If only McKenzie had played like this when it mattered most

2014-10-18 00:00

THE domestic cricket season, as Mister David Knowles pointed out in his “Fly on the wall” yesterday, is now well and truly in full swing.

Games are coming thick and fast — highlighted by the Dolphins being in action on Wednesday, yesterday and tomorrow this week.

On Wednesday night, the Lions were in Durban, and the rain had the final say at Kingsmead in what is now expected fashion. The local lads were not given an opportunity to mount a run chase and the points were shared, but what happened in the first innings of that match is worth further comment.

Those who know me know that I have long been an admirer of Neil McKenzie — so much so that ever since school days my batting style has been moulded on his. While I perfected his slightly open stance, short backlift and subtle trigger movements, his talent eluded me. More than that, it missed me by a mile.

His career has not been the easiest one to follow, laced in frustration and “if onlys”. It promised much ever since his Test debut in Sri Lanka in 2000, where he was used as an emergency opening batsman and was clearly uncomfortable throughout that series.

Once he had been shuffled down the order, McKenzie began to cement his place in the Proteas Test ranks and was tipped as a future captain and a potential great. But, as the Tests rolled on and inexperience could no longer be used as an excuse, he struggled to justify his selection. Mac’s biggest problem was that he could not convert his starts into big scores. He has passed 50 21 times at Test level, but would only go on to make five 100s.

As somebody who studied every aspect of the man’s career, it became apparent to me that McKenzie’s biggest enemy in those early years was his own mind. Often playing within himself, he would overthink every knock to the point where you could see the unrest painted all over his face. It didn’t help that he was often batting for his life, where the likes of Kallis, Gibbs and Smith were guaranteed a spot regardless of their form. As a result, especially at Test level, McKenzie would be overly cautious when at the crease, and would often come across as scratchy.

Dropped in 2004, McKenzie would wait nearly four years for his next international call-up. Ironically, his chance came as an opening batsman after Gibbs lost his place. The new McKenzie was wiser, calmer and ready to enjoy playing for SA instead of fearing not playing for them. The result was a more free approach to his batting, and it told in the statistics and in his stroke play.

He was named Wisden cricketer of the year in 2008 in a year where he became one of 12 batsmen ever to score more than 1 000 Test runs in a calendar year. That stint in the national side lasted just over a year, but it was one that came close to making up for what was previously a stuttering career. McKenzie’s final Test average of 3 7,39 comes nowhere near accurately illustrating the class of the man.

His 101* against the Dolphins on Wednesday was one of the best knocks I’ve seen him play. In the most hideous batting conditions, he took his time without once being flustered. He accelerated at precisely the right moment, played each ball on merit and was in complete control from start to finish. He bats today without a fear in the world and with nothing to prove.

At 38, he is playing as well as he ever has. One can only wonder what he might have been able to achieve had this same free-spirited approach to cricket been a part of his game when it mattered most. Damn you, experience.

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