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If anybody is to give a good name to Kolpak players, it is Dale Benkenstein. Most counties have sought to justify their hiring of another thirty-something South African by spinning out the same tired old line about adding experience to their team and helping their young players to progress. But none has come close to matching the impact of Benkenstein. His feat in leading Durham to the County Championship in 2008 was the culmination of a sharp upturn in fortunes at Riverside in the three years of his captaincy. In that time, the youngest county came of age, and Benkenstein's paternal promptings did as much as anything to guide the side to maturity.
Benkenstein recognises his fortune in arriving at Chester-le-Street at an opportune time, for something was stirring in 2005. The season before, Durham had finished bottom of the Championship for the fifth time in their 13 years as a first-class county, prompting a revision of their admirable but quixotic policy of relying on home-grown talent. They grafted on a few hardier characters such as Benkenstein and Gareth Breese, while Mike Hussey arrived as captain to instil a new sense of self-belief. "Mike has a magnetic personality, and everyone drew energy from him," Benkenstein says. "I was pretty inspired by the way he went about his business."
Soon Hussey was summoned by Australia for their one-day series in England, and Benkenstein was asked to fill the breach temporarily. Promotion in the Championship was achieved that season and, under Benkenstein's fulltime captaincy, progress continued at a startling rate over the next two years. In 2007, Durham won the Friends Provident Trophy and were runners-up in the Championship - and Benkenstein ceased to be a Kolpak as he acquired a British passport. The collection of wandering souls had found a leader to whom their eyes naturally turned on the field. And in late September 2008, after an innings victory over Kent at Canterbury, the Championship pennant was won - in only their 17th first-class season.
All of which makes it remarkable that Benkenstein had not really wanted to captain Durham. When Hussey was whisked away on international duty in 2005, he was hoping to be left to concentrate on his batting. But his leadership qualities shone too brightly to remain under a bushel, and this most natural of captains duly answered the call. "You only find those traits in a special few people, and responsibility tends to follow them around," says Geoff Cook, Durham's head coach. "Dale expects high standards from everybody, but is sensitive to those who aspire but don't reach the mark. There are no histrionics, just several dollops of common sense. The lads are privileged to have played under him."
There was never much doubt that DALE MARTIN BENKENSTEIN, born in Salisbury, Rhodesia (as it was) on June 9, 1974, would find himself a place in the cricketing world, so strong were his family's links to the game. Although he was educated at Michaelhouse, a prestigious school in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, the most enduring lessons of his cricketing education were administered in the family's back yard in Durban, where he played day after day with Brett and Boyd, twin brothers three years older, both of whom would go on to play first-class cricket for Natal B.
Their father, Martin, had played as a batsman for Rhodesia in the Currie Cup in the 1970s before moving his family to Durban in 1980, around the time of Zimbabwean independence, when Dale was six. Martin continued to play and coach in club cricket in Durban, his three sons working the scoreboard or sneaking off for games of their own. Those contests would then continue in the back yard at home, where Dale, as the youngest, had to fetch the ball whenever it went over a fence.
One brother bowled right-arm, the other left-arm, and the competition was always intense. "I took a few punches if I didn't walk when I was out," Dale says, with a chuckle. There was also a local garden rule that, unless you were out, you could bat all day. So the fertile mind of a future captain was frequently taxed by the need to invent original strategies to dismiss his older brothers. At night, he would ask his father to draw diagrams demonstrating field settings for different bowlers.
This thirst for analysing the game marked Benkenstein out as captaincy material from an early age. He captained his school Under-10 team and went on to lead South African Schools, and then an Under-19 development squad which accompanied the Test side on their first tour of the West Indies in 1991-92; he learned much about the mental side of the game from the team's coach, Jackie McGlew, the former Test batsman.
At the age of 18, he broke into the Natal side and had the pleasure of playing under Malcolm Marshall. "Not many people think of Malcolm as a captain, but he was a genius in the way he analysed a batsman and placed his fielders," Benkenstein says. "In my eyes, he took the art of captaincy to another level."
Marshall left Natal in 1996 and Benkenstein, aged 22, succeeded him as captain. In his first game in charge, against Border at Kingsmead, he allowed the opposition to score 385 for six to win the game, which taught him harsh lessons about when to attack and when to contain. He learned quickly: that season, Natal won both the four-day league and the one-day knockout, and Benkenstein was seen as the natural successor to Hansie Cronje as captain of his country. That never quite happened. He played the last of his 23 one-day internationals in 2002 (shortly after his second double with KwaZulu-Natal), and his career was drifting when, during a stint playing league cricket in Cumbria in 2004, he had a trial game for Durham's Second Eleven against Yorkshire at Stamford Bridge. He scored a gutsy century, but what really impressed Cook was that, although Benkenstein was essentially on a selfish mission, he still held the needs of the team to be paramount. "I rang the chief executive straight away and told him we'd got to give this lad a contract."
As a result of that shrewd character judgment from Cook, Benkenstein has gone on to enjoy "the best years of my career" with Durham. The ultimate team man has found personal fulfilment and now plans to move permanently to the North-East with his wife, Jackie, and their three children.
His next task is to mentor Will Smith, whom he anointed as his successor after resigning at the end of the season. What a thrill for Smith to be nominated as captain by such a respected figure. But what an act to follow.