February 9, 2010

Duminy gets a reality check

After his stellar start, the man tipped as a future great has found the going tougher than anticipated

Sometimes a good impression first up is not always for the best.

JP Duminy made an unbeaten half-century on Test debut, hitting the winning runs in the epic 414-run chase at the WACA in 2008. A week later in Melbourne, his serene 166 helped South Africa rise from 184 for 7, to an incredible lead of 65 as he stitched together a partnership of 180 for the ninth wicket with the spirited Dale Steyn. But in the return Test series, which Australia won 2-1, Duminy made a solitary fifty in the three Tests, and averaged 35, nearly half the 61 in the first series.

Ian Chappell, one of the most influential cricketing minds of the age, said Duminy has the potential to be a great. The former Australian captain wrote that the South African has the talent, the mind and the confidence to take the mantle from Ricky Ponting. Among the factors that inspires such faith is Duminy's calm demeanour at the crease and his belief in his ability to perform breathtaking feats without breaking much sweat. Peter Roebuck, a fine invigilator of talent, likened Duminy to Bjorn Borg.

A few months later, in the IPL, Duminy finished sixth on the run charts and shared the honours for the most half-centuries (five) with the league's leading run-maker, Matthew Hayden. However, his side, Mumbai Indians, failed to make it to the knockouts. Doubts were raised about Duminy's ability to finish games. The questions persisted when he failed to make an impact in the ICC World Twenty20 and the Champions Trophy at home - though he did produce one of the all-time great Twenty20 innings in the inaugural Champions League Twenty20.

Worse was to come at the end of 2009, when he averaged 21 in the home Test series against England, after both James Anderson and Graeme Swann found his weak spots and exploited them.

"Obviously I had a good start to Test cricket and with that comes a lot of expectations," Duminy explains during the media conference on the eve of first Test against India, in Nagpur. During the 15 minutes of cross-examination by the media before the game, Duminy does not challenge the perception of him in the minds of his interrogators as a man who has lost his mojo, but reasons that his current slump is due to poor form alone. "If you put it that way, then those are my own expectations," he says.

At a crucial stage in his career, where a wrong move could derail his progress, he is guarded about taking batting advice from too many people. Kepler Wessels is high on the list of those Duminy does give an attentive ear to. The former South Africa captain has been working rigorously with Duminy at every training session in India. As a player Wessels was ruthless, schooled in the ways of Australia, where he played the first half of his career, and he has tried to instill a certain aggression in the players he has coached.

"It is just about having an aggressive mindset," Duminy says. "Being positive in the way you play, sticking to your gameplans, believing in your preparation, in what you are trying to do, what you are trying to achieve when you are out there.

"Sometimes the second or third year is a little bit tougher because people work you out and find out what your weaknesses are. He will come through it. He is too good a player. The big runs are just round the corner"
Jacques Kallis

"Even if it is a practice game, nets or a Test match, not to try and play a different brand of cricket."

He isn't panicking just yet. "You don't have to try too many things. There is obviously a reason why you are playing Test cricket so it is better to stick to the things that have worked for you."

Mickey Arthur, who recently resigned as South Africa's coach after serving five years in the job, has had a long look at Duminy and sees no cause for major worry. "It always happens like that in your second season, but he is a quality player who has a huge future ahead of him and he will be back with a huge bang," Arthur says.

Jacques Kallis says Duminy's present phase is the sort that's part of any batsman's evolution, and one in which the individual needs to grapple with various expectations while figuring out what works for him. "Sometimes the second or third year is a little bit tougher because people work you out and find out what your weaknesses are. He will come through it. I have no doubt about that; he is too good a player. The big runs are just round the corner," Kallis says.

Duminy failed in Nagpur, and the mode of dismissal, trying to sweep his Mumbai Indians team-mate Harbhajan Singh, will likely have been a source of distress, considering he bats at No. 6, a position where he is likely to run into slow bowlers fairly regularly. He had a tough time against Swann in the England series, repeatedly playing all over the ball that turned away, getting himself lbw or out caught.

Arthur thinks a slight adjustment could prove beneficial. After the England series he suggested that Duminy move to his left as part of his trigger movements, which would allow him to play the turn confidently.

The technical errors may have parallels in Duminy's mental framework, which at the moment, by his own admission, is a little fragile. Back in Australia he had worked with Jeremy Snape, now the South African team's mental conditioner, whose positive influence he acknowledges. "He definitely has had an influence on my career," Duminy says. "He has played a big part in my calmness at the crease, the way I approach my batting."

Snape is simple and direct in his suggestion to players going through a transition. "Part of my role is just making players comfortable and making them understand where they are in their careers. They need to have an understanding of whether these changes are worthwhile, whether it is worth taking the risk, or do they stick with what they have got until they have got a window to break through to make those changes."

Duminy is standing outside that window now. It is up to him now to breakthrough whenever he is confident.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo