Lance Klusener: The 'Zulu’ who was one of the world’s best all-rounders

Lance Klusener © Getty Images

Lance Klusener, born on September 4, 1971, is a former South African all-rounder who amazed the world with his pyrotechnics with the bat and aggressive fast-medium bowling. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the career of one of the most exciting players to watch in his