January 15, 2011

Tsotsobe steps up

Never mind the Ntini comparisons, Lonwabo Tsotsobe has not done badly for a bowler no one expected great things of

Three seasons ago, when the Lions franchise were stumbling through the depths of their form drought, an almost equally suffering Warriors team travelled to play a first-class match against them in Johannesburg. Emphatic performances were not the nature of either side during that period and it was surprising when the Warriors shot the Lions out for 183.

They received some assistance from overcast, bowler-friendly conditions, but their stunning display was courtesy one unforgettable bowling performance. A young left-armer caused shock waves on Corlett Drive with a triple strike in the sixth over he bowled, removing the established Stephen Cook, Alviro Petersen and Neil McKenzie in the space of three legitimate balls. He finished with figures that, to this day, remain his best in first-class cricket - 7 for 39. Although pace was not his main weapon and he didn't get much quicker than 140kph, he was aggressive enough and accurate. He was also one of few left-armers on the scene at the time and the variation he offered made him an asset.

The loyal Wanderers scorers watched his display almost in tears and then decided the man they had seen inflict the damage would one day be a national star. They couldn't pronounce his name properly and were too distraught to try, so they decided to make up something that sounded close enough. They called him Tsotsi.

Most people will know the word as the title of an Oscar-winning South African film and may associate it with positive connotations. In fact, its means "thug" in many black African languages and is commonly used to refer to gangsters or criminals. The scorers had seen Lonwabo Tsotsobe plunder wickets in astounding fashion that day, but having never met him they didn't have intentions of implying anything sinister about his character. They had actually picked an entirely contradictory nickname for a man who is really a gentle giant. One thing they were right about was that he would play for South Africa.

These days they refer to him by his better known and better-fitting nickname, Lopsy. It's close enough to the names of the two of bunnies in Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit tales, Flopsy and Mopsy, and to the kind of person Tsotsobe really is. Some say his bowling is a good reflection of him: it's not too dangerous, not too quick, not too flashy, not too attacking, but pretty effective all the same. It's similar to the style he employed in the 2007 match against the Lions. He relies on his discipline to get the ball across the right-hander to take wickets.

Of course, he has his off-field personality, which is livelier and more colourful. With his diamond-studded earrings he is the self-proclaimed, ghetto-cool king of bling in the South African team. He also has what the Black Eyed Peas call a little too much "junk in the trunk" (weight on his glutes), which people close to the South African team say has no effect on his fitness. It helps that his on-field form is only enhancing his stature.

When Tsotsobe played in the national team against West Indies last year, many thought he was simply a stop-gap. Wayne Parnell was recovering from a groin injury, and since he is the more attacking of the two, it was thought Parnell would eventually be the third prong in the South Africa seam attack.

Parnell was not match-fit when South Africa played Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, and Tsotsobe did more than enough to show he had earned his place on merit. He opened with Charl Langeveldt twice, once claiming career-best figures of 4 for 27. Tsotsobe played in four of the five matches and was in possession of the additional seamer's place by the time the India tour came to town.

Tsotsobe was largely written off. He is not express pace and doesn't have much in the way of swing. People thought he was in the side simply because of the variation he brings as a left-armer. It seemed even the Indian batsmen underestimated Tsotsobe in the Tests. Many of the big fish, particularly Sachin Tendulkar, got out to poor shots off mediocre balls and Tsotsobe ended up snagging most of the big names, including Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni. If it wasn't for the umpteen dropped catches off his bowling, he could well have ended amongst the higher wicket-takers of the series.

With his diamond-studded earrings he is the self-proclaimed, ghetto-cool king of bling in the South African team. He also has what the Black Eyed Peas call a little too much "junk in the trunk", which people close to the South African team say has no effect on his fitness

Tsotsobe went into the series with virtually zero expectations. Maybe even some of his own team-mates didn't think he would excel. Dale Steyn said he is known for "falling asleep" in the field, but Tsotsobe was certainly awake when he took that catch to dismiss Laxman. Tsotsobe meets all his critics with a wry smile. He knows he has given his best and reaped handsome rewards.

On Wednesday night he showed why he deserves to be shown some respect. His 4 for 31 in the first ODI against India was impressive to watch. MS Dhoni praised the unexpected bounce Tsotsobe managed. What that performance has done is not just gently showered admiration on Tsotsobe but provoked a hailstorm of hype. The local media are thrusting Makhaya Ntini's mantle onto him. Tsotsobe is the only regular black African in the national team, and with that performance coming just three days after Ntini's official farewell, the desperation for a replacement seems to have become uncontrollable.

Tsotsobe is not Ntini, not in bowling style, not in fitness, and most importantly not in personality. Ntini was a public relations expert who could turn on the charm as easily as flicking a light switch. Tsotsobe did one of his first television interviews in December 2007 in Port Elizabeth, when West Indies were touring South Africa. He was invited on as a guest by the host broadcaster, and on camera was meek and reserved, as any young bowler yet to make his national debut but being tipped for greatness, might be. Ntini was one of a kind, the star of his generation. Tsotsobe comes from an era where promising black African bowlers have not been as scarce, with the likes of Monde Zondeki and Mfuneko Ngam around.

It would be unfair to place a burden as large as being the representative for the country's largest racial group on Tsotsobe's shoulders. Perhaps in the years to come he will assume that mantle by himself. Perhaps he never will. Perhaps it shouldn't matter and Tsotsobe should be just allowed to bowl.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent