Imraan Khan March 18, 2009

Laying claim to the room at the top

Azad Essa
An exciting new left-hander of Indian origin may just be the answer to South Africa's opener crisis

Imraan Khan and Hashim Amla were the non-white blue-eyed boys of Durban High School, among South Africa's premier cricketing institutions, from where the likes of Barry Richards, Richard Snell and Lance Klusener graduated. Together the two tormented bowlers from across the region and later the country.

Imraan, a prolific, elegant left-hand batsman, appeared years ahead with his ability to spend hours at the crease, both caressing and bludgeoning his way to hundred after hundred each weekend. The little skinny lad was a quiet riot with bat in hand, and when he decided to turn his arm over one morning, bowling biting offspinners, with ball as well. He would often score a hundred and fetch up to five wickets per game.

Immy, as he is affectionately known, is as elegantly murderous on the front foot today as he was as a young lad of 15; a sweet timer of the ball and prolific through the off side, drives and cuts are his weapons of choice. Like Amla, he is blessed with strong wrists that allow him to whip almost any delivery pitched up on the stumps through midwicket with impunity. His occasional tentativeness against short balls is offset by an ability to move inside the line and turn them gently round the corner. In many ways, Imraan's leg-side prowess is the mirror image of Amla's; only, his friends say, more stylish.

Both boys waltzed through all levels of state cricket, breaking records and announcing themselves as the very future of South African cricket. So talented were these two, even transformation didn't seem such a daunting prospect after all.

Amla joined the KZN Dolphins by the time he completed high school, and thrived in the middle order there. He was soon appointed state captain and then given a fairytale entry into Test cricket in 2004, when he was selected as the first South African of Indian origin to represent the country in a Test match, against, aptly or ironically, India in the bullring of Eden Gardens.

Where Amla's run in first-class cricket was compelling, Imraan's graduation from the elite youth teams to state level was anything but charming in comparison. As a youngster he had demonstrated immense powers of concentration to regularly bat for long periods of time, but at first-class level it seemed as if he had abandoned his formula and had geared up to merely dominate bowlers, striving for immediate success.

Following Amla's lead proved a little difficult. Since he made his first-class debut for the Dolphins in 2003-04 as an offspinner who could bat, Imraan's success has been little more than a line of jagged stop-starts marked by unfulfilled promises.

The lofted drive was almost always taken at mid-off, the buoyant push to the testing outswinger almost always went to second slip, and a few tight spells of bowling would invariably induce Imraan to self-destruct, wafting at a marginally wide one.

While he tasted relative success in the four-day competition - averaging in the mid-thirties for most of the past five seasons - his enthusiasm to dominate often resulted in him looking out of his depth as a reliable opener. Worse still, his once much-lauded offspin, a plus for any South African cricketer, became an abandoned project.

But it all changed in 2008.

Like Amla, Imraan is blessed with strong wrists that allow him to whip almost any delivery pitched up on the stumps through midwicket with impunity. His occasional tentativeness against short balls is offset by an ability to move inside the line and turn them gently round the corner

After being selected for the South African Emerging Players tour of Australia, where he top-scored, Imraan turned on the mettle.

The 2008-09 first-class season has seen a more patient cricketer, more in touch with his ability and more willing to play within himself. Imraan is among the leading scorers this domestic season, with over 800 runs, an average of above 60, and a tally of five centuries for the season - just one short of the South African record, currently held by Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Peter Kirsten.

Imraan says it was just a case of a few technical adjustments. "There is probably a lot more discipline in my game. I used to get a lot of starts and then throw it away, but I am trying really hard to not make those mistakes once I get in."

The Dolphins manager of playing affairs, Jay Naidoo, agrees that the new Imraan is a more mature, focused player: "I think he is older and understands his game better. At Supersport level he has done well previously, but he had this tendency of scoring of seventies and eighties and then getting out. This season it has been his ability to turn those numbers into three figures."

A batting average in the mid-thirties is a basic minimum for wicketkeepers today, not for openers. With South Africa in the midst of an opening-batsman crisis, Imraan knows that this surge in batting form couldn't have come at a more opportune time. "There was no other opportunity, and it just so happens I've been scoring runs. Now is probably the right time," he says.

The Cape Cobras' Andrew Puttick was an obvious alternative, with a far better career record, but Puttick's form in the Supersport series this season has been patchy in comparison. The sheer weight of Imraan's runs these last few months muscles him right to the top of the reckoning. The question remains: is one fantastic season reason enough to select a batsman?

"The only thing a player can do is to make runs. And if the opportunities arise, like in this case, where the top order has been struggling, then if you take all the opening bats in the country, he has been in the top bracket," argues Naidoo.

What matters now is that this little Chanderpaul-like figure of a man, having made the runs and earned his call-up, can turn on the magic and grab hold of his destiny rather than seek to chase it. If he does, he stands a genuine chance of becoming Graeme Smith's long-term partner.

Imraan's unorthodox opening style and yet elegant penchant to bludgeon the ball are exciting, fresh and worth a shot. Now it is up to him to decide how much he wants this chance.