New Zealand in South Africa 2012-13 December 31, 2012

The making of Mitchell McClenaghan

Mitchell McClenaghan, who has impressed so far on the tour of South Africa, has the speed, the skills and the experience to be a long-term member of New Zealand's pace attack

Every step Mitchell McCleneghan took when he ran shredded cartilage on his hips. The extra bits of bone he had in that area served as blades and sliced through his connective tissue.

McClenaghan's condition is genetic, so he could not avoid corrective procedures forever even though surgery would interrupt his fledgling cricket career.

Over the course of two years, doctors fractured McClenaghan's hip sockets, screwed the cartilage back into place and let the wound bleed until it healed. He remembered it simply as being "so painful" but did not delve into any further detail. Instead, he now talks about it with a smile that can only suggest he is thankful it's over.

It helps that in the last ten days, McClenaghan went from being nothing more than one of the five rookies in New Zealand's Twenty20 squad to being selected across all three formats for the ongoing tour of South Africa. Of all the promising players on the current circuit, he is the most exciting. McClenaghan is quick; upper 140kphs quick. He is also accurate. An attack that has often lacked a front man who can combine speed with skill could have a future leader.

For New Zealand cricket, that possibility alone is highly noteworthy. Add to that the fact that McClenaghan has some experience, which includes the growing pains of failing and having to start again, and you'll probably be excited all the way from Auckland to Napier: the two places that made McClenaghan.

At Central Districts, where McClenaghan made his first-class debut, he was just another hopeful. He spent three seasons taking wickets at an average of over 40 and being side-tracked by injury. Then he moved to Auckland, where the environment suited him better. "That was the start of things clicking. Under Gareth Hopkins, there were really clear roles for me. We thought about the game the same way and he just backed me no matter what," he said.

McClenaghan also had another mentor, the ageless Chris Martin. The 38-year old has never suffered from a serious injury and McClenaghan was inspired by his problem-free run. "I got a lot of tips from him while I was recovering. He is the ultimate professional and he is always doing the right thing, whether it's in preparation, during the game or in recovery," he said.

Inspired by Martin, McClenaghan also incorporated major lifestyle changes into his routine. This season, he gave up bread, pasta and most sugars to focus on a diet which includes a large amount of broccoli. It's not exactly the same as Australian quick Peter Siddle's conversion to vegetarianism but it may be an even more eye-catching choice.

McClenaghan has abolished most carbohydrates, the substance required for fuel for the body, but he has not suffered at all. McClenaghan believes he understands himself more because of the changes. "I know my body a lot better now, I know how to train and I know how to look after myself," he said.

In terms of results, he has been proved right. McClenaghan was the standout performer as Auckland bowled Otago out for 63 last season. His 8 for 23 came after four five-wicket hauls for the team, and had McClenaghan thinking his chance would come in the longer format first. "With the way things had gone, I thought I would get more of a chance to play Test cricket, so it was a bit of a shock to get the Twenty20 call-up," he admitted.

He had only played nine T20 matches before being included in the touring party but his potential had been recognised. His tenth, against the South Africa A side, was where he picked up his best haul in the format to date: 3 for 18. "The only pressure I had was the pressure I put on myself. I wasn't getting any pressure from Mike Hesson or any of the coaching staff, and definitely not from Brendon McCullum. I was just able to get out there and as soon as I got over that first ball, it was just a dream," he said.

Although it looked easy, McClenaghan found the gulf between domestic and international cricket wider than he expected. "I was just gassed afterwards," he said. "There's a lot more adrenaline involved in playing for your country, so you definitely tire out a lot quicker. Also, you have to put everything into every ball, mentally and physically, so you get drained quicker. But if you don't, you're going to get hit to the boundary, that's just the truth of it."

He played in all three matches of the series and regards it as good preparation for the ODIs later on. "I feel confident in the short form of the game now," he said. Before that, New Zealand will face their toughest examination in the Tests, where McClenaghan is willing to wait for his turn.

"The guys have come off a great Test win with pretty much the same attack so I can't imagine there will be too many changes," he said. Doug Bracewell and Trent Boult were part of the pace group that achieved success in Sri Lanka, but with Tim Southee out injured, McClenaghan and Martin may be in direct competition.

If they opt for Martin, New Zealand will have certainty and safety in the knowledge that his record against South Africa has been impressive. If they choose McClenaghan, they would take a risk but on South African surfaces, it could be worth it. Although McClenaghan has not been told how strong his chances of playing are, he has a plan if he does get the opportunity.

"I see my role as someone who can come in and just go flat out for five or six overs and try to make something happen, whether it's at my end by taking wickets or by creating a bit of pressure."
Mitchell McClenaghan

"I see my role as someone who can come in and just go flat out for five or six overs and try to make something happen, whether it's at my end by taking wickets or by creating a bit of pressure," he said. "You don't have to be quick all the time in Test cricket. You just need to know when the right time is, when the team needs you to come and bowl a really quick spell. Even if you don't take wickets, it can turn the match, especially when you haven't taken wickets for a little while. It just gets everyone behind you and gets some energy going."

One of the best executors of that is Dale Steyn, who is known to get charged up when a little extra is needed. Steyn's spells at The Oval and in Perth in 2012 are examples of that, and now McClenaghan will get to see him in action first-hand.

Although the South African battery are regarded as much more potent than their opposing attack, McClenaghan said the reputations don't bother New Zealand. They just want to see how they match up. "They are the best bowling attack going around in world cricket at the moment. This is a massive test for us. It's going to be a really good chance for us as New Zealand bowlers to really test ourselves against them. Rather than looking at it as us against their batsmen, it's our attack against their attack: let's see where we are and let's try and push them," he said.

When current South African bowling coach Allan Donald worked in the same position in New Zealand, he noted that the major area New Zealand lacked was in intent. McClenghan promised that had changed. "When Allan Donald was the coach, the aggressive mentality started coming and with Shane Bond, it's the same. He is really driving to be aggressive, even if it's aggressive dot balls and just to be at the batsman all the time."

In saying that, the fighting talk has begun. McClenaghan said if he plays, "the whole South African top seven are the men I am after" and did not isolate any scalp he would prize even though South African captain Graeme Smith has a weakness against left-arm bowlers. "There's no point saving yourself for one person. We're going after them all."

To those who see this series as the least anticipated on the South African calendar, statements like the one above may be brushed off as nothing to take too much notice of. New Zealand are without their best batsman, Ross Taylor, their best bowler, Southee, and have had internal problems coming into the contest. They are expected to be worked over.

For the New Zealand young players, that pre-series prediction could result in negativity and demotivation ahead of the tour. But it hasn't. McClenaghan sees South Africa as a place to make a mark. "We haven't got all the results that we've wanted to get but it's really exciting times for New Zealand cricket," he said. "You might have to bear with us for a few series but hopefully it will pay off."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent