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'We play a boring brand of cricket here in South Africa'

Kruger van Wyk's debut Test series, against his country of birth, passed off more amicably than expected AFP

According to Kruger van Wyk there are many things to like about his former coach John Wright, but top of the list is his humour.

"I remember him waiting a while before telling me that the South Africans were going to give me shit during my debut Test [for New Zealand]," says van Wyk. "Thinking back on it, that was probably his way of telling me I was in the team, because he was always very dry. John was very much a man's man: he had that old-school toughness and was really comfortable in those sorts of environments. The best thing about him was his sense of humour, because he'd listen to things for a long time and then come in with perfect timing. In that respect he was always very good to me."

Van Wyk spent the three days prior to his Test debut, in Dunedin against the South Africans in March 2012, flat on his back with a bad case of gastroenteritis. "I lost 5kgs and really wasn't in the best of shape," he says. By the time it came to the Test itself he was, however, back in the saddle - slightly lighter but ready to pounce should the South Africans forget he was there and lapse into some ill-advised vloeking (swearing) or off-the-cuff analysis in Afrikaans.

Far from the South Africans "giving him shit", the Test passed off reasonably amicably. Van Wyk had grown up with players like Jacques Rudolph and AB de Villiers and the verbals were restricted to a good-natured trickle. "Chris Martin nipped [Jacques] Kallis and [AB] de Villiers out on the first day and we led on the first innings by 40-odd," van Wyk remembers. "They batted well in the second innings [with hundreds to Kallis, Smith and Rudolph], and then at close on the fourth day we were about 140 for 2, with Brendon [McCullum] and Ross [Taylor] at the crease; we needed 300 runs to win with eight wickets standing on a flat track on the final day. Kane [Williamson] was due to come in at five. I think we could have been in for a very exciting final day of cricket, except that it rained on the fourth night and that was it."

"The Kiwis' ingenuity is something they're really proud of. If they need to pick three spinners in a World T20 to beat India in India, they're going to do that"

By his own admission, van Wyk wasn't ready for international cricket when he arrived in New Zealand. He was there because Dave Nosworthy, his former coach at Titans (in South Africa), had been recruited by Canterbury and the South Island outfit needed a wicketkeeper. Mark Boucher wasn't going to relinquish the gloves for South Africa anytime soon and the opportunity seemed like a godsend. This was a chance to reinvent himself, have an adventure and subsume himself in the New Zealand cricketing way.

"I think we play a boring brand here in South Africa - we're one-dimensional," he says. "The Kiwis' ingenuity is something they're really proud of. If they need to pick three spinners in a World T20 to beat India in India, they're going to do that. They're really proud of their ingenuity. [Brendon] McCullum and [Mike] Hesson were always prepared to be brave, and that's absolutely great."

While the stereotype of the canny Kiwi can be overplayed, there's no doubt that their mentalité, as the French would call it, is to put everything they have to the best possible use - in terms of being prepared to lose as they gamble for a win. Van Wyk says he loved this approach, the idea that they were exhausting every available opportunity to improve themselves, and found himself growing exponentially as a cricketer.

He played nine Tests, being knocked off his perch by BJ Watling, but there is no sign of regret. Indeed, you rather feel that his sojourn turned out far better than he ever had reason to expect. Here, after all, was the boy from Wolmaransstad, a veritable Wagga Wagga of the veld. He was too small for rugby and didn't like disappearing into the wastes of the outfield, so became a wicketkeeper. His entire career was a story of scaling heights he didn't naturally reach.

Van Wyk and his young family (one boy, one girl) returned to South Africa in December 2015, after nine years in New Zealand, and he became director of cricket at the Assupol Tuks Cricket Academy at the University of Pretoria. He's hoping to back up words with deeds by inculcating a far more adventurous brand of cricket, saying that he's frequently gobsmacked at the conveyor belt of talent that the African sunshine and good facilities seem to almost carelessly produce. "You have to allow players to grow outside of a structure or a game plan, to keep challenging them in different ways. I'd say it's a state-of-mind thing rather than a technique or set of techniques."

Van Wyk has an opportunity to see what Tuks can do when they defend their Red Bull Campus Cricket World Finals title in Sri Lanka early next month. In preparation for the event, van Wyk has been hard at work simulating the kinds of conditions he expects to find in Sri Lanka, roughing up wickets, underpreparing them and leaving them bereft of grass. "Twenty-over cricket provides players with the opportunity to be reckless - and you've got to allow them that freedom and license."

Prior to the New Zealanders hopping up to Zimbabwe, they spent a week at Tuks' Pretoria facility where van Wyk's boys were able to rub shoulders with the tourists. It was great, he says, for his left-arm quicks to swap notes with Trent Boult or his fast bowlers to bask in the presence of, say, Tim Southee.

Unlike the South Africans, who haven't played much recent Test cricket, the visitors look well-grooved. Kingsmead, the venue for the first Test, has been known to be unkind to home sides in recent years, and the New Zealanders will probably be closer to where they want to be than the hosts. It's increasingly tempting, in fact, to see the two teams as different sides of the same ball: South African cricket is in the midst of blithely frittering away its riches (some of those riches heading for New Zealand), its Test outfit less successful than it should be. By contrast, New Zealand make best use of what they have, proud to innovate and bold enough to try. It's the very shift Van Wyk is trying to initiate with his young charges.