Imraan Khan March 18, 2009

Laying claim to the room at the top

Azad Essa
An exciting new left-hander of Indian origin may just be the answer to South Africa's opener crisis

Imraan Khan and Hashim Amla were the non-white blue-eyed boys of Durban High School, among South Africa's premier cricketing institutions, from where the likes of Barry Richards, Richard Snell and Lance Klusener graduated. Together the two tormented bowlers from across the region and later the country.

Imraan, a prolific, elegant left-hand batsman, appeared years ahead with his ability to spend hours at the crease, both caressing and bludgeoning his way to hundred after hundred each weekend. The little skinny lad was a quiet riot with bat in hand, and when he decided to turn his arm over one morning, bowling biting offspinners, with ball as well. He would often score a hundred and fetch up to five wickets per game.

Immy, as he is affectionately known, is as elegantly murderous on the front foot today as he was as a young lad of 15; a sweet timer of the ball and prolific through the off side, drives and cuts are his weapons of choice. Like Amla, he is blessed with strong wrists that allow him to whip almost any delivery pitched up on the stumps through midwicket with impunity. His occasional tentativeness against short balls is offset by an ability to move inside the line and turn them gently round the corner. In many ways, Imraan's leg-side prowess is the mirror image of Amla's; only, his friends say, more stylish.

Both boys waltzed through all levels of state cricket, breaking records and announcing themselves as the very future of South African cricket. So talented were these two, even transformation didn't seem such a daunting prospect after all.

Amla joined the KZN Dolphins by the time he completed high school, and thrived in the middle order there. He was soon appointed state captain and then given a fairytale entry into Test cricket in 2004, when he was selected as the first South African of Indian origin to represent the country in a Test match, against, aptly or ironically, India in the bullring of Eden Gardens.

Where Amla's run in first-class cricket was compelling, Imraan's graduation from the elite youth teams to state level was anything but charming in comparison. As a youngster he had demonstrated immense powers of concentration to regularly bat for long periods of time, but at first-class level it seemed as if he had abandoned his formula and had geared up to merely dominate bowlers, striving for immediate success.

Following Amla's lead proved a little difficult. Since he made his first-class debut for the Dolphins in 2003-04 as an offspinner who could bat, Imraan's success has been little more than a line of jagged stop-starts marked by unfulfilled promises.

The lofted drive was almost always taken at mid-off, the buoyant push to the testing outswinger almost always went to second slip, and a few tight spells of bowling would invariably induce Imraan to self-destruct, wafting at a marginally wide one.

While he tasted relative success in the four-day competition - averaging in the mid-thirties for most of the past five seasons - his enthusiasm to dominate often resulted in him looking out of his depth as a reliable opener. Worse still, his once much-lauded offspin, a plus for any South African cricketer, became an abandoned project.

But it all changed in 2008.

Like Amla, Imraan is blessed with strong wrists that allow him to whip almost any delivery pitched up on the stumps through midwicket with impunity. His occasional tentativeness against short balls is offset by an ability to move inside the line and turn them gently round the corner

After being selected for the South African Emerging Players tour of Australia, where he top-scored, Imraan turned on the mettle.

The 2008-09 first-class season has seen a more patient cricketer, more in touch with his ability and more willing to play within himself. Imraan is among the leading scorers this domestic season, with over 800 runs, an average of above 60, and a tally of five centuries for the season - just one short of the South African record, currently held by Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Peter Kirsten.

Imraan says it was just a case of a few technical adjustments. "There is probably a lot more discipline in my game. I used to get a lot of starts and then throw it away, but I am trying really hard to not make those mistakes once I get in."

The Dolphins manager of playing affairs, Jay Naidoo, agrees that the new Imraan is a more mature, focused player: "I think he is older and understands his game better. At Supersport level he has done well previously, but he had this tendency of scoring of seventies and eighties and then getting out. This season it has been his ability to turn those numbers into three figures."

A batting average in the mid-thirties is a basic minimum for wicketkeepers today, not for openers. With South Africa in the midst of an opening-batsman crisis, Imraan knows that this surge in batting form couldn't have come at a more opportune time. "There was no other opportunity, and it just so happens I've been scoring runs. Now is probably the right time," he says.

The Cape Cobras' Andrew Puttick was an obvious alternative, with a far better career record, but Puttick's form in the Supersport series this season has been patchy in comparison. The sheer weight of Imraan's runs these last few months muscles him right to the top of the reckoning. The question remains: is one fantastic season reason enough to select a batsman?

"The only thing a player can do is to make runs. And if the opportunities arise, like in this case, where the top order has been struggling, then if you take all the opening bats in the country, he has been in the top bracket," argues Naidoo.

What matters now is that this little Chanderpaul-like figure of a man, having made the runs and earned his call-up, can turn on the magic and grab hold of his destiny rather than seek to chase it. If he does, he stands a genuine chance of becoming Graeme Smith's long-term partner.

Imraan's unorthodox opening style and yet elegant penchant to bludgeon the ball are exciting, fresh and worth a shot. Now it is up to him to decide how much he wants this chance.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ryan on March 20, 2009, 11:49 GMT

    luv4Cricket, you are a plonker! If a player learns everything he knows from South Africans, his Parents are South African, his teachers at school are South African and the pitches he grew up on are South African...HOW CAN YOU SAY HE ISNT NATIVE/LOCAL TALENT!? Many South African boys, black, indian and white, grow up idolising Indian players and end up with similar techniques. Pieterson has a 'Indian flourish' when he whips deliveries from the off to leg...should he not be playing for England? Dravid's as technically sound as an olden day England opener...should he not be in the Indian squad? Not Indian enough? Sehwag plays calypso style cricket at the top of the order, perhaps he should apply for Jamaican citizenship hey?! Ridiculous! Come on luv4Cricket, get that massive chip off your shoulder and take your black and white tinted glasses off. Anyway,I think most people reading this will realise you are a bafoon and have a quiet laugh to themselves at your expense. Amla you beaut!

  • Naushad on March 20, 2009, 7:57 GMT

    luv4cricket- are you saying there should 11 white or 11 black players in our south african side? Firstly how does ethnicity play a part in selection? If you're good enough, I don't care if you are from mars if you can play well and represent your country with pride why should the origin of your ancestors play any role? In our eyes and in many south african eyes they ARE local/native talents as you put it. Its about time people get over this whole race issue. You cant have token players just for window dressing. What good would that do? All the players in the South African have been chosen on merit alone.

  • Mick on March 20, 2009, 7:48 GMT

    Khawaja has been a member of the NSW and Australian Junior representative sides for quite some time- and much like Moises Henriques,Andrew Symonds,Kepler Wessels,Phil Marks,Clarrie Grimmet etc,he was not born in Aus,having emigrated at the age of 4....He is bred on the even and tough playing fields of New South Wales,plays his cricket as all those that have been born/bred/brought up as an Aussie and thoroughly deserved his call up to NSW...He is AUSTRALIAN,much like Imraan and Hashim are SOUTH AFRICAN.Hope this clears any unanswered questions.....

  • Himel on March 20, 2009, 4:58 GMT

    Having originated from the subcontinent doesn't lower their esteem, nor do I say that they (Imraan or Amla) aren't capable of being selected. Whatever you say in their support of being South African, if you look at their batting styles (specially of Imraan's), that obviously reminds of Indian batting. Actually what I'm trying to show you that, by picking up players from different origins indicates you lack native/purely local talents. Let me give some examples. The English team has been picking up Indians and Pakistanis for long, but without any such success. There's a young lad Usman Khawaja, playing for NSW, at Australia, talented young player, but if he gets selected for the national team in future, that's one thing that shouldn't happen. Your national team should at least comprise of purely local/native players.

  • Khadija on March 19, 2009, 18:54 GMT

    To qudsi and love4cricket: Firstly, I think it's an affront to both Hashim and Imran to be seen as hailing from the subcontinent. Certainly, they have Indian ancestry but kindly note that Indian indentured labourers first arrived in South Africa over a hundred years ago. People like Imran and Hashim hail from a community who are no more Indian than Makhaya Ntini or no less South African than Graeme Smith.

    I'd venture that both Hashim Amla and Imran Khan are fourth or fifth generation South Africans. South Africa is home to a multi-racial, multicultural population (we had Apartheid out here, heard about that?), and I think it smacks of racism to suggest that administrators should prohibit certain players to be playing for particular teams as some sort of effort to restore "unique style and flavors". Diversity mates, embrace it.

  • Naushad on March 19, 2009, 17:48 GMT

    To mr luv4cricket - its because of ppl like you that players like barry richards, mike proctor, and other great players whose careers were cut short as a result of policies of exclusion. How can you assume he is from "the sub-continent" amazes me. He is a South African. Born in South Africa. Schooled in south africa. How much more south african does one have to be in your eyes to justify selection in ur team? Where he wont "harm the unique style and flavor" as u put it.

  • Ryan on March 19, 2009, 16:44 GMT

    luv4Cricket, what are you on about son? Imraan is from Durban...born and bred. His name, appearance, playing style and most importantly his skin colour have nothing to do with it. By your reckoning, all the white players in the SA team should be playing for England and The Netherlands. ;- ) He is a Durban lad and a South African just like Hashim and his brother. Colour doesnt come in to it. We are South African and he is here to stay! Now when Imran Tahir 'becomes' a South African citizen and plays for the Proteas, you may say he is of Pakistan origin but chosen to play for his adopted country. The future is BRIGHT!

  • Ashraf on March 19, 2009, 15:02 GMT

    I wish him all the best. Not an easy wat to make his debut, playing in dead rubber against Australia who is led by Mitchell Jhonson. @ Ayo4Yayo : Jhonson bowled "well" against india in tests, in australia and in india. Not superbly but bowled well. Just go and check the records.... And if you look to ODI's or tenty20's., he has demolished india in india, in malaysia and even in australia.

  • Rick on March 19, 2009, 13:07 GMT

    'Immy' will last about 5 tests, tops. He's just a flash in the pan. World class pace Siddle and Johnson will break him, maybe even literally. Is that left or right handed Mister Khan? :)

    Oh 'Ayo4Yayo', India? And India is ranked where exactly. No immediate future after your big 4 I'm afraid. And even with them at their best, what was India ranked again? So long ...

  • Jan on March 19, 2009, 6:57 GMT

    Undeterred.. Off to the pharmacy with you. We can see the bulging veins in your forehead and neck from here. Deep breath brother! Immy's about to send you into longtime walkabout!

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