February 27, 2012

Marchant makes a mark

Four months ago de Lange was unheard of, but since then he has starred in a Test, shown steel in a final-over showdown, and landed himself an IPL contract

Of the options available to AB de Villiers to bowl the last over of the third Twenty20 against New Zealand in Auckland, Marchant de Lange was the most risky. The 21-year-old was playing his third 20-over game, had six runs to defend, and had conceded 33 in his previous three overs.

Wayne Parnell, Albie Morkel and JP Duminy all had overs available, and Parnell had proved himself at the end of an innings before. Still, de Villiers gave the ball to de Lange, who nervously helped set his field and accepted bits of advice from Morne Morkel on the way to the top of his mark.

Whatever was said worked. His first ball was full and resulted in a single. The second was short and wide, but miraculously a dot. The third was a wicket, so was the fifth. Sandwiched in between was another dot. And then came the mistake: a no-ball off what should have been the last delivery, which gave New Zealand a second stab at a match that had looked gone. They got no closer, though: de Lange fired it in full outside off, nowhere near Tim Southee's massive swing. South Africa won the match and the series.

de Lange has made an impression in every format he has appeared in thus far. All the signs indicate he will do the same if he plays in the Test series against New Zealand, his first away from home, and then in the IPL. His ability to steal the headlines suggests a driven young man with big plans.

"I truly believe Marchant has got it, he has big-match temperament," de Villiers said. It's a phrase flippantly thrown around when referring to players from other countries, but for a South African in a pressure situation, the compliment was gold dust. And for someone whom the cricket world had not even heard of four months ago, it was an entire brick of the stuff.

Before November, de Lange was a young, wide-eyed hopeful who had played 12 first-class matches. Eight of them were for the Easterns, an amateur, provincial team, the other four for his franchise, the Titans.

Word from the top tier of the domestic structure was that he was quick - some said quicker than Morne Morkel - but raw. After being discovered in his late teens in the mining town of Tzaneen, de Lange had little opportunity to be polished into the finished article. Although he attended the Northerns' Academy (another amateur union, which together with the Easterns makes up the Titans franchise) he missed out on representing South Africa at age-group level, specifically Under-19, because of stress fractures to both his ankles.

"It was extremely painful," de Lange said. For the first time since he was introduced to the task of being interviewed, his voice did not come out with the usual boom of excitement. "I had to start everything again, everything from walking to running. It was not nice at all."

But start again he did, and he now has a more philosophical view about what could have been a career-ending period. "You know, injuries come and go but if you've got a strong mind and you get it fixed as quickly as possible then it's okay." The wounds didn't heal as quickly as de Lange may have wanted, but they eventually did, in time for him to accept an offer from the Titans to move to one of their main centres in Benoni. There he played for a popular local club, CBC Boksburg, and eventually for the amateur team.

His speed earned him a trip to Bangladesh with the national academy in April and May last year, where his most notable performance was a five-wicket haul in one of the 50-over matches. It was his first venture out of South Africa.

Going from the endless open roads of the Limpopo province to the endlessly cluttered ones of Dhaka was a surprise. "At first it was a bit of a shock. There was a big difference to home and there were a lot of people," de Lange said, the boombox back in full force. "But I think I am quite an adaptable person. It was interesting. The people were very passionate and I enjoyed it."

On returning home, he made his first big splash. Former national coach and current selector Corrie van Zyl saw him in a franchise match and called newly appointed bowling coach Allan Donald to tell him he had found someone worth keeping an eye on for the future.

"He gets it in good areas most of the time, and when he gets it a little short he gets away with it because of extra pace. He also has good variations and can take the pace off the ball, but the key is not to overload him with information"
Allan Donald, South Africa's bowling coach

The future came just weeks later. de Lange was included in South Africa's A squad to trouble the visiting Australians on a pitch in Potchefstroom prepared to favour pace. He bowled with internationals such as Vernon Philander and Parnell and stood out for a five-wicket haul fashioned out of pure pace and bounce. Some Australian players told the Kolkata Knight Riders about him. "This guy is bowling fireballs," they said.

Within three months of that match de Lange had breathed fire in a Test, in which he became the most successful debutant of 2011. He also secured an IPL contract, a relatively small one of US$50,000, but across the two-year period it makes him close to a millionaire in rand terms.

Apart from the money, the contract will introduce de Lange to a world of cricket that previously may only have existed in his dreams. Already he has spoken of the honour of playing with stars he watched on television, like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. At Kolkata, he will be coached by Wasim Akram and will bowl with Brett Lee, which he is looking forward to.

For some it's over-exposure, especially since the franchise de Lange is joining has the added glam factor of Shah Rukh Khan and Bollywood. But de Lange is unfazed. "I've watched some Bollywood," he said. "But I think I will need to get a little more clued up on that."

Donald will want de Lange's IPL stint to provide an education in shorter-format bowling, because the young bowler has precious little experience of it, having played only 20 limited-overs matches in his career.

"Strategies in ODIs and Tests are obviously different and he has a lot to learn," Donald said. "He is naturally quick but he does not have a consistent natural length yet. That will come. He gets it in good areas most of the time and when he gets it a little short, he gets away with it because of extra pace. He also has good variations and can take the pace off the ball, but the key is not to overload him with information."

de Lange say he has learnt more in the last few months than in his entire cricket career to date, most of it from Donald. "He really wants you to improve as a bowler, and he has got time for us always," de Lange said. For him to pick up tips from other sources will be equally valuable, and Kolkata have expressed a desire to develop bowlers. "We have been very focused on identifying talent, hopefully before others do," Venky Mysore, the Kolkata chief executive, said. The franchise picked James Pattinson before Australia did and although they did not get de Lange that quickly, they hope to help him get better while benefiting from his obvious skill.

While fears of excessive bowling mount, Donald believes de Lange's fast track into international cricket has been perfectly timed. "I am so excited for him," Donald said. "It's massive exposure."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent