Cricket: `Zulu' ready for double challenge

South Africa's Lance Klusener is a man with a mission. Derek Pringle reports
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The Independent Online
IN A country where sportsmen are pointed the way to the Wanderers and Ellis Park the moment they can walk, late developers are an uncommon breed. Lance Klusener, South Africa's fast bowling all-rounder, is even more unusual. A country boy from deepest Zululand, he hardly ever made the school first team. Indeed, he only began bowling after he had joined the Army, apparently because it - "got to be boring standing around in the field waiting to bat."

Unlike Australia, South Africa's route to sporting experience tends to be an urban one. For Klusener, though, competitive cricket began in the country districts league, a competition described as "social," even by South African standards. Now, some eight years later, he plays the game well enough to have opened both the batting and bowling for his country, albeit in one-day cricket. This is a role he may once again fulfil over the forthcoming Texaco Trophy matches against England, the first of which is tomorrow at The Oval.

What with the first 15 overs now being the most important part of a one- day match, I asked him if he was not a bit daunted at the prospect of being thrust into the front line with both bat and ball?

"Been there, done that," he said with curt matter-of-factness, a throwback perhaps to his German ancestry. "It may be more difficult to pinch hit over here, though, as the bounce isn't quite the same as back home. But, if I have to do both jobs, I'll know I've done it before."

This uncomplicated attitude is typical of the man known to the rest of the team simply as "Zulu." According to one journalist, Klusener has "a mental dimension free of clutter," and is not easily fazed.

Apparently, when Daryll Cullinan was once more being psyched out by his bete noire, Shane Warne, in the recent series - a state of affairs that eventually saw Cullinan dropped - Klusener could not understand why he simply did not go out and slog Warne round the park.

If the philosophy sounds simplistic, Klusener's habit of rising to the big occasion is perhaps one in the eye for pedantic analysts everywhere. His eventual arrival on the big stage 18 months ago - after a short apprenticeship with Natal - perhaps suggested there would be a gentle feeling of the way. Instead, stepping out in the Calcutta haze to make his Test debut against India, his cricketing education was fast-tracked in a match where the whole spectrum between those sporting poles of success and failure was experienced in five days.

Picked primarily for his bowling, he was smashed for 75 runs from 14 overs with Mohammed Azharuddin, India's rubber-wristed batting wizard, flaying him for five fours off successive deliveries. In a cauldron-like Eden Gardens, many would have been destroyed. Yet, in the second innings, with Allan Donald incapacitated by a bruised heel, Klusener returned and, finding a captain willing to back him, took 8 for 64. South Africa won and Klusener recorded the best-ever figures by a South African on his debut.

"For me the most important thing is to take your chances. At the time I thought: you've dreamed and worked all of your life to play Test cricket and here it is disappearing fast in a matter of overs.

"In the second innings, we changed a few things such as length, but that success helped set me up to where I am today. To experience that great high so soon after a great low has stood me in good stead. Basically, I now know to hang in there and never give up."

Apart from his undoubted talents as a bustling fast bowler and a hard- hitting left-handed batsmen, it is unstinting effort and aggression that stand out as the central pillars of the 26-year-old's game. "He is a fiery competitor," said Bob Woolmer, South Africa's coach, who claimed Klusener's comeback in Calcutta confirmed that the man had that something special to go the distance.

The dashing deeds did not end there, either, and, three Tests later, this time in Cape Town, he took 102 off the Indian attack in just 100 balls. More amazing than the speed, the fastest-ever century by a South African in terms of balls faced, was that he achieved the feat batting at No 9.

The slight downside of these two explosive performances is that it has given him a reputation as a streak player - an all or nothing man - something his recent exclusion from the Test side has made him more aware of. "Obviously I'm looking for more consistency," he admitted. "But it's not a bad thing to have someone in the team who can turn things around quickly."

As a bowler, he has been clocked at 156kmh (about 95mph). But if the raw pace should provide England's batsmen with the odd sobering thought, the fact that some polish, as well as an outswinger, has been added, courtesy of Dennis Lillee's bowling academy in Madras, makes him a dangerous prospect, particularly in the wake of Donald and Shaun Pollock.

His three years in the Army were spent in intelligence. "The Army was just something I did while I was making up my mind what to study. When I was at school, you could never say that there was a living to be made out of cricket. But then our chance came along, we were allowed back into international cricket. You've got to take a chance like that."

A man of few frills, Klusener's upbringing among the sugar-cane plantations of Natal - Gingindlovu to be precise - is perhaps not exceptional in a country initially colonised by farmers. However, his ability to master Zulu before English probably is, though he was perfectly clear in his second language about his intentions for the summer.

"To come and beat England at the home of cricket would be a wonderful thing and I'm determined to give my all to accomplish that." Like the Zulu warriors of a century ago, it sounds as if he does not intend taking any English prisoners this summer.