Roger Harper, arguably the best fielder of his era, was born on March 17, 1963. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a fine all-rounder who would have had a longer career, had his career not coincided with the West Indies at their peak.
The run out
It was the MCC Bicentenary match at Lord’s, and the tie involved an ensemble cast of cricketers. It did not consist of only the English cricketers — champions from all over the world took part in it. The match is generally remembered for Sunil Gavaskar’s only hundred at Lord’s (188) and Dilip Vengsarkar’s first failure (22) at the same ground.
MCC had won the toss, and were cruising along at 254 for three. Roger Harper ran in to bowl to Graham Gooch, batting confidently on 117. Harper had earlier taken a stunning catch to dismiss West Indies teammate Gordon Greenidge. Harper bowled his usual flat delivery with his leaping high-arm action; Gooch stepped out, and drove hard, straight; the ball was headed for the stumps at the non-striker’s end; what happened next was a blur.
Harper swooped down like a bird of prey; he intercepted the ball before it hit the stumps and in the same fluid motion stood up and threw the ball at an incredible speed. Gooch had probably a millisecond to turn, but that was all he could do. Gooch was found kneeling on the ground in an attempt to return to the crease way, way before the direct hit the stumps.
The audience sat dumbstruck. They could not believe what they had just witnessed. Then there was a thundering applause — something seldom heard on a ground when a home batsman was dismissed. Indeed, Scyld Berry wrote later that Gooch should have been given out ‘st and b Harper’. Over years, the run out has attained iconic status.
West Indies were touring Australia a year and a half after the run out. Harper was left out of the team the way he had been throughout the 1980s, and West Indies had decided to field four seamers. Chasing 400 for a victory on the final day, Australia were struggling for survival at 58 for three.
Curtly Ambrose steamed in, and bowled an over-pitched delivery on the leg-stump; Dean Jones tried to flick it off his legs. The ball took the leading edge and died down as it raced towards the slips. Harper, on as a substitute fielder, got to see the ball very late, and hence was late to react; the ball flew past him on his wrong (left) side; he lunged backwards, downwards, and towards his left, and came up with a physics-defying catch. Bill Lawry went on to describe it as “one of the greatest catches I have ever seen in a Test match”.
Strangely enough, Harper never enjoyed the stature that Jonty Rhodes did, less than half a decade later. It could have been because an outstretched man in coloured apparel probably looked more photogenic. Or because Harper was overshadowed by the giants of the West Indies side of the 1980s. Or because Rhodes had burst into prominence in the biggest stage of all.
Whatever it had been, it cannot be denied that Harper was one of the greatest fielders of all time. In the 1980s, when fielding was considered at best a supporting act to bowling, Harper had the ability of picking up wickets and turn matches on their heads by his superlative fielding.
Not that he was an ordinary bowler, by any means. He took only 46 wickets from 25 Tests — but his low wickets-per-Test ratio was largely due to the fact that he was almost always use to give the speedsters a rest. He had an economy rate of 2.14 — which meant that he had done exactly what was expected of him — but a more spectacular statistic was the fact that he averaged 28.09 with the ball — better than Sonny Ramadhin (28.98), Lance Gibbs (29.09), and Alf Valentine (30.32). In fact, his average is the better for any West Indian spinner with 25 or more Test wickets. Had he born in a different country, or in a different era, he would have played many, many more Tests.
He was not an off-spinner in the classical mould. Instead, he ran in a rhythmic, angular motion. As he approached the stumps, he leapt upwards, which added to his 6’5” frame, and stretched his hand as far as he could to make his fingers reach an impossible height; and when he released the ball, it was usually aimed at an impossible-to-hit length, often resulting in an awkward bounce. Over after over he trundled on, keeping the pressure on at his end as his express teammates ran through one line-up after another.
His superlative fielding and economic bowling, combined with some aggressive lower-order batting, meant that the shorter version of the game suited Harper more. Indeed, he made his international debut in an ODI at Srinagar. He played in all five One-Day Internationals (ODIs), and even made his Test debut at Calcutta and played another Test at Madras — but did nothing of note barring stunning the Indians with his fielding.
A year later, he got a long run in Test cricket — playing four Tests in the Frank Worrell Trophy at home. With Andy Roberts announcing his retirement, West Indies decided to go in with Harper to support Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, and Joel Garner. Harper took 10 wickets at 30.30 and an economy rate of 2.19, and proved himself an excellent foil to the fearsome fast bowlers.
