Rusty Theron May 1, 2010

The great new redhead hope

Not Polly, Rusty is South Africa's new un-hittable death-overs specialist - and lots more besides. Watch out for him at the World Twenty20

Lynn Theron is one of the few South Africans who took a day off work to watch an IPL match, and she was probably the only one supporting the Kings XI Punjab. The reason she was backing the wooden spooners - at least in some of their matches - was because her son turned out for them. "When Rusty told me he was going to be in the team, I decided to stay home and watch, since I couldn't see it live," she said.

This devoted single mother has followed her son's cricket career since he played in her backyard and tried to dye his red hair black (Juan Theron got his nickname "Rusty" because of the colour of his hair).

Lynn said at first she didn't think he was anything more than a child who enjoyed sport, but then he got a scholarship to Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, renowned for producing cricketers like Graeme and Peter Pollock, Dave Callaghan, Dave Nosworthy, and more recently Johan Botha and Wayne Parnell.

Theron was treated like a star in waiting when he entered the century-old school for the first time. The headmaster took him and Lynn on a tour of the place where Theron would spend his next five years. When they got to the main cricket oval, Lynn remembers the headmaster telling her son, "See this field. When you play on this field, that's when you know you can play cricket."

Fast-forward to a few years later: Theron has played at every first-class venue in South Africa, a few in India, and in a matter of days he will walk out onto turf in the West Indies, where he will represent his country in the World Twenty20.

Davy Jacobs, captain of the Warriors, Theron's domestic side, thinks it's about time his team-mate received international recognition. "He has been bowling like this since he started playing first-class cricket five years ago and it just took people a while to see it," Jacobs said. "He is a real modern-era bowler, bowling slower balls, bouncers and yorkers, and he swings it at the beginning. I think he is the one element the South African team are missing."

Theron is the only uncapped player in the South Africa squad, and after his phenomenal domestic season, many see him as a key player in South Africa's quest for their first ICC trophy in 12 years. He topped the MTN40 bowling charts with 21 wickets at an average of 18.80 and was the fourth-highest wicket-taker in the Pro20 with 11 from eight matches at an average of 19.27.

Although his wicket-taking ability was what made him stand out, Theron is quite the Boston Strangler as a death bowler. In the Pro20 semi-final, the Cobras needed eight from the final over. Theron gave a single off the first, had Vernon Philander caught off the second, and ran out Rory Kleinveldt on the fifth to take the Warriors to a three-run win. His domestic performances earned him a lucrative contract with Kings XI in the IPL, and he was in the thick of things in his first match - the closest of the tournament.

The Chennai Super Kings looked comfortable at 65 for no loss, chasing 137. Theron's first over (the sixth of the innings) went for eight runs. In the 13th, he ran out Suresh Raina by kicking the ball on to the stumps, trapped M Vijay leg before for a duck and gave away just three runs. He conceded eight more in his next two. So when the match came down to the Super Over, the only one in the tournament this year, it was Theron Kumar Sangakkara turned to. His ice-cool temperament was on show during those five balls, in the course of which he clean-bowled Matthew Hayden - surely Theron's moment of the tournament, although team-mates say playing alongside his hero Brett Lee would come close. His disciplined length ensured only nine runs were scored in that over.

Further in the tournament, he established himself as the best damage-control bowler to come out of South Africa since Shaun Pollock (with red hair to match); and there's no doubt that's the capacity he'll be used in, in the Caribbean.

"He is a real modern-era bowler, bowling slower balls, bouncers and yorkers, and he swings it at the beginning. I think he is the one element the South African team are missing"
Warriors captain Davy Jacobs on Theron

However, Russell Domingo, Theron's coach at the Warriors, warns against seeing Theron simply as one to tighten the noose. "People mustn't get the impression that he is only a death bowler. He has always bowled well with the new ball," Domingo said. "He has a whole range of tricks up his sleeve. For example, he has a very good yorker. He bowls wide of the stumps and angles the ball in. All those other elements of his game must also be used."

Jacobs says Theron can be a "go-to man in all situations", and that the national side should take advantage of his consistently high confidence.

Theron is unwavering in his self-belief, and it's something the team need to have as well if they hope to shake off the chokers tag once and for all. Domingo says Theron thrives under pressure and won't crumble because of high expectations. "The more we expect of him, the more we'll get. That's the type of guy he is, if he knows people are watching him, he'll rise to the occasion."

Corrie van Zyl, South Africa's coach, refuses to elaborate on what he expects from Theron. "It's good that we know he can handle pressure, and he's got exceptional cricket awareness. We need to look at a team that can adjust to the conditions we will face at the World Twenty20, especially our bowlers. We have bowlers that can bowl good cutters and good pace and it will vary how we use them," said van Zyl.

While van Zyl stresses on players adapting to the environment, Domingo says Theron should stay focused on doing things as he always has. "He's a coach's dream. He prepares well and always gives 100% - that should never change. Obviously, he will need to make little alterations on match day, depending on the situation, but he knows his own abilities very well and he should just use them as he has always done. What will be crucial is to make sure he keeps his feet on the ground and accepts all the challenges that are presented to him."

Remaining humble should not be a problem for Theron, says his mother. "We were watching a domestic match at St Georges Park and a whole bunch of people came up to me and started offering congratulations. I asked them what they were congratulating me on and they said Rusty had got a contract with Cricket South Africa. He was still on the field and didn't know. After he found out, the first thing he promised was to help me [financially] since it's always just been the three of us - me, him and his brother.

"Since he started playing for the Warriors, I've kept all his pictures and articles from newspapers and put them up at work." Lynn doesn't say if she'll take any more days off to watch World Twenty20 matches, but she should have a few more mementoes from that tournament to add to her collection.

Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg

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