October 11, 2011

'People say I'm a big-occasion player and I believe that'

Roelof van der Merwe is typecast as a limited-overs specialist, but while he harbours five-day dreams, he's happy to play the role of the aggro allrounder with game-changing abilities

Watching Roelof "Bulldog" van der Merwe go about his business on the field can be disturbing. There's no missing the menacing frown writ large on his face when he takes guard, a look that seems to convey unabashed hatred for the cricket ball. With the ball, he is even more expressive, especially when he picks up a wicket and breaks into his trademark pumped-up, vein-popping celebration routine.

All of that has been on display in the Champions League, where his adrenaline-charged efforts guided Somerset's unlikely march to the semi-finals. Off the field, though, van der Merwe is strikingly different: jovial, courteous, and having almost nothing in common with the Bulldog persona. He chuckles when you point out the dichotomy.

"Maybe it is the way I play, the aggression I show in the field," van der Merwe says. "A lot of people think I am two different people on and off the field, but I think that's the way it is supposed to be. You can't be judged as a person by how you are on the field, though a lot of people do that. I just switch over to something else when I am playing. My competitive edge takes over.

"You always have to celebrate your wickets with a passion. You never know when the next one is going to come!"

van der Merwe has a reputation for making very good first impressions. He smashed 66 off 30 balls in his first Pro20 match, and began his international career with a Man-of-the-Match award on Twenty20 debut. His first runs in ODI cricket came off Mitchell Johnson through a robust down-the-wicket heft that sailed into the stands at SuperSport Park.

"I thrive on that opportunity to go to the next level in competitive cricket," van der Merwe says. "That's possibly why I have done well in every first game I have played. People say I am a big-occasion player and I believe in that."

van der Merwe was South Africa's wicketkeeper in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, and he was immediately singled out as a man for the future. He took a break from cricket after that tournament - "Two years where I just enjoyed life in Holland and England" - before returning to cricket in 2006, at the insistence of his parents.

He made up for lost time once he made the move to the Titans franchise in 2007-08. He topped their wickets tally in the MTN domestic championship (45 overs a side), and was prolific the next season as well, picking up 30 wickets to help Titans retain their domestic title - staggering achievements, especially considering he started bowling only in 2006. The story goes that van der Merwe was forced to bowl at the end of the innings in a club game, and handed over the wicketkeeping gloves to Heino Kuhn to do so - a move that went on to alter the course of both their careers.

"Looking at things at that stage, Kruger van Wyk and AB de Villiers were the two top keepers in the Titans set-up, so for me to come in and play franchise cricket wasn't going to happen soon," van der Merwe said. "So I thought, let me try bowling, and I enjoyed it. I think I was at a stage where I was bored of keeping, and I enjoyed being a fielder, so that helped as well."

The Titans are not the most famous sports team in Pretoria. That honour goes to the Blue Bulls rugby outfit - or Die Blou Bulle as they are referred to in Afrikaans - whose popularity has come to represent a strong sporting culture. "The Titans are like everything else in Blou Bulle country," van der Merwe explains. "A bit more old-school, tough, high-intensity, hardworking people. That's what we stand for."

It is impossible to miss those qualities in van der Merwe's cricket, and he admits that the Titans' sporting culture has been at the heart of his transformation, from a shy schoolboy lacking in conviction to a strapping allrounder who walks on the field like he owns it.

"I have been labelled a Pro20 and one-day specialist, and I have to work with what I have got. In case I don't play much first-class or Test cricket, that won't be the end of the world for me"

The most striking aspect of the Titans' recent cricket history is the sheer quantity of spin talent coming through their ranks: Paul Harris, Imran Tahir, Faf du Plessis and van der Merwe are all products of the Titans' factory, and there are other promising names like Shaun von Berg knocking on the door.

"It just ends up that spinners like playing in Centurion. It is just coincidence, I think," says van der Merwe. "Richard Pybus [the former Titans coach] has a lot of knowledge of spin, so he has helped a lot in my evolution. Harris has played over 50 Tests; he has also been a very positive influence. But with so many good spinners around, it has been difficult for me to break into the first-class side."

With Harris and von Berg designated as the longer-version tweakers, van der Merwe has been, perhaps unfairly, slotted as a limited-overs specialist. In five years he has played only 19 first-class games, a period in which he has been a regular fixture in the Titans' Pro20 and List A sides. van der Merwe yearns for an extended run in whites but is happy with the reputation he has developed in the shorter versions.

"In Twenty20 you fire it in, and try to keep the runs down," he says. "But in first-class cricket you have more freedom and look to express yourself a bit more. At the end of the day you want to play Tests. But the way it has gone for me, I have been labelled a Pro20 and one-day specialist, and I have to work with what I have got. In case I don't play much first-class or Test cricket, that won't be the end of the world for me."

In order to further his first-class credentials, van der Merwe has worked hard on his batting ability. In the Champions League he has shown more selectiveness in his slogging, but an audacious assortment of reverse-heaves, cross-batted swipes and upper cuts remains the DNA of his batting.

"In Pro20 cricket, especially in the first six overs, I have been put in as a pinch-hitter in the side. Now my role is a bit more than that. I need to kick on and bat better. I am getting there slowly and surely, and hopefully in the next year or two I will be a proper top-order batsman. Somerset have been very helpful in giving me a settled spot up the order, and I am enjoying it immensely."

Still, van der Merwe knows he is quite some way away from being considered a Test prospect. Mention to him that Ian Chappell believes he should be playing five-day cricket for South Africa, and he says: "I need to go and have a chat with him and figure out how I am going to do that!"

Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo