ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
'If they say I can't do something, I'll try to prove them wrong'
Robin Peterson has had few regular stints with the South African side despite being on the circuit for eight years now. But he hopes changing attitudes towards spin bowling will make a difference
June 3, 2011
Robin Peterson has picked out a bedtime story to narrate to his future grandchildren. It's not a traditional fairytale, but to Peterson it has a little more magic and charm than the usual fantasies of royals, romances and happily-ever-afters.
"I am one of few bowlers who can say that I opened the bowling with Dale Steyn," left-arm spinner Peterson said. "That will be my story for the grandkids."
It was South Africa's third match at the 2011 World Cup, played on a crusty, dry Chennai pitch, which would ultimately be their undoing. It was only the fourth time in his eight-year-long career that Peterson was playing in a third consecutive match for the national team. It was the first time he was given the new ball.
"I didn't think I would be part of opening the bowling, but two days before the match the captain [Graeme Smith] told me that he had been thinking about it and asked me to practise with the new ball. I was a bit nervous leading up to it, but I knew that in the subcontinent it's a bit harder to hit the spinner out of the park, and we had a plan."
The plan was to give Kevin Pietersen an unwelcome challenge, given his weakness against left-arm spin. But Peterson gave South Africa a bonus. He claimed the wickets of Andrew Strauss, Pietersen and Ian Bell in his first two overs. It's still Pietersen's wicket that means the most to Peterson. "It's always more rewarding when something comes together like that," he said.
It makes sense that he would have enjoyed that scalp the most, because Peterson is an industrious and methodical man. He understands the need to work hard for dividends, partly because of his background, from a middle-class Eastern Cape family, and also because of his journey as a cricketer: he has played just 47 ODIs in almost a decade of international cricket.
It's a side of Peterson not many people know or understand. His ability to stick to it goes unnoticed during his appearances for South Africa, and amid all the jokes about him being a professional 12th man. Everyone knows about the 28-run over against Brian Lara a few years ago, but few know he was part of South Africa's Under-19 squad, came through the ranks at every level provincially, was handpicked by Clive Rice to attend the national academy, and was selected for South Africa at the age of 22. Even fewer realise the dedication and determination Peterson put in to make it to the national squad and to stay in it.
"I came from the kind of family where everything we had, we got through hard work," Peterson said. He was expected to finish school and get a degree in order to find decent employment, but as he became more noticed in cricketing circles, he decided to pursue it professionally, even thought he had "never considered it as a career". He started a marketing degree through correspondence with the University of South Africa, but has yet to complete it because he found himself touring a lot.
Since September 2002, Peterson has been involved in 21 different one-day series, including three World Cups and two Champions Trophies. Ten of those have been away from home. Despite the wealth of experience, he averages five ODIs a year. He has only played two full five-match series, in 2003 against Pakistan and 2004 against West Indies. His longest run came in 2003-04, when he played 11 consecutive matches across three series.
All through, with sporadic appearances in the starting XI, his role was never clarified. Peterson has opened the batting and also batted at Nos. 8 and 9. He has been used as a holding bowler and an attacking one. "I wanted to put the team first and didn't ask too many questions. It wasn't ever really explained to me but I didn't mind."
It must have been frustrating to be in limbo but Peterson is a survivor. "I am a very determined person and if someone says I can't do something, I will do everything in my power to prove them wrong."
There was a time, at the end of the Champions Trophy in 2009, when it seemed he had thrown in the towel. He signed a Kolpak deal with Derbyshire and made himself unavailable for selection to the national team that summer. "I was watching all these guys play domestic cricket, and I realised that they are learning and growing and I am staying at the same level," he said. Touring with the national squad meant that he wasn't playing as much as he would have liked to. He decided that county cricket would give him the match time he was missing out on, but he had every intention of returning to South Africa.
|"I was watching all these guys play domestic cricket and I realised that they are learning and growing and I am staying at the same level" Peterson on why he decided to go play county cricket|
"I worked really hard on my bowling while I was there and I also went to watch a lot of games." Nottinghamshire was Peterson's preferred destination as a spectator. "I used to enjoy watching Graeme Swann. We played together at U-19 level, and in some ways our careers have followed the same path." Swann was selected for a one-dayer against South Africa in 2000, before losing his place. He made a return seven years later, as a second spinner to Monty Panesar, and only regularly established his place in early 2009. Peterson was impressed with how Swann as an "orthodox offspinner brought back the art that everyone said was dying in a big way".
Peterson hopes to do something similar in South Africa, where the idea of an attacking spinner has only just started to gain popularity once again. "Perception has changed and now we see spinners as attacking options. We used to often think of the spinner as someone who had to bowl their 10 overs and get it over with. There has been a mindset shift."
That approach served South Africa well at the World Cup, but it may not be a long-term strategy, especially in home conditions, which are usually seamer-friendly. With the emergence of legspinner Imran Tahir, Peterson's hopes of being the sole tweaker are slim, but that's not something that worries him. In fact, he sees it as an advantage. "It's exciting for Imran to be involved. I love watching him bowl and bowl with him, and I think it will show youngsters that there is an option to become a spinner in this country."
In real terms it could mean that Peterson is excluded from the starting XI, but, as always, he has a plan in place. "I am using this winter to work on my batting. It's the longest break I have had from cricket in three years and I am going to be training with the Cobras in Cape Town. I am not a massively technical person, but I want to concentrate on watching the ball more and improving generally."
Peterson prides himself on having built a career on self-study, having never had a spinning coach. "I learn from watching a lot and I have watched a lot of other spinners. I also enjoy talking to batsmen, about what makes them uncomfortable when they are facing a spinner and which areas they don't want to be forced into scoring runs in, and then I try to bowl so that they are forced to do that."
Now he hopes to apply that principle in reverse, in order to zone in on his batting skills, developing which he hopes will give him a "competitive edge" when it comes to selection.
"I've only just started playing consistently and now I want to take my game to the next level. I still have a lot of goals I want to achieve - like one day winning a global event like the World Cup or the Champions Trophy, and playing Test cricket."
Peterson has taken 326 wickets in 116 first-class matches. Should he achieve anywhere near half as much in Test cricket, it would make another captivating tale for his grandchildren.
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