Cricket: World Cup - Klusener grows into lead role

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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY, ALL the world's a stage for Lance Klusener. He plays the part of the noble savage from Natal in South Africa, but he would understand the Shakespearian reference. His official biography says his favourite play is Hamlet and, after a number of giddy giggles, inarticulate responses and cries of "thanks, man" to praise for his match-winning innings against Pakistan last Saturday, he unexpectedly described the successful run as a "feather in my cap". This is a country boy who has spent time in town.

Klusener's team-mates know him as "Zulu", because he grew up speaking Zulu which is what white children learn from their nannies in Zululand. But he was born in Durban and was a border at Durban High School, which means he is better educated than most other members of his team, or England's for that matter.

Hansie Cronje, South Africa's captain, dropped a clue which helps us to understand Klusener's position in the dressing room. Cronje, who had been a victim of Shoaib Ahktar's for a meagre four runs, reported Klusener's pragmatic reaction: "Take the two points and run," he said.

There is further evidence of a grown-up person behind the wide eyes, ginger hair and bemused look that Klusener exhibits when he answers questions after winning a man-of-the-match award (there are four in seven matches so far). When he came in after the fall of South Africa's sixth wicket in the crucial Super Six game against Pakistan at Trent Bridge the score was 135; there were 14 overs to go and 86 needed to win. "I've been there before. I know what it's like, and it can go any way. So I just try to relax and tell myself, 'Do your best'. You're not always going to win but as long as it's more times than not then it's all right," he says.

In the World Cup, Klusener has established his imposing position in the dressing room by bailing out South Africa three times: against Pakistan (46 not out in 41 balls); against Sir Lanka his 52 not out built a score South Africa could defend; and his 48 not out gave the team a cushion against England. Against Kenya he did not bat, mainly because he had taken 5 for 21 in 8.3 overs. He also took three wickets against India.

Klusener's one ineffectual performance so far was against New Zealand on Thursday when he was dismissed for the first time in this World Cup. His score of four took his aggregate to 214 off 193 balls with more than half the runs scored in boundaries (18 fours; eight sixes).

Cricket commentators have expressed surprise at Klus-ener's emergence as the World Cup's finest crisis manager and most effective all-rounder. ("A bit of a mystery," said Simon Hughes when presenting him with one of his man of the match awards). But Klusener came as no surprise to the West Indies or New Zealand. Both had recent experience of his breathtaking ability to transform a one-day international.

When South Africa steamrollered the West Indies in February, winning seven straight one-day games, Klusener topped the batting averages (76.33), and scored a 34-ball 50 - the fastest ever for South Africa. Better still, he dictated the result of a tight one-day series against New Zealand by hitting a six off the last ball of a deciding game.

The visual image that lingers is of Klusener stepping back to leg and clubbing the ball with his 2lb 11oz bat like a baseball player slugging a homer. The technique is designed for one-day cricket. His performance in Tests, which require a straighter bat and a less cavalier approach, is less persuasive. In 20 Tests he has scored only 602 runs at 27.45, and his 48 wickets have cost 34.95.

Klusener's contribution to last summer's series between England and South Africa was terminated after three Tests when he broke his foot at Old Trafford. He scored 57 in the first Test, 34 in the second and 17 not out in the third. He took six wickets. Statistics tell only part of the story, however. He was badly missed at Headingley when the lower- order batsmen failed to do what has become Klusener's speciality, coming in at No 8 or No 9.

His preference for batting down the order must have been bolstered last Thursday when he looked out of sorts during a brief innings coming in first wicket down. The one boundary he scored brought him an unbroken sequence of runs scored in one day internationals to 400, a new record. But Klusener is not particularly impressed by records. He seemed to find this one particularly funny when he learned of it last Saturday.

But it is an indication of the transformation of Lance Klusener from a useful all-rounder into the rare position among his generation of cricketers. He has become a presence, capable of inspiring confidence and ambition in his colleagues.