South Africa: Rory Kleinveldt’s Rocky Reception

Sometimes the hardest thing about doing anything is simply getting started at all, and in Test Cricket even seasoned Test veterans will probably tell you that their first one was probably the toughest.

It’s a cut-throat business, playing against a calibre of player who are better, faster and stronger than any you’ve ever faced in your career, with a crowd and audience larger than any you’ve ever experience before and, to top it all off, you’re expected to perform above all expectations. In short, good luck.

So as Rory Kleinveldt marked out his run to begin his first over in Test Cricket, you can only imagine what was going through his head. Nerves, memories, perhaps the memory of the kind words of the well-wishers, supporters and coaches down the years who have helped him reach that point so far. Perhaps it was the words of his fellow bowlers, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, both of whom experienced debuts of very differing success.

Earlier in the day, he had enjoyed himself, hitting a couple of sixes and enjoying the creative liberties which are generally afforded bowlers who can hit a long ball, but by contrast, this was the serious business was getting started. His side were on-top, their opposition three wickets down, and the onus was on him to keep up the pressure and perhaps even chip in with a wicket or two.

Sometimes debuts can go like that, Graeme Swann took two wickets in his first over in Test Cricket, Damien Fleming got a hat-trick on his debut, Sajid Mahmood grabbed three quick wickets in fading light against Sri Lanka (at least one a full toss). As Mark Nicholas would call it “the wheel of fortune turned in their favour”.

The batsman facing him was hardly the most daunting. Ed Cowan will hardly go down as one of cricket’s great intimidators. If it was David Warner or Ricky Ponting who was marking their guard then perhaps you could forgive some real nerves. And so as he started on his run, more a gentle amble than a Holding-esque pelt into the wicket, and then turned over his arm, with a fast arm action and unleashed the first ball of his Test career and promptly earned his first ever dot ball in Test cricket. Deep breath, back to your mark, repeat.

In truth, this was about as good as it got. His next ball was a no ball, his fourth was his first boundary conceded, his fifth was his second boundary conceded. His seventh and eighth brought the same results, his twentieth was a boundary, a no ball and a first glare from the captain while his twenty-second was his last ball of the day.

His first spell in Test cricket finished with figures of three overs, twenty seven runs conceded, zero wickets, zero maidens, five fours, four no balls and one glare from the skipper. As starts go, it wasn’t quite on the nightmare-ish levels of Bryce McGain, Gavin Hamilton or Mick Lewis but it made for difficult viewing, except for those who have sung “Waltzing Matilda”.

But, for Rory, there was probably a sense of relief. It was over, the Test debut was out of his system, and while it was a tough first day at the office, it was one day more than before. And he will watch it back, reflect that he was too short, too wide, too often. He made both Cowan and Clarke look like Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh.

If this was Twenty20, he’d almost be out of chances, three overs means one to go, but part of the beauty of Test cricket is that players get the time to adapt and perhaps recover once or twice in a single match. Tomorrow is another day, and maybe the day that Rory Kleinveldt’s Test career really begins.

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South Africa’s Missing World Cup Ingredient: A touch of Klusener

For the first time in over ten years we enter the World Cup’s latter stages with no team clear favourites for the trophy.

After years of witnessing Australia march with swaggering authority to title after title, this has been the tournament of the unpredictable, the unexpected. Favourite after favourite have endured both highs and lows as they seek that winning formula to take the title.

India’s bowling has toiled, Sri Lanka’s middle order has sagged, England appear to be running on empty, Australia look bereft of their inspiration and Pakistan are, well, Pakistan and no-one knows which version will turn up.

South Africa, perennial favourites at least in the minds of everyone except themselves, have hit the ground running faster than most bar that aberration against England. In truth the only question-mark against them is that cursed “c” word, yet they have another working in their favour: “complete”.

Unlike their predecessors they appear the most complete South African team of all.

They have a sound top order, a tactically flexible and inspirational captain in Graeme Smith, explosive fielders, superb pace bowlers and a trio of spinners who are both experienced performers in limited overs formats and more importantly three different types of bowlers who can all take wickets.

Yet while this represents their best team, their most complete team, the defeat against England showed up one missing ingredient: a late order finisher capable of carrying them over the line. In short, they miss someone like Lance Klusener.

That 1999 World Cup semi-final remains a mythical moment in South African cricket, the moment where they got to the brink but then watched it all disappear, it was the moment where the word “choker” became a South African staple.

Yet what is often forgotten is quite how Klusener, there at the bitter end, managed to drag the team there in the first place.

