Neil McKenzie April 9, 2008

Seize the day

After four years on the fringes, Neil McKenzie is older, wiser, and back where he belongs. "I try and grab every occasion as my last," he says

Subcontinent specialist: McKenzie averages 109 in his four Tests in Asia this year © Getty Images

"Good to see my little man running around", Neil McKenzie says, his face lighting up. We are sitting in the lobby of the South African team hotel on Ashram Road, Ahmedabad's main traffic artery, but the buzz from the street outside isn't bothering McKenzie any. His mind is back home, his thoughts on his baby son who has started taking his first steps.

"I'm learning now to video Skype with my family, along with Ashwell [Prince], who has a young son too, and Robin Peterson, who has a young daughter. It's nice for us to catch up with our families", McKenzie says. "Having a kid definitely puts a different perspective on life."

Fitting, perhaps, for even as McKenzie junior goes about learning to stand on his feet, his father is taking steps of his own - towards securing and strengthening his berth in the South Africa side, which he regained earlier this year, four years after he lost it.

In his third game back, McKenzie piled up a career-best 226 in Chittagong, and then carried that form to India, narrowly missing out on back-to-back centuries in Chennai in the first Test. Having missed the landmark by six agonising runs in the first innings, McKenzie mastered both the heat and the spin of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh to make 155 in the second innings.

"I lost about four kilograms in the first innings, and a little bit more in the 155," he says. "It was really hot and humid at Chepauk." He knows his fourth century in Tests couldn't have come at a better moment. "Scoring a hundred against India against two highly regarded spinners and doing that in the subcontinent - I see that as a milestone.

Asked about what lies ahead, he says, "I don't think I'm in a position to focus on future series. I'm just trying to enjoy each tour and each game. Every Test I play now I see as an extra achievement. It's something I really looking forward to [in terms of] trying to get the best out of the game and hopefully putting my team in a winning position."

The wilderness years
McKenzie won the prestigious South African Cricketer of the Year award in 2001 for his consistent mastery of bowlers in both international and domestic cricket. Expectations rose and for a while he lived up to them. In the needle series against Australia, first away and then at home, McKenzie was among South Africa's top three run-getters, averaging about 37 over the six Tests as his side were routed thoroughly. A few lukewarm series followed, before the axe fell after the tour to New Zealand in 2004.

There was a new convenor of selectors and a new coach and the two found no room for him in the side. McKenzie swallowed the pill but it almost choked him. "You stop enjoying your game," he explains. "Upfront you try and prove to everybody that you should be there. It took a couple of months and the off season for me to get back.

I have enough family and friends to support me. I'm Neil McKenzie the person before the cricketer. I don't need cricket to make me a good guy

"Quite a few people tried to explain. In South Africa there are things out of your control but you've just got to try and get out of it." For McKenzie that amounted to throwing himself into domestic cricket. "I started to focus on what I was doing and by concentrating on winning things for the Lions [his franchise]."

That helped him find equilibrium in a difficult time when South African cricket was going through a phase of transition, as influential administrators adopted a policy of change aimed at achieving transformation.

The time on the fringe was instructive for McKenzie. "I didn't cash in on big innings when I was given the chances in the South African set-up. So I realised I needed to rectify it in terms of getting big hundreds."

Did he ever fear he would end up a forgotten man? "No," he says, cutting me short as I begin my next question. "I have enough family and friends to support me. I don't need cricket to be Neil McKenzie. I'm Neil McKenzie the person before the cricketer. I don't need cricket to make me a good guy. My support structure is my wife, my kids, my dad, my mum, my brother, my sister and my friends - all these guys have played a huge role in my career."

It was that support structure that kept him from taking the easy way out. As the country's various selection panels were forced to adopt the quota system, the numbers of players opting to leave increased. Many of McKenzie's peers took the lucrative Kolpak route out.

McKenzie himself was tempted when offers came his way. "I did toy with the idea but I always gave myself a certain time-frame. When people back their abilities, they give themselves a timeframe. I didn't want to run off at 29 or 30 and just play cricket there. I wanted to give myself the best opportunity and my rough cutoff was 33 or 34," he says.

"I could've easily run away citing the political situation about quotas and transformation - whatever." He decided to stay and fight instead. "I just decided to focus my energy on the Lions, and focus my desire and hunger to play for South Africa again."

McKenzie admits he is never going to reveal his exact thoughts on the quota system. "I have got my own opinion which is mine", he says. But he does know what he needs to do to rise above the hurdles in his path. "If I want to be an international cricketer, I'm fighting for a certain amount of spots in the team. And if I live up to where I want to be, I certainly should be in the top seven in the structure."

The road home
After 38 Tests out of the side, McKenzie got the comeback call. He says now that he wasn't surprised that it came. He knew the present captain and coach, Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur, had been trying to push his envelope through the selectors' door from the time of the home series against Pakistan early last year. Ranged against them was the defiance of certain administrators, which held things up.

With Graeme Smith after the record opening partnership in Bangladesh. 'I knew they were trying to get me back in the set-up' © Getty Images

"I was on holiday with some mates in St Francis where we'd rented a house during the New Year's Eve period. I get a call saying they needed me for the New Year's Test against the West Indies. I knew they were trying to get me back in the set-up but it was a surprise as far as the timing went. In any case, it was good to be back", McKenzie says with a smile.

The stumbling blocks were far from all being cleared, though. Norman Arendse, Cricket South Africa's president, allegedly wanted to replace McKenzie with the struggling Herschelle Gibbs for the tour to Bangladesh. Arthur on the other hand was equally determined not to let go of McKenzie, who observers thought needed to be given more opportunities ahead of Gibbs, who had had a poor run at the top of the order.

Despite having been predominantly a middle-order batsman, McKenzie didn't care much that he had to open. Not that he had had too good a time of opening in his first three Tests, when he played partner, largely unsuccessfully, to Gary Kirsten. Ironically, it was Gibbs who McKenzie replaced back even then.

"I averaged 9 [as opener] or something like that. I still wouldn't take those experiences back because I was happy - I had to adapt to different wickets. That's why I'm a better traveller now. I'm learning fast to adapt and that is part of my game plan now", he says.

These days he is much more adept at dealing with situations as they arise, both on the field and off it. "I'm back playing Test cricket and I see myself a lot stronger," he says. "I'm not taking international cricket for granted. As soon as you do that, you're in trouble. I'm loving each experience."

Everything has changed for McKenzie. He has attained a better perspective on life. "When you play cricket you lead a sheltered lifestyle, but now I'm married with kids. Now I try and grab every occasion as my last, so I deal with pressure a lot better. I'm a better traveller. I just see more positives in situations now than when I was younger."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo