Rather than a case of ‘what might have been’, Lance Klusener’s was a career that all too briefly ‘was’.
Notwithstanding a period as one of the best all-rounders in the game, his time as a professional cricketer was consistently hindered from ‘being’ by a succession of injuries as varied in length and gravity as a Scott Boswell over.
In terms of his batting, Klusener’s attacking style was initially a thrilling complement to his aggressively tight seam bowling, a secondary aspect of his game that, on the back of some stellar knocks in the late 1990s, eventually came to define him as a cricketer. Though his transformation from background metronome to star turn was for the most part limited to the one-day game, this Dave Grohl of turn-of-the-millennium South Africa occasionally showed he could be as destructive a bat at Test level as in the shorter forms. One such demonstration occurred at Port Elizabeth in 1999 – undoubtedly Klusener’s ‘annus mirabilis’ – when he made 174 against an England attack containing luminaries such as Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick, Chris Silverwood and Flintoff, and Phil Tufnell.
There’s a school of thought that associates the word ‘flair’ with a certain flamboyant orthodoxy – a visual brilliance stemming from displays of exaggerated technical proficiency, that lead to a player being considered ‘attractive’ to watch.
This was by no means Lance’s hallmark, yet he definitely had flair – albeit in a more unusual kind of way. Economical with his movement and technically unorthodox – though not as unsophisticated as many would say – he was aesthetically stimulating in under-appreciated ways. He was naturally gifted, sure, but there was something vaguely analogous about his talent; his skill originated in a different part of the brain, lending him to some extent the appearance of having a slogger’s instinct confined to the technique of a nurdler.
When he trundled out of the St George’s Park pavilion that day in 1999, South Africa were in a spot of bother having lost all of their top five for just 146 runs. Although in those days the Proteas boasted an order that ran as deep as an Alastair Cook field-set – Mark Boucher came in at number nine back then – it was clear that something was needed from number seven Klusener, whose Test spot was not always as set in stone as his place in the one-day side. Funnily enough, the man he joined in the middle, Jonty Rhodes, was another whose Test career never quite reached the heights of his short-form exploits. That day, however, the two men would firmly wrest centre stage from the more established members of the team – though Jonty’s knack of not converting fifties into tons was once more in evidence.
In the early stages of the knock – even during the more expansive, Lance-whack moments – Klusener’s elbows were kept so tight to his torso it was almost as if he was hefting a sack of potatoes under each arm. Viewed alongside footwork as errant as the morality of an oil company executive, this spud-lugging, shuffling style gave an awkward, irrational symmetry to Lance’s batting. Thus, with a succession of those strange, cramped shots, the foundation for what was to come was laid.
A partnership of 106 with Rhodes soon strengthened South Africa’s position, whilst another century of runs was shared by Klusener and Boucher to bring the total towards 400. As Lance’s score accelerated through the milestones, the strokes became more brutal, more outrageously flaying. Fours were smashed and two sixes were thumped, all with that unusually punchy, suddenly curtailed post-shot flail. There were weird cuts over the top – windmilled over puzzled gullies with a jerky thrash of the arms in tandem with the corresponding footwork: a stunted, petulant afterthought of a karate kick aimed at the bowler – and the ubiquitous off-drive-dragged-into-an-on-drive so characteristic of Lance’s batting, but there was also a host of proper shots: drives planted through cover with a powerful, angry muscularity or ruthless straight hitting that left the bowlers open-mouthed.
A notable idiosyncrasy of his game emerged: the head always stayed firmly in place after striking the ball, gazing down at the point of impact for seemingly minutes after leather struck willow, head twisting away from body in a motion very much reminiscent of the set-piece technique of one Ryan Giggs.
England’s bowlers were simply unable to match him. Even Andrew Caddick – spasming and skipping his way to the wicket like a gruesome combine harvester – couldn’t get much joy from Klusener, being reduced to the gangly, shrugging figure that was to become so familiar to England fans as the years went by. Chris Silverwood silverwooded through the overs but was, essentially, Chris Silverwood – he did, however, take the wicket of Jacques Kallis in this match. By the end of the innings, Tufnell was apologetically churning out the throw-downs, whilst an Andrew Flintoff still in his Test infancy was ineffective against the adaptable Klusener.
Coming back for a second to bring up his 150, Klusener should have been run out by Alec Stewart, who showed a goalkeeper’s instinct by industriously palming the ball well away from the stumps with Klusener several time-zones from the safety of his crease. Finally, however, Darren Gough – buzzing unstintingly back-and-forth to the crease like a necklaced, low-slung hair-clipper desperately tired of shaving heads – got Lance with a slower ball expertly disguised as a misdirected full toss; an innocuous way to end an innings that thrilled and confounded in equal measure.
As Lance strolled off the wicket, despondent at having come so close to the double-hundred, yet elated at his contribution, it was clear that this innings was a statement on his part that this was no one-trick-pony, cow-corner-botherer in action, but rather a man who trusted his eye and his lithe strength to get him through in place of technical precision. He was just unlucky that Test selectors, who generally pigeonholed him as a one-day specialist and carve a few runs in the lower order, didn’t recognise this fact in the same way that others did.
Nevertheless, in an era when preening, technocratic cricketers were becoming the norm, Klusener’s rawness stood out, not just in relation to his batting but also to the man himself.
There was a masculine edge to him, a veldt canniness that was so different to most of his contemporaries, and though he was in the eyes of many one of the great ‘nearly men’ of 1990s and 2000s Test cricket – regardless of his success in the limited overs format – Klusener was a rare talent, a sportsman whose very dissimilarity made him memorable. This innings was proof of that; it was his opus, a reminder of both his ability and the folly of cross-format labelling in cricket. With a little more trust, a bit of luck with injuries, and a few more knocks even half as good as the one in Port Elizabeth, we might have ended up talking about Lance Klusener as one of the great South African Test all-rounders.