Ontong 'surprised' at selection for New Zealand tour
Justin Ontong, the South Africa allrounder, has been down this road before - three times, in fact. After his controversial Test debut against Australia in 2002, Ontong was recalled to national squads in 2004, 2008, 2009 and now in 2012, for the limited-overs leg of the tour to New Zealand. He hopes his fourth attempt will be a lasting one.
"I was very surprised to get the call-up. Some of the guys mentioned to me that I was close to selection but I was still surprised," Ontong told ESPNcricinfo. "I hope to really grab the opportunity this time. I am more experienced. I've played a lot of first-class cricket and that confidence is spilling into my game."
Ontong hasn't been part of a South Africa squad since the 2009 World Twenty20 in England, where he did not play a game. The last time he played for the country was in March 2009, a T20 match against Australia.
He had moved from Lions to his home team, Cape Cobras, at the start of the 2008-09 season and blossomed in his own environment. Ontong averages about 70 in the ongoing SuperSport Series and more than 72 in the 1-Day Cup, and said the winning culture of the franchise contributed to his recent success. "When a team is doing well, you find that the individuals get selected for the national team."
Ontong's selection was for the ODI and Twenty20 series in New Zealand and it appears that his role will be in the middle order. However, he has batted at seven positions in the previous 26 ODIs he played for South Africa. He believed the haphazard nature of his opportunities contributed to his under-performance. Ontong scored only 167 runs in 15 ODI innings and his nine wickets came at an average of 44. In Tests, he made 57 in four innings and took one wicket.
"I was a little all over the place. If you look at the two Tests I played, I played one as a batter and one as a bowler," Ontong said. "And it was the same in the ODIs."
South Africa's present one-day middle order, and particularly the No. 4 position, is fluid and Ontong may face the same uncertainty in New Zealand, something he will be ready for.
"Role definition has to be cleared up, so if I know I will play somewhere in the middle order that will be a good," Ontong said. "If you don't tell a player exactly how he will be identified, he will be in two minds and you won't get the best out of him."
Ontong also said getting adequate match practice was essential to optimum performance and hoped he would have enough of it in New Zealand. "The one thing about cricket is that you need to be on the park. You can't be going on tour and not playing and then be part of the national team."
Ontong still has hopes of progressing to the Test team as well. "I'm still dreaming of a Test place and if I give it a full go in the one-day side and do well, maybe I will be considered."
At 32, Ontong may appear short on time but he aims to continue playing until 2017. "I have a goal of playing for the next five years," he said. "In South African cricket people say 32 is too old, but I think we've learnt from the Aussies that it's only when guys pass 30 that they know and understand their games properly."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent