South African cricket May 7, 2013

Miller beginning to fulfill best-laid plans

The South African batsman was groomed for international sport from an early age and the returns on investment are beginning to come in

David Miller was two years old when his father, Andrew, bought him a golf set. That evening, Miller senior rolled a plastic ball towards his tiny son who did not hesitate in the slightest as he hit it straight back with confidence.

"He didn't swish at it or anything like that. He just hit it cleanly," Andrew said. "So I rolled the ball to him again to see if that was a fluke and he hit it back in the same way. It was only two balls but I turned around to my wife and I told her, 'He is going to play cricket for South Africa one day.'"

Eighteen years later, Miller was picked for his first national tour. He went to the West Indies in 2010, where he top-scored in his only T20 and registered two not-outs in the one-day series but did not make too much of an impact otherwise. Still, it was an "in" for the left-hand batsman, who seemed to have spent his whole life preparing for international sportsmanship.

Miller's father identified his son's talent early on and worked hard to nurture it. He sent him to some of the best schools - Clifton in the Midlands town of Nottingham Road for junior education and Maritzburg College, the alma mater of Graham Ford and Jonty Rhodes, for secondary learning.

Throughout, Miller played above his age group. He was nine when he scored his first hundred, in a 25-over match for the school's under-11 side. His unbeaten 136 accounted for almost 90% of the runs his team made - 154.

Andrew was "exceedingly proud" that day but thought it better to teach his son a life lesson rather than lavish him with praise. "There were a few guys in the side that got first-ballers that day and I told David that he should remember they were hurting. I told him everybody who watched the game that day knew how well he had done, so he didn't have to tell them. What he needed to do was go and put his arm around his team-mates and lift them up because they had a bad day.

"The way he absorbed that was so good to see. To this day, whether David makes 0 or 100, it doesn't make a difference, he is still the same person."

Miller's potential was given direction when Andrew took him for specialised coaching with former first-class player Harry Brown , who "had to help him with his pull shot because he missed a few in that hundred", and Ford, a friend of Andrew's who Miller had had lessons with from the age of 12.

Miller benefited from Ford's experience and continued along the carefully planned path set out for him. He was soon in the Under-19 frame and was hopeful of being included in South Africa's squad for the 2008 World Cup in Malaysia.

Then he was dealt a blow. He was not selected.

Vince van der Bijl, also a friend of Andrew's, had some sobering advice. "It was really good of him because he came to David and he told him that being left out of the Under-19 side was not the end of his career, it would just be the start," Andrew said.

That turned out to be a prophecy almost as good as the one Miller's father had made when his son was still a toddler. Despite being snubbed by the national junior side, Miller was on Dolphins' radar and responded to being left out of the Under-19s by excelling for his franchise. He was their top scorer in both the 40-over and 20-over competitions and earned a reputation for being a clean strokeplayer.

South Africa had never quite replaced Lance Klusener, and with Albie Morkel misfiring more often than not, Miller seemed the kind of player they would need in limited-overs cricket. They gave him 13 matches before the 2011 World Cup to show what he could do.

Miller did not impress, his only half-century coming against Zimbabwe, while Faf du Plessis made 60 on debut. Although du Plessis also didn't offer more than that at first, he was preferred when the final squad was announced. Miller had to deal with rejection again.

"I picked him up from the airport just after he had been told he wasn't going to the World Cup and we just sat in the car for a long time," Andrew said. "It was a very emotional and tender moment and I think David took a real knock then. He needed time to rebuild his confidence."

The first bit of backing came from the IPL franchise Kings XI Punjab, who bought Miller for $100,000 as a replacement for Dimitri Mascarenhas. Jason Gillespie was the bowling coach at Kings XI and noticed something he liked about Miller. "What struck me was his bat speed and timing which worked together so well for power hitting," Gillespie said.

Later that year Gillespie took up a position at Yorkshire and brought Miller over as one of his overseas players. It was a move that benefitted Miller more than he imagined it would. "Jason was like a good schoolteacher is for some kids. He backed David," Andrew said. "He instilled a sense of belief in him. David also really enjoyed it there, the team environment was good and everyone got on well."

Miller's first season was only moderately successful but his second was outstanding. He averaged 48.75 in the Friends Life T20 and scored four fifties. He played an important part in Yorkshire getting to the final against Hampshire, and almost won it with his 72 off 46 balls.

"The timing of his chases got better and better," Gillespie said. " The big thing for him is the simplicity of his batting, keeping a clear mind and having belief. The more experience he gets, the better."

Miller returned to South Africa, ready for a recall to the national side as far as Gillespie was concerned, but he faced stiff competition. However, Dolphins had appointed Klusener as coach, and as the master of big hitting, he had knowledge to impart.

"What was most important was getting proper game plans for David and getting him to bat longer, be not out and win games for his team," Klusener said. "It had to become more than just about the pretty 20s and 30s because the national selectors ran out of patience with that. Also, because David doesn't bowl, like JP Duminy or Faf, he had to be outstanding with the bat."

The 50-over competition - 270 runs at 30 with two fifties - got Miller noticed again and he was selected for the limited-overs leg of the series against New Zealand. It wasn't until he scored 67 against Pakistan, however, that he showed what he was capable of.

Because he bats in the lower order, Miller will have limited opportunities and cannot be expected to repeat that sort of feat every time. Klusener has been helping him internalise that. "He has been weighed down by expectation and it's important that he can get past that," he said. "It's also important to be patient with him."

Gillespie said the same, and it's something Kings XI Punjab have done. They persisted with Miller, even though he did not feature much in the 2011 season. This year, however, he has repaid their faith. His unbeaten 80 won the match against Pune Warriors, though his two other fifties came in defeats. In a must-win situation against Royal Challengers Bangalore, he single-handedly took the team to victory.

A hallmark of his 101 off 38 balls against Royal Challengers was the ability to hit straight down the ground, which he learnt from a mantra of his father's. Miller said it on television, "If it's in the V, it's in the tree, and if it's in the arc, it's out of the park." And his father repeated it with him from his viewing position in the South African countryside where he has been working.

He watched with pride as Miller blasted Kings XI to victory, remembered to wish his 14-year-old cousin a happy birthday afterwards, and accepted his accolades with humility. His ability not to get carried away has only just started to be tested, and there will be many more chances to get caught up in celebrity. Andrew hopes they do not affect his son.

"We're a very simple, close family who keep in touch, spend holidays together and that kind of thing. On Monday nights we try to get together as a group, whoever is around. Those things have kept David level-headed, and I don't think that will change."

But his worth certainly will. Miller is already being touted as being one of the big-picks of next year's IPL auction. Andrew is an auctioneer by trade and will keep a close eye on what his son pulls in. Whatever it is, he is certain it will be a "good return on investment", just like it has been for Kings XI.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent