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When veteran von Berg met childhood hero Warne

The 31-year old legspinner recalls the time when he met his idol as he prepares to stake his claim for South Africa selection



India A's openers Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw have blazed past fifty in 11 overs at Chinnaswamy Stadium. South Africa A's captain Khaya Zondo turns to spin in search of a breakthrough. Shaun von Berg, who was part of the senior squad in Sri Lanka last month, coolly takes a couple of steps, gets into a fairly front-on position, gives the ball a fair rip and delivers it. The legspinner's action bears a close resemblance to Shane Warne.
On his first day out of school in 2006, when he was picked for club cricket in Kent, Von Berg bumped into his hero, who was there playing for Hampshire. "I was so young, so I didn't realise what had happened. It just did not sink in," he told ESPNcricinfo. "But if I meet Warnie today, I will definitely enjoy it more. I was just out of school and it felt surreal back at the Kent nets."
Eleven years after Warne retired from Test cricket, von Berg was finally called-up to the South Africa Test squad for the Sri Lanka tour. "I was just sitting at home and watching TV with my wife when the selector called," the 31-year old said. "I was both surprised and happy, and it took about two days to sink in because it got announced in the media only two days after I was informed of my inclusion"
All of that made up for a troublesome 2015 when von Berg missed nearly the entire first-class season with a fractured finger. He returned to action in January 2016, picking up 91 wickets in 25 matches, including four five-wicket hauls.
Von Berg wheeled away for long spells at Titans, but he played just five matches in his side's run to the first-class competition title in 2016-17. Despite that, he returned 32 wickets, one less than Titans' top wicket-taker Malusi Siboto, who had played eight games.
A couple of years ago, when von Berg found himself between the provincial and first-class structures, and did not get enough game-time, a franchise from Dunedin came looking to enlist him. But Titans' coach Boucher considered the legspinner too much of an asset to let him go.
"I got an offer from a New Zealand franchise from Dunedin at a time I was in and out of Titans squad," von Berg said. "I was looking for better opportunities. I consulted Mark Boucher on this and he said: 'No, I want you here'. That gave me a lot of confidence and I put all my confidence in him. I started playing more and two-three years down the line it has changed my cricket hell of a lot."
After warming the bench in the Test series in Sri Lanka, von Berg is now with the A team as its premier spinner. In his first over against India A, he lobs a low full toss, which is slog swept into oblivion by Shaw. Soon after, Agarwal manufactures a full toss by venturing down the track and pinging a six over the off side. Von Berg pulls his length back, and the openers keep milking him off the back foot.
This Bengaluru pitch was more South African than subcontinental. The ball was swinging, seaming, and the last two days offered variable bounce. Von Berg wound up conceding 107 runs in 20 overs, without taking any wickets. However, whenever he put some extra revs on the ball, he always found turn, if not always the outside edge. Besides, it was a pitch on which India internationals Yuzvendra Chahal and Axar Patel struggled as well.
While he had been part of spin-bowling camps in Sri Lanka and India previously, this was the first time von Berg was bowling in a first-class game in Asia, and it didn't help that the pitch lent little assistance to spin. All told, 22 of the 28 wickets that fell in the match went to the seamers.
As such, Von Berg would do well to look back at the advice Paul Harris offered him when they played together at Titans. "When I started out Harris was at the peak of his career and later he came down from international cricket and we played a few matches together," he said. "Even if you don't take wickets, Paul asked me to learn to bowl defensively and stay in the game. He told me to try and stay in the game always."
Von Berg did much better with the bat, especially in the second innings as South Africa A came within 1.1 overs of salvaging a creditable draw. He blocked stoutly, swayed away from the bouncers comfortably and blunted the Indian attack for 50.4 overs with Knights' Rudi Second. But when the ball was in his arc, he held nothing back. Case in point: he deployed a giant stride and crunched the best bowler of the match Mohammed Siraj through extra cover for four.
Von Berg contributed a stubborn fifty in a 119-run stand for the sixth wicket with Second to keep the Indians at bay. The innings wasn't a surprise for those who have seen him bat. He has hit five first-class centuries and in February earlier this year, he clattered a 43-ball 52 against a touring Australian attack comprising Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon.
"I was a much better batsman when I started at school," von Berg said. I used to bat at No. 4 or 5 there and my batting was better than bowling. So, I was classed as a batting allrounder then. I still work very hard on my batting. For my team at Titans back home, batting at No. 7 or 8, if I make a fifty, it makes my spot that much stronger. I want to be seen as a genuine allrounder."
Does he see himself playing alongside Vernon Philander in the national team, and contributing like he does, in the near future? "Hopefully [laughs], just trying to do my thing, which I have been doing back home, in the A series, and looking to put my name up for the one-day team as well."

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo