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Party dawg turns bulldog

How South Africa's bright new all-round hope got serious and got going

Andrew Worling
Roelof van der Merwe improvises in his own unusual way, South Africa v Australia, 2nd Twenty20, Centurion, March 29, 2009

Good-time guy no more: van der Merwe is looking to cement his place in the South African side  •  AFP

He may have represented South Africa at the Under-19 World Cup in 2004, but prior to the 2007-08 domestic season, not many cricket fans would have been familiar with the name Roelof van der Merwe.
The reason you may not have heard of the 24-year-old back then was simple. van der Merwe had been doing what all good 20-somethings do best: partying.
"After the U-19 World Cup I basically went to sleep for two years and just didn't take things too seriously," says van der Merwe. "I played club cricket for a while and wasn't really on top of my game. I went overseas for a short stint, but it was all very much on a social level."
Luckily, both for van der Merwe and South African cricket, an intervention by his parents put the youngster, nicknamed "The Bulldog", for his obdurate, never-say-die attitude, back on the right path.
"I owe a lot to my folks. They sat me down and told me I can't be out late partying all the time. They put pressure on me to find some direction in my life, whether it was working, studying or playing cricket."
Fortunately for Titans supporters, he chose to focus on cricket, and two summers later a great deal has changed. van der Merwe had a solid domestic season in 2007-08, performing well with both bat and ball, but this summer the former Hoërskool Waterkloof pupil took his game up a level and was one of the stars of the MTN Domestic Championship. The change in mindset worked wonders and he finished the competition as the leading wicket-taker with 30 dismissals.
van der Merwe was particularly impressive in the Titans' semi-final against the Cape Cobras, where he almost single-handedly secured his side a place in the final with career-best figures of 5 for 31 and a quickfire 64 off 42 balls. His first wicket of the semi was a crucial one. He bowled the dangerous Richard Levi, who on 45 looked set for a big score. The wicket proved to be the catalyst for the Cobras collapse as they slumped from 148 for 3 to 183 for 9 off their allotted overs, with van der Merwe picking up the last four wickets in quick succession.
However, van der Merwe is not one to bask in his achievements and attributes his recent success to hard work and time spent with Grant Morgan and Ray Jennings at the national academy during the winter. Richard Pybus, his coach at the Titans, puts his improvement down to more than just hard graft.
"He has exceptionally high skill levels and very good control", says Pybus. "He has a great feel, almost like a sixth sense of a batsman's intent. His judgment of length is spot-on and he has a superb temperament. He relishes a challenge and enjoys bowling at the back-end of an innings and the challenges that it brings."
"After the U-19 World Cup I basically went to sleep for two years and just didn't take things too seriously"
While he has become a standout performer with ball in hand, van der Merwe was not always a fan of spin in his school days, and had it not been for a club game back in 2004, he might have been making headlines for completely different reasons.
"I actually used to be a wicketkeeper before I started bowling, and at the U-19 World Cup, I was selected as one. Heino Kuhn and I both played club cricket for the Pretoria Boys' High Old Boys and we needed someone to bowl at the end of the innings and most of the bowlers had finished their overs. So Heino and I actually changed. He took the gloves and I bowled. Heino had a good time behind the stumps and I bowled a decent spell, and that's how I became a spinner."
The Titans have developed their own culture of spin, with the likes of Paul Harris, the much-talked about Imran Tahir, Faf du Plessis and now van der Merwe. While van der Merwe has been used mainly in the shorter forms of the game, his coach believes he has the credentials to make the step up to the longer version. "At the moment he is predominantly a one-day and Twenty20 specialist", says Pybus. "Obviously Paul and Imran are our two first-choice four-day spinners, but Roelof will come through. He gets beautiful shape and flight on the ball, so it's only a matter of time."
While stats indicate that van der Merwe should be regarded as a bowling allrounder, he has the potential, as he showcased against the Cobras, to be an explosive batsman capable of destroying an attack on any given day.
However, he is the first to admit his performances with the willow this summer were not up to the high standard he sets for himself. "I need to keep my batting up to scratch and get my average up, because that's going to get me into sides in the future. I felt a bit of pressure to perform with the bat, but I think when I got that half-century in the semi-final it took a lot off my shoulders."
Having only celebrated his 24th birthday on New Year's Eve, van der Merwe has come a long way in a very short space of time. Expect the bulldog to be out doing what he does best, fighting, with his sights set on making an impact with the Proteas and Bangalore Royal Challengers.

This article was first published in SA Cricket magazine