Cricket /First Test: Detractors take a beating

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The Independent Online
IT WAS not until the last hour that an imploring voice bellowed from the Grandstand: 'Have a go at it, Wessels'. It was conclusive proof that, whatever the contrary evidence of the steaming heat, we were in London, not Johannesburg - there the shouts would have started within an hour of his reaching the crease.

Kepler Wessels has never been a popular figure in South Africa, where he is seen as too negative a captain, too slow a scorer and too dour a person. For some, he remains tainted by his flirtation with Australia - and he is not too popular there either. But he never set out to be popular, only successful.

That he has undeniably been, and if you were putting a fiver on the man most likely to make a hundred in this Test, Wessels always appeared a good bet. Certainly, no one was going to be more motivated. He made a century (against England) on his Australian Test debut and a century on his home South African Test debut.

But this one, he said last night, means more than any other. 'To make a hundred here, after so many years, must be the highlight,' he said.

'I was very nervous, more than usual. If I had known I would get a hundred, I would have saved myself a lot of tension. It was a tremendous occasion with an excellent atmosphere. On a personal level, it was everything it could be.'

Apart from the historic nature of the match ('This was the last such match,' Wessels said. 'Now we can be just another side.') there was a personal touch. When Wessels was five, his sister was courted by Johan Volsteedt, then a pupil at Bloemfontein's Grey College. Young Wessels effectively stole Volsteedt's attention from his sister and demanded he teach him the rudiments of cricket. By the time Wessels was a Grey pupil, Volsteedt was the cricket master and the pair spent hours before and after school honing the prodigy's skills.

A decade later, Hansie Cronje, now South Africa's vice-captain, followed Wessels to Grey and was also taken under Volsteedt's wing. He promised should he ever play a Test at Lord's he would pay for Volsteedt to be there. This week he honoured that promise and, though Volsteedt suffered early disappointment yesterday when Cronje was out for seven, he was able to end the day a proud man. Cronje's time will come - he is expected to take over the captaincy at the end of the series - but for now the team remains Wessels'.

For all his detractors in South Africa, there are none to be found in the team, where his dedication and regular examples of personal sacrifice and bravery inspire a fierce loyalty.

When, after more than four hours batting yesterday, he cut Craig White to the backward point boundary to bring up his hundred, the explosion of cheers around the ground was matched on the team balcony.

But even now, after rescuing a South African innings that seemed to be wobbling by scoring a century at Lord's, where precious few South Africans have done so, he remains one of those players likely only to be fully appreciated at home when he has left the stage.