There were speculations regarding Harper’s inclusion in the Tests on the unhelpful tracks in England next season, but Clive Lloyd kept his faith on Harper, who was selected for all five Tests. He did not let his captain down. He picked up 13 wickets at 21.23 and an economy rate of 2.14. But it was the fourth Test at Old Trafford that really helped him emerge from the shadows of the greats.
Harper had already warmed himself up with a lusty 39, He had bowled a relentless spell of 23-10-33-0 in the first innings as the fast bowlers wrecked England, making them follow-on. Coming on in the eighth over, Harper virtually bowled unchanged to pick up six for 57 to help inflict an innings defeat on England. This time he was the centre of the action – and bowlers like Holding and Garner were merely a supporting act. It remained Harper’s only five-for. West Indies won 5-0 in a canter.
As giants like Holding and Garner slowly faded away from the forefronts, their place was being taken by Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh. They did not pose a threat to Harper’s slot, though. For him, the only matter of concern was the other off-spin-bowling all-rounder — Carl Hooper, who made his debut in the 1986-87 series.
Since they were intent on playing four fast bowlers now, they needed a spinner who can bat well. Hooper was easily the better batsman of the two, and for a while the team management oscillated, picking only one of the two — especially in the longer version. Indeed, they played only five Tests in unison, but there were 31 ODIs in which both of them had played.
After those initial 11 Tests, Harper played only 13 more in a career that had extended upto 1989, and got a surprise recall to play his 25th and final Test when West Indies toured Sri Lanka in 1993-94. He never really did too badly, and apart from that debut series in India, only twice did his average go over the 30-mark in a series where he played three or more Tests.
Harper flourished in ODIs, though. His dart-like accurate deliveries were often impossible to score off, and his career economy rate remained a more than impressive 3.97, considering the fact that he played a chunk of his cricket when the 15-over law had already been in place.
He was the most economic bowler of the Reliance World Cup, conceding only 206 runs in his 60 overs at 3.43. Even then, the lack of penetration in his style was held against him, and he was axed from the side immediately midway during the Benson and Hedges World Series in Australia in 1988-89.
He was left out, largely because of Hooper, for three years. He waited patiently, and when his time came, he was back at his economic best yet again. However, two years and 15 ODIs later, he found himself out of the side again — despite picking up eight wickets at 21.25 and an economy rate of 4.59.
He did have one final stint, though, a year and a half later. After some excellent containing bowling against a new-look Sri Lanka with a rampant Jayasuriya leading the batting, Harper maintained an economy rate of 3.97 from 12 ODIs spreading over two series, thereby booking a spot in the World Cup squad for 1996.
The final hurrah
Harper bowled quite well in the group matches, picking up crucial wickets and restricting runs — including spells of two for 34 against India and figures of 10-4-15-3 against Kenya. He came into his elements in the quarterfinal against South Africa, though. After Brian Lara had slammed the Springboks to pile up 264 for eight, it needed a special effort to restrict the South Africans to end their run of ten consecutive ODI wins.
Walsh and Ian Bishop were hit out of the attack by the South Africans, but the slow and low Karachi pitch offered help to Harper. Leading the spin attack, he dented the middle-order with figures of 10-0-47-4, and with Jimmy Adams (three for 53) and Keith Arthurton (one for 29), he smothered the South Africans into submission, taking his team to the semifinal after they had won only one match out of the first four. Shane Warne, however, did the same thing to West Indies in the semifinal, and they were knocked out of the tournament.
Harper played in the home series against New Zealand, and when the new World Champions visited West Indies, he played in the lone ODI, and returned figures of 9.3-1-34-3 in a defeat. Surprisingly, it turned out to be his last international match. A generally unblemished career came to an abrupt end at the age of 33.
In 2000, Harper was announced the coach of West Indies, and after he quit, he was recalled in 2003. West Indies was a difficult team to coach, especially after the retirements of Ambrose and Walsh, but Harper braved the task. In 2006, once again, when Kenyan cricket was in tatters, he took up the challenge.
He eventually went back to his beloved Guyana, since he did not want to live outside his home country for long.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42 )
First Published: March 17, 2013, 6:33 pm