ball up and – with only one stump to aim at - fire it into the non-strikers end. It hit, and twenty minutes later New Zealand won a famous victory.

Membership in the class of '92 would have enshrined him in Kiwi cricket hearts regardless of what would come next, but Harry showed that it was merely a launch pad.

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THE MOMENT: A BIG TON IN INDIA

Though his was a career defined by nuggety lower order persistence, tight slow-medium pacers and nimble fielding, Harry's high water mark came in an out-of-character innings in India.

New Zealand had snuck through to the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal against Australia in Chennai, and, batting first, had slumped to 44 for 3 early on. With the hard-hitting Nathan Astle and Stephen Fleming already back in the sheds, Harry was moved up the order and given a liscense to hit by coach Glenn Turner.

Highlights of Chris Harris' 130 against Australia in Chennai in 1996. Source: Youtube.

"[He] told us we needed 300 and told me to bat at number five and go for it," Harris told the NZ Herald, years later.

"I thought "great, I'm supposed to smash the best bowlers in the world all over the place – you're not asking much." I didn't hit Shane Warne so much, but more their fast bowlers."

Did he what, too. Harry belted 130 off 124 balls, firing 13 deliveries to the boundary ropes and four over them. New Zealand finished up at 286 for 9, and would've likely won if not for a similarly explosive century from Aussie opener Mark Waugh (110).

Australia nabbed a six-wicket win with 17 balls up their sleeve and Harry's best ever knock was all to naught.

CLOSING STATEMENTS:

"I think the best lesson I can pass on is to try and keep focused and ride a straight line as opposed to riding the wave." - Harry, to Cricinfo in 2012.