Proteas

DOWN HEROES' ALLEY | The lasting impacts of Rhodes and McKenzie

Neil McKenzie (Gallo)
Neil McKenzie (Gallo)

In November of 1991, South Africa toured India for three ODIs in what was the country's first participation in international cricket in 21 years. 

It was a historic moment in our sporting history and images of Clive Rice leading his charges out in Kolkata would be replayed countless times in the years to come. 

I was about to turn six then, and while I don't specifically remember that Indian tour, I do recall matches that took place in 1992 and beyond as my childhood coincided with the dawn of a new era of South African cricket - the Proteas era. 

Looking back now, it is easy to understand why the Proteas in the early 1990s commanded so much attention. South Africa's sporting community had been starved of international sport for two decades, and when it came back onto television screens, people couldn't get enough. 

Our chief writer, Rob Houwing, started a series recently where he paid tribute to a couple of sporting heroes from his earlier years - Eddie Barlow and Michael du Plessis

I could be wrong, but I don't think many sports writers grew up wanting to be sports writers. Most, I would guess, spend their school years wanting to become sports stars. 

There comes a time, of course, when our inadequacies slap us in the face and we realise in one cruel instant that we simply aren't good enough, but somewhere in those early years, we pictured ourselves making it to the very top. 

In the spirit of Houwing taking a trip down memory lane, I thought I'd do the same. 

Jonty Rhodes, in the early 1990s, almost single-handedly sparked interest in cricket.

Rhodes, like me, was a product of Pietermaritzburg and known as a man of faith, he would sometimes speak at local churches. When that happened, young cricket fans from the city would drag their mothers along. 

I don't remember Jonty's message, but I clearly remember him signing my mini-bat - 'Zenith' was the manufacturer - and his being one of many autographs I would cherish in the years to come. 

Rhodes was just different. Youngsters related to his boundless energy and athleticism, and because he was so innovative with his batting and ahead of his time in the field, commentators spent a lot of time talking about him. 

It translated into a player who became a household name. 

This was around the time of Bakers mini-cricket - what a marketing dream that project was - and all around the country youngsters were pretending to be Jonty every time they launched themselves towards a moving ball. 

As my obsession with cricket gathered steam, my parents were tasked with taking out an annual subscription to the monthly SA Cricket Action magazine, which became a bible in our house. 

The posters were sprayed all over my bedroom walls and other images were cut out of the magazine to to be plastered on school books and, earlier on, a scrapbooking project I had started. 

There were two scrapbooks - one for pictures of Rhodes, and one for pictures of everybody else. Cricket had become life, and Rhodes and everything he did was central to that development. 

Before school started, we would play cricket with a mini-bat and wrapped up piece up tin foil as the ball. At break times, we would play cricket with a tennis ball and a rubbish bin as the wickets. After school, we would have cricket practice. When we got home after practice, we would play cricket in the streets until it was too dark, you were called in for dinner or somebody had hit the ball into 'that' yard where none would dare venture.  

Donald, Cronje, Symcox, Cullinan, Kirsten, Kuiper, Richardson, Pringle, McMillan ... these were the names we grew up on. 

By the time high school rolled around, cricket was still everything, but not in the same way. We began taking it more seriously, identifying the areas of the game we were best at and trying to push it all as far as we could. 

In high school, succeeding on the cricket field became all encompassing. The only blow more devastating than a duck was looking skywards on a Saturday morning as the rain fell, ending all hopes you had of doing the thing you loved most. 

In 2000, my Grade 9 year, a young cricketer by the name of Neil McKenzie broke through into the Proteas side. 

He opened the batting on Test debut in Sri Lanka, as I did for my school side, and he immediately struggled for runs. It seemed like McKenzie was always under pressure to perform, and I related to that based on the pressure I had placed on myself at school. 

When he moved into more familiar territory in the middle-order, after that Sri Lanka tour, McKenzie began to look far more comfortable in Proteas colours and he enjoyed a long run in both the Test and ODI sides in the early 2000s. 

He never quite commanded his place, though, and an inability to convert starts into centuries ultimately cost him. 

I was invested in every innings. The story of a talented young man fighting for his place every time he went out to bat captivated me. 

Along the way, I began moulding my own batting technique on McKenzie's and, to this day, I still face up with a slightly open stance in the nets of the mighty Bergvliet Cricket Club. 

The young McKenzie gave a good account of himself in a losing Proteas effort in away and then home Test series against Australia in 2001/02, and when he was run out on 99 in the second Test at Newlands, it was the most devastating thing I had seen on a cricket field since the 1999 World Cup semi-final. 

I still believe, to this day, that if McKenzie had somehow scampered through to his ton, maybe if Damien Martyn had fumbled or missed the stumps, that he would have gone on to be one of the South African greats. 

The margins, I have convinced myself, are that fine.

When Rhodes, coincidentally, was ruled out of the 2003 World Cup squad with injury, I thought McKenzie would get the call-up. And when Shaun Pollock was sacked as captain after that tournament, I thought McKenzie would be given that gig too. He lost out in both instances to a certain Graeme Smith, however, and in 2004 McKenzie was dropped from the Proteas Test side after more than three years without a century in the format. 

When he returned as an opener alongside Smith four years later, McKenzie was a far more relaxed player. He was no longer batting for his life whenever he walked out to the middle, but rather savouring every moment as if it was his last. It reflected on the scoreboard, too, and he went on to add another three centuries - including one at Lord's and a rare double hundred in Chattogram against Bangladesh - to his resume. 

When he finally announced his first-class retirement in 2015, I took a moment and smiled to myself as I looked back. 

I have not followed, and will not follow, a career that closely ever again. The ups, the downs, the celebrations, the injustices ... it was all an incredible journey. 

Rhodes and the early Proteas sparked a love for this game that would last a lifetime, but McKenzie taught me how difficult this sport is and why Test centuries, debuts and milestones meant so much. 

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