He appeared late in the innings, coming in at seven, and brought carnage with him. He smashed 52 off 45 balls, 48 runs off 40 balls against England and 46 runs off 41 against a Pakistan attack including Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar. In an era four years prior to Twenty20 was a twinkling in the eye, Klusener was firing 4s and 6s to all corners.

Even in that semi-final, it was Klusener who took South Africa to the brink of victory. Striding in with their target far from secure at 7-183, it was he who brought some much needed impetus to their chase with 4 fours and 1 six before that run out.

It was a defining moment, and for Klusener things would never be quite the same again. He struggled to match the heights as consistently, though such a run of form is rare to come by for even the best players, though he was not helped by the whim of the South African selectors.

Yet his ability to smash boundaries to all corners, his frenetic all-action game were something special when on form. Something South Africa have probably lacked since: a proper finisher.

They’ve tried to find some since, the likes of Ryan McLaren, Albie Morkel and Justin Kemp have tried hard but none have managed to fill it quite like Klusener once did.

The defeat against England highlighted the need for such a player, as England tightened the screws South Africa’s batsmen froze under the pressure with De Villiers, Duminy and Van Wyk disappeared. When the game demanded someone to step up and break the shackles and keep the score ticking over, South Africa’s middle order ran to the hills and collapsed like a pack of cards.

What they needed was a Mike Hussey, a Yusuf Pathan or even a Klusener to help turn the tide in their favour. It is the achilles heel of this line-up, which Smith will hope is not exposed to the kind of pressure which England, and previously India have shown can be exploited.

In a team packed with strike bowlers, trump cards and dynamos what they need most of all is a finisher. What they could use is a touch of Lance Klusener, the man who was there right to the very end, for better or worse.

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Pakistan and Abdul Razzaq repay the faith

It was always going to take something special to knock the news that Australia had been routed in a T20 international by Sri Lanka off the back pages. But boy was it special.

Abdul Razzaq absolutely annihilated South Africa, with the kind of innings which in years to come people will probably talk about as one of those “I was there” moments, a match-winning innings which belongs among the highest echelons of innings.

Smashing 109 off just 72 balls, hitting 10 sixes to rescue Pakistan in a match they seemed destined to lose. For almost 90 overs of this game they were distinctly second best, but towards the end of both innings they were dominant.

But ultimately all you can say was that it was brilliant, white knuckle ride of an innings. A whirlwind, blitzkreig of massive shots and a complete masterclass in handling both the drama of the occasion, but also the chase of an imposing and difficult total.

He smashed sixes off the spinners and faster bowlers alike, timed the innings to perfection, and took Albie Morkel and Charl Langeveldt to the cleaners. In total he smashed 63 of the last 65 runs Pakistan scored in the innings, and hit 10 of the 12 sixex which Pakistan hit in their innings to send them over the line in dramatic fashion with one ball left.

It was a timely reminder of just what Abdul Razzaq and Pakistan are capable of, not just in the context of this series, but of the past six months, which have been dominated more by their deeds off the pitch than on them.

It showed that they, more than any other cricketing nation, remain capable of the extraordinary, combining sometimes outrageous displays of daring with more than a touch of drama. Few do drama and audacity quite like Pakistan, but even this was something else.

The irony that such a display should come on the very day when the ICC chose not to uphold the appeals from Salman Butt and Mohammed Aamir’s against their bans will not be lost on some.

The accusations which stand against them characterise a darker side to Pakistan cricket, a side which has all-too often dominated the stories about them. This is a side which damages their reputation, and tarnishes the work of good and honest Pakistan cricketers who are brought down by the dishonesty of a few.

Yet Razzaq’s display, and this tremendous snatch victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat result, simply reminded us that while they can test the loyalties of even their most ardent fans, there is still that other side to their character which ultimately makes such faith rewarding.

Thus this was not only a brilliant and thrilling cricketing moment, but also a timely one.

It was a moment that repaid the faith which thousands of fans and followers have invested in them and confirmed that for all the controversy which has dogged them recently, there is another side which can help make all the turmoil and frustration.

While this was a moment worthy of any adjective, perhaps the best description of all is that it finally has people talking about Pakistan for all the right reasons again.

Why the world’s best leg spinner could soon be a South African

Who is the best leg spinner in the world? It’s not a trick question, nor is it a question with an obvious answer.

In truth we don’t know who the best leg spinner in the world is, it is purely a hypothetical question.

Nor do we possibly know who all the leg spinners in the world are, there could be some young Sri Lankan spinner that bowls decent leg breaks who we’ve never heard of who gets picked for one game and immediately astounds us all. It’s happened before, and you wouldn’t bet against it happening again.

But seriously, could you even say who the best is?

Compared with, say, eight years ago, leg spin is going through it’s own version of the recession.

