May 20, 2009

Homeboys seize the day

Some have found the spotlight, some have found extensions to their career, the lesser known South African players talk about their IPL experience

It appears as though South Africa and the IPL have exchanged eternity rings. South Africa, the knight in rainbow-coloured armour, galloped to the tournament's rescue when it searched for a new home. While not everyone in the country has embraced the IPL with loving arms, South Africa has presented some of its best cricketing crowds to the tournament.

The IPL, in return, has gifted its temporary home with a brand of cricket it would never otherwise have had played on its soil, resurrected veterans such as Matthew Hayden, and provided the Twenty20 specialists such as Albie Morkel with a platform to perform. But the tournament's greatest gift has been the birth of new stars such as Dirk Nannes and Shadab Jakati. More so the South Africans who were little known outside their country.

One of those offspring has been 24-year old Roelof van der Merwe. The sturdily built left-arm spinner made his mark during South Africa's ODI series against Australia in April. He played in four matches and took eight wickets at an average of 18.62. That, and his superb domestic form, earned him a place with the Royal Challengers Bangalore.

van der Merwe has had two dream seasons for his domestic franchise, Titans. In 2007-08 he was the third-highest wicket-taker in the domestic Twenty20s, with 13 wickets at an average of 13.92, and received the Player-of-the-Year award. He also took away the Domestic Championship (45-over competition) Player-of-the-Year and Newcomer-of-the-Year awards.

He followed that up with 30 wickets, at an average of 13.96, 14 more wickets than any other bowler in the 45-over competition in 2008-09. He has also been selected for South Africa's World Twenty20 squad. van der Merwe regards his stint with the IPL as the best preparation for that tournament. "Being in a side with a lot of South Africans has meant we have a similar work ethic to the national side, so that's going to be handy ahead of the World Twenty20," he says.

While he credits his dogged domestic determination for launching his career, he admits that the IPL will thrust him further into the spotlight. "Given the size of the spectacle, and the money involved, if you're not already on the map, it will certainly put you there. And if you are on the map and do well, I can see it being a big advantage."

Dillon du Preez, who also plays with Bangalore, is hoping the event will bestow on him some of the benefits van der Merwe has experienced. du Preez originally played for the Eagles, but signed as a Kolpak player for Leicestershire in March last year and played a season in England. This year it all went bust.

"I haven't been able to secure a work permit for this season, so I won't be going back," he says. "At the same time, I still desperately want to play for South Africa, but given the calibre of players in the set-up it seems almost impossible."

He isn't rolling over and playing dead just yet, and bared his eagle talons in his debut IPL match, taking two wickets in two balls of his first over, including that of Sachin Tendulkar. He also claimed JP Duminy in that match. Even though his future hangs by a filament, he doesn't want to rely on the IPL to relaunch his career, and is trying to enjoy it as an isolated experience. "I am really enjoying being in the same change room as guys like Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid - and even Kevin Pietersen," he says. "The only complaint I have is that I have probably had enough of Indian food for a while. I went for a steak the other night and it was beautiful."

"Given the size of the spectacle, and the money involved, if you're not already on the map, it will certainly put you there. And if you are on the map and do well, I can see it being a big advantage"
Roelof van der Merwe

Over in the Kolkata Knight Riders side, Morne van Wyk views the event as an extension, and possibly a resurrection, of his career. "There are two things I would still really like to do in my cricketing career: play Twenty20 and ODI cricket for South Africa, and I would like to have a county stint," van Wyk says. "But whether the IPL will pave the way for that, I can't say, although I hope it will."

van Wyk, an Eagles opening batsman and wicketkeeper, is a seasoned campaigner and was the highest run-scorer in this year's domestic competition, with 269 runs at an average of 38.42. Unlike some of the other South African players, who have been grateful the tournament has allowed them to spend time at home, van Wyk says he is looking forward to spending six weeks in India next year. "I was contracted on the day of the auction, long before it was announced that the tournament was coming to South Africa, and I was gearing up to play in India," he says. "I was really looking forward to crowds of 70,000 or 80,000, the kind we never see at home."

van Wyk seems to see the half full glass in every situation and speaks of Kolkata Knight Riders' failure without too much disappointment. "We all came into this tournament with high hopes and let our imaginations run wild about how well the team would do," he says. "To be honest, it's felt like being in a boxing match most of the time: we work hard and we're up and ready to go, and then we keep getting knocked down. But it hasn't been terrible. The real make-up of people is tested when disaster hits, and we have had no bust-ups, which is a credit to the calibre of players and management we have."

While he does hope the tournament will provide a much needed career injection, he is also blissfully soaking up the Bollywood-ness of being part of the most glamorous franchise. "I didn't know anything about Shah Rukh Khan before this, and when I met him I thought he would be like any other celebrity. It's been a real eye-opener to meet a man who is powerful yet so humble. He really did take the time to speak to all the players, not just a small chat, but really spent time getting to know us all. He calls himself our big brother, and he really is."

While most of the South African players in the IPL view the tournament by what they can take out of it, some are looking at things a little differently. Charl Langeveldt, also with Kolkata, says, "This is not about what value I am getting from them, but what value they are getting from me. I've brought lots of local knowledge and bowling experience to the side." It has puzzled most that Langeveldt, who was the local Pro20 competition's highest wicket-taker, with 16 wickets at an average of 13.31, has not played, particularly given the success of another local swing bowler, Yusuf Abdulla. That doesn't seem to bother Langeveldt much, who shrugged off being left out of the starting XI and said, "The balance of the side is not quite right, which is the reason I will not play."

One who is not laughing off being a paid spectator is Tyron Henderson. With the most wickets in Twenty20's short history to date, a total of 75 at an average of 21.41, it's similarly mind-boggling that he is sidelined. "I was initially bought because with the tournament in India they thought I could do a job with the ball, given the conditions," Henderson says. "But now with Smith and Warne already occupying two of the four positions for internationals, there's only two left, and unfortunately I've been the one who has had to sit out."

Even though he has been forced to warm the dugout, Henderson's record in the game speaks for itself. In the 2008 Twenty20 Cup he scored 281 runs at 40.14 and took 21 wickets at 16.61 for Middlesex. He thinks this format of the game has given his career new legs, and allowed him to keep playing when he might otherwise have retired. "I'll be playing in three different competitions: from here, I'm going to Middlesex, then I'll come back home to play for the Titans in the Pro20 domestic competition and then back to the IPL. So, in a way this has allowed me to become a specialist Twenty20 player and given me a longer career."

Henderson has been serenaded by the IPL because it has given him the opportunity to eke out that extra bit of cricket, while most of the other South Africans' love affair with the tournament has been sealed because it has allowed them to live some of their dreams. du Preez summed it up perfectly: "It's really been something wow."

Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg