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May 4, 2011
Johan Botha was offered a rare gift two days before Rajasthan Royals' opening game in the 2011 IPL - the gift of time. With Shane Watson in Bangladesh on international duty with Australia, there was a vacant spot in the top order and captain Shane Warne and coach Jeremy Snape thought Botha could be the man to fill the gap.
The South Africa offspinner typically bats down the order for his country, where the need of the hour tends to be quick runs. But he has a reputation for being a resourceful and intelligent limited-overs cricketer, and some of his performances have hinted at more potential with the bat. It was this potential that Snape and Warne sought to unlock.
"They both approached me at the same time and we had a general chat and they said 'are you keen to do it?'" Botha told ESPNcricinfo. "Obviously, I was keen. I always watch guys bat. It is not great coming in with just a few balls to go."
Botha was confident he could handle the responsibility of coming in at No. 3, given his experience of doing it in four-day cricket in South Africa early in his career. That he would be doing it in Twenty20 in the subcontinent, which is always a good place to bat, only made the offer more tempting. But the biggest draw was the time to build an innings.
"You have a few balls to have a look," he said. "The field is up at the start too, so you can get off to a bit of a flier and have 10, 15, or 20 runs before the field is spread out, so that makes quite a difference. Normally, when you come in at the end, it is a few balls to go and one or two of the best bowlers on again, so that is not easy."
The move surprised many but so far Botha has looked like he has been batting up the order all his life. In Rajasthan's opening game against Deccan Chargers, he made a fluent, unbeaten 67 from 47 balls to lead his team to a comfortable eight-wicket win. He backed that up with 39 from 32 balls, also unbeaten, against Delhi Daredevils as Rajasthan chased down 151.
"I've really enjoyed it. Most of the time we have chased when I have batted at three and then the game dictates how you must play. It's pretty simple."
He was also quick to praise his team-mates for making his job easier. "The guys I've batted with have been great also. Rahul Dravid, Shane Watson a few times, Ross Taylor … they can hit the ball out of the ground if they want to and that's taken a little pressure of me."
Botha played in Rajasthan's first loss to Kolkata Knight Riders but missed the next few games with a finger injury and Rajasthan went into a bit of a tailspin in his absence, despite the arrival of Watson. They lost two of three games in that spell, with the game against Bangalore rained out. Since Botha returned for the seventh game against Kochi, the team has promptly embarked on a three-game winning streak that has taken them into the top four.
The streak includes a crucial win over then table-toppers Mumbai Indians on April 29. Botha masterminded his team's chase of Mumbai's total of 94, a target made tougher by a two-paced pitch, and his 45 was the highest score on either side by miles. More importantly, he blunted the threat posed by Mumbai's human-yorker-machine, Lasith Malinga. Following the game against Pune, Botha's average stands at a lofty 94.50 and his strike-rate is 121.93. Not too shabby for a makeshift top-order batsman.
Botha's unexpected success with the bat has overshadowed his day job, but he has been no mug with the ball either, as the confidence he has gained with the willow has trickled down to his bowling as well.
"It has taken a bit of pressure off me. It does make me relax a little bit. To do something for the team is always good. It might not always be bowling. It is nice to contribute in a way. Hopefully, now I can keep doing both."
Warne has used him in every conceivable situation - to open the bowling, control the middle overs and bowl at the end of the innings. His best performance came against Mumbai, when he was introduced in the 16th over, a gamble which paid off spectacularly as Botha took the wickets of Mumbai's twin towers, Kieron Pollard and Andrew Symonds, on his way to figures of 3 for 6. He has taken five wickets in all to this point in the tournament, and has an economy rate of 6.40, forming a potent spin combination with Warne that can take wickets while simultaneously keeping the run-rate down.
Botha said he is happy to bowl whenever he is asked, though it is obviously easier to bowl once the field is spread out. "If you are bowling in the first six, you want to bowl early, in the first or second over because after that the batsmen get in and you are off for a hiding to nothing."
The key to opening the bowling, according to him, is to make sure you practise with the new ball, which is quite slippery when the shine is still on it, and to remember that there are only two guys outside the 30-yard circle in the first six overs. At the same time you want to be aggressive and try to take wickets "because that stops the other team from scoring".
"You are bowling to quality players so you might go for the odd boundary in the first few overs, but I think as long as you stay aggressive and want to take wickets, things will go your way more often than not." Botha said he relies on changes of pace to keep the batsman guessing and while he may not be the biggest turner of the ball, he is very accurate, which makes it tougher for batsmen to get after him.
His recent good run with bat and ball has him thinking perhaps there is an allrounder lurking somewhere inside that is ready to step out on the world stage, though it is still early days. "In the IPL, you can say that. In international cricket, I haven't performed that well with the bat, or that consistently. I've had a good last few months. Yes, I would like to be [an allrounder]."
There were many raised eyebrows when Rajasthan spent $950,000 on Botha in the January player auction, but it has already proved to be money well spent.
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