After the boom years of Anil Kumble and Shane Warne, have come the bust years of Piyush Chawla and Steven Smith.

That’s not to say neither Chawla or Smith aren’t talented, both are very decent prospects, as is Adil Rashid of England, but none of them have forced their way into their Test teams regularly and only Smith appears likely to do so now.

So who else? Shahid Afridi? Perhaps, though without Test cricket could he be? Danish Kaneria would probably have fitted the bill had his game not fallen apart so drastically in England.

The answer may in fact lie in South Africa, not a country known for producing high class spin bowlers, and indeed a country who have found playing leg spinners to be a tricky task before (just ask Daryl Cullinan)

But soon, as soon as December possibly, the Proteas could conceivably call upon the services of arguably the best leg spinner in the world right now. His name? Imran Tahir.

Tahir’s career may have been a long and winding one, taking in numerous destinations along the way, but he’s arguably never bowled better than he is right now.

Having cut a swathe through County batting line-up’s throughout England during the summer, he has returned to South Africa and continued his fine run of form by taking 30 wickets in just 4 games for new club Nashua Dolphins, at an average of just 22.

His performances, which have taken place on pitches which have generally been unconducive for turn, have been a revelation. When asked about his success, Tahir showed he had a touch of Warne about his delivery off the pitch too.

He said recently: “I have a top-spinner, flipper and I have a few different types of googlies and that helps me to deceive batsmen. I change my action slightly and bowl the same type of ball. (It means) I can bowl six to eight different types of deliveries.”

Tahir, who was born in Lahore, qualifies on the grounds of his marriage to a South African and was previously called up for selection in January this year only to be denied selection due to questions over his qualified status.

However despite the confusion, Tahir is still determined to play for his adopted country, and he was recently quoted as saying: “One of my dreams is to play for South Africa. When I qualify, hopefully the selectors will pick me.”

One man who knows a thing or two about Test cricket and about playing decent leg spinners is Kevin Pietersen, and he believes Tahir should be playing for his country sooner rather than later.

“He is in a different league, he said. “He spins the ball both ways and he’s got incredible control. If you can spin the ball both ways you get wickets.

“If managed properly and given lots of confidence the man can bowl any team out. He’s definitely somebody who should be playing test match cricket.”

It would be a remarkable moment for a player who at 31 years of age has been through more than most international debutants to reach this point. But after years of hard work, Tahir’s moment may finally be about to arrive.

Yes indeed, the best leg spinner in the world may in fact turn out to be a South African after all.

South Africa’s key men are hitting form ahead of the World Cup

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride in international cricket are South Africa. The biggest nation never to win an ICC trophy now that England has finally walked away with some silverware, but could next year’s tournament in India finally be their year?

Well going into every World Cup tournament, South Africa are always among the favourites, and you’d need to be fairly stingy not to name them this time.

This is the first World Cup in a long time which contains no clear favourites for the title, and while India’s home support and Sri Lanka’s unique talent are important, the sheer power and talent at South Africa’s disposal must also be considered.

Anyone who watched the impressive dismantling of Zimbabwe, granted against opposition far below their standards, will have been excited. Coach Corrie Van Zyl took the opportunity to blood younger players such as Peter Ingram, Rusty Theron and 21-year old David Miller and all three took their opportunity to impress.

Captain Graham Smith was equally impressed, lauding the performances of all three and declaring: “I think it’s great, you want to see these guys coming in and performing well.”

Yet what will have most delighted Smith will have been the form of three of the key men in South Africa’s batting line-up, all of whom will play a decisive part in their chances in India next year.

Firstly at the top of the order was Hashim Amla, who scored two centuries and averaged almost 80 over 3 games, then there was the return of J P Duminy, who after a relatively quiet 12 months, finished the series with his highest ODI score, and the continued success of A B De Villiers who showed that taking the gloves has not affected his form with the bat.

The importance of these three to South Africa’s chances in India cannot be underestimated. Of all of South Africa’s batsmen, these are the three best suited to scoring in India, where the slower, spinning surfaces tend to suit the spin bowlers and players who play with their wrists and score through placement as much as power.

All three have impressive records in India, Amla averages over 100  there after a frankly stupendous tour last year, De Villiers averages over 50 and racked up his highest test score of 217, while JP Duminy smashed 99 not out against Royal Challengers Bangalore. An innings which led Ian Chappell to label him “a great in the making”.

These three will be the beating heart of South Africa’s challenge for honours in India, and while their performances in the Pakistan series will probably provide a better barometer of how well their players are doing, the signs so far suggest that when the time comes, South Africa and their dangermen will be up for the challenge.