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India v South Africa, 1st Test, Chennai, 1st day

McKenzie's glorious second coming

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan in Chennai

March 26, 2008

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Neil McKenzie has made the most of a second chance to make it into the South African team © AFP
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Peter Roebuck, the cricketer turned columnist, wrote recently about the two phases when a batsman is praised. "The first comes after a fellow has stroked a couple of boundaries as a teenager, whereupon he is proclaimed a genius. The second comes 20 years later, when a player long since consigned by even the gentlest critic to the rubbish dump manages to rouse himself sufficiently to push the ball around for an hour."

Neil McKenzie is currently experiencing the second phase. At 32, he was offered a last chance to play for South Africa and he has grasped the opportunity gleefully. Dearth of openers back home meant McKenzie was converted from a middle-order batsman to an opener, replacing Herschelle Gibbs in the line-up.

The experiment appeared to be heading nowhere when he failed to go beyond 30 in the first two Tests as opener but two innings later he's seen as someone who can be depended upon. Everyone knew about his shrewd cricketing brain, and a few others thought there was serious talent in there, but it's only now that he's beginning to look the part. A mammoth 226 in Chittagong could have been brushed aside as a one-off, but a fluent 94 on the first day of the series here showed his worth.

The first ball he faced was turned away to the square-leg boundary, a start from where he didn't take his foot off the accelerator. The first 20 runs came exclusively in fours, all struck with crisp timing, and he made the most of the errant length from the new-ball bowlers. He didn't appear in any sort of discomfort against spin and even endeavoured to use his feet boldly.

At the other end was Graeme Smith, his school-mate with a contrasting style. McKenzie himself was once seen as a potential captain of the side and the two seemed to enjoy batting together. Coming on the back of the 415-run stand in Chittagong, they obviously had plenty of confidence behind them.

Has he had to change much after he converted from a middle-order batsman to an opener? "I think if there is one place that you want to bat in the subcontinent it is opening the batting," he said. "So I have seen it in a positive way, I have seen it as a responsibility to see the new ball away. I am 32, and I want to enjoy my cricket and wherever they want me put I want to give 100%."

The fact that he's at the latter stages of his career has obviously helped him enjoy his game more. "I think I played for five years when [I was] 23 after which I was left out for a couple of years. I love playing for South Africa, and would like to play for another couple of years, but am not taking anything for granted. I try to play every Test as if it's my last."

For someone who used to cover his bat with a blanket and put it to sleep the night before he batted, McKenzie seems to have left some things behind. "I had certain rituals and habits which I followed before I batted but I'm 32 now, have a wife and a kid and there are too many others things to think about."

Bits of sagely wisdom frequently appear while he talks, and he turned a bit philosophical when asked about missing out on a hundred. "Test cricketers are really greedy guys," he smiled. "At the start of the day I would have taken 90 gladly, but it's never enough. I'm happy to get runs, but very disappointed that I missed out on a Test hundred."

There's also a slightly mellow tone that comes when asked about his expertise against spin. "I have been around," he says with the tone of a battle-scared veteran. "I've played against quite a few of the best spinners. Obviously there are world-class spinners here but I think it's down to experience. There are footages and analyses that go along... you pick quite a few things along the way and with your team-mates."

There was a danger of him being remembered as a trivia question - which South African cricketer's wife and sister are famous models? - but he seems to be determined to carve a niche of his own. By the look of his previous two innings, he's getting things just right.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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Tour Results
India v South Africa at Kanpur - Apr 11-13, 2008
India won by 8 wickets
India v South Africa at Ahmedabad - Apr 3-5, 2008
South Africa won by an innings and 90 runs
India v South Africa at Chennai - Mar 26-30, 2008
Match drawn
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