October 22, 2012

Neil McKenzie's still got it

He may not be part of South Africa's plans anymore but the Lions batsman remains an integral part of the country's domestic scene

If you go down to the Wanderers on any day in the South African summer you'll find one player staying back after the usual training sessions and team meetings: Neil McKenzie.

You might find him gathering the equipment after the Lions squad has left the nets, or arranging the sweets the way he likes them best in the dressing room, or going into the office to say hello to the people who have worked there for as many years as McKenzie has been alive. "Like Eddie, who rolls the wickets, and Phil, who does the outfield - both of them were here when my dad was playing," he told ESPNcricinfo. "You just need to look around. This is a nice place to be."

The Wanderers was McKenzie's playground when he was a young boy. He and his brother Gavin played on the grass banks and in later years shared drinks with the Pollock brothers while their fathers were out in the middle. Three decades later, it is still his home. Apart from a small stint at Northerns in Centurion, which he refers to as a "holiday", McKenzie has played all his domestic cricket in South Africa for Gauteng.

He is a local legend and still one of the Lions' most reliable run scorers. He was second on last season's first-class batting charts and has already scored two fifties this season, one of which was instrumental in the Lions' opening victory in the Champions League Twenty20 and proof that McKenzie has still got it, no matter what the format.

The administrators at Corlett Drive always knew McKenzie had it. Weeks after he finished school, he was contracted by Gauteng, along with Zander de Bruyn and David Terbrugge, and seemed destined to follow his father's lead. He had expectations to fulfil, and McKenzie said he had nothing but support from his family.

"My dad tried to give us the opportunity to play as many sports as possible. His only stipulation was that we had to play a team sport while we were growing up. There was no real pressure from his side in terms of what we wanted to do after that, but he did say I had to try and get a degree behind me. Being a cricketer, he knew how the sports industry is and how everything can be taken away from you in an instant. I'm glad he pushed me in that direction."

While playing, McKenzie applied for a degree in commerce at the University of Johannesburg, although cricket remained a priority. For five seasons, he racked up the runs before being picked in the national one-day squad. He remembered batting in the middle order with Hansie Cronje in that time. But it was in the longer form of the game that McKenzie made his name.

He became a regular member of South Africa's Test side, playing 41 matches between July 2000 and March 2004. He scored only two hundreds in that time, against New Zealand and Sri Lanka, both made before February 2001. In the latter stages of the first part of his Test career, he became better known for his odd superstitions, which included strapping his bat to the ceiling, stipulating a seating arrangement for his team-mates in the dressing room, and making sure all the toilet seats were down when he went in to bat.

McKenzie now has an explanation for his unusual behaviour. "Us cricketers, we can be funny people. We try and control the uncontrollable. In the game, things can be unpredictable so I tried to make them predictable. I think that's why I did it."

After going 33 matches without reaching three figures, he was dropped from the national side. McKenzie returned home to the Wanderers and was asked to captain them in the new franchise system. "Obviously I still wanted to play for South Africa but I also had me a different focus because of that," he said. "We had a lot of young players that had come through our ranks, and we wanted to develop them. So I worked on that."

His personal life also changed when he married South Africa's original Wonderbra girl, Kerry McGregor, in 2007, and the couple became the Posh and Becks of the cricket scene. With love came sensational form. Two seasons of averaging around 50 in the first-class scene spelt McKenzie's Test comeback as Graeme Smith's opening partner.

He lasted 14 months in the role, played 17 matches, averaged 47.11 and scored three hundreds, including one at Lord's during South Africa's first series win in England since readmission. "That was the best time in my cricketing life in terms of results," he said. "We won in England and Australia, and the team vibe was amazing.

"It was nice to be part of the side when they started making such good progress. If you look at them now, there have been only one or two personnel changes from that time. That is the key to a winning side and to creating a legacy."

But when South Africa could not continue upward after they defeated Australia Down Under in 2008-09, McKenzie was the one to take the fall. In their home series against Australia the same season, South Africa lost 2-1. McKenzie was one of the worst performers; he scored 102 runs in four innings, with a top score of 36, and by then had gone ten matches without a century. He was dropped and, by his own admission, his international career was over.

He was disappointed but not angry. "I don't think too many guys get a second chance but I got a second chance. Everyone wants to do more, so of course, I would like to have got a lot more runs, I would like to have been in the side more than I was, but I am not bitter about anything. That's the thing about sportsmen. Because we are so highly driven, we get bitter when things don't go our way. I would like to have played more but I'm happy to have done what I did."

McKenzie has continued to lead the Lions' batting line-up and decided to extend his career by spending time in England during the South African winter. Hampshire, where old friend and former team-mate Nic Pothas was stationed, became his second home.

McGregor and their two children, Luke and Riley, went with him and the family began living across two countries. "It's a different challenge. I think it's easier when you are on your own [where if you have] a one-bedroom apartment with no garden, you're fine. But when you've got the kids that I've got, you need wide open spaces," he said. "But I have loved every minute of the playing side of things on different wickets in England."

They have spent three years travelling back and forth, and McKenzie thinks he has one more left. "When my knee was giving me some problems a couple of years ago, I thought if I get to 37, I'll stop. I will be 37 next month but I think I'll do another year overseas and then finish my career here with the Lions. It's about choosing the right time. As long as I am making runs and contributing, that's fine. But the main thing is that I am not keeping guys out who should be playing. I still want to do well for Geoffrey Toyana, the Lions and my team-mates."

Toyana, who played with McKenzie and now coaches him, has lauded his senior role. "He is a sounding board for me and for the captain," Toyana said. Alviro Petersen, Lions captain, has also praised McKenzie's dedication to the squad.

McKenzie remains a team man but bizarre habits don't dictate his dressing-room ethic anymore. "There are times that I keep my rituals the same but the OCD has toned down since I've had kids," he said. "There is not as much time and I am too exhausted to be checking on things like the toilet seats. Thank goodness."

He also offers advice to some of the younger batsmen like Quinton de Kock. "I don't mentor, I just offer advice," McKenzie clarified. It may be an indication of what McKenzie's life after playing cricket could be like. He said coaching is an option, especially because he has "always liked the nuances of batting". Finishing the degree he began studying for 15 years ago is another possibility. "I am three half-subjects away but I stopped so long ago I hope the university can still find my records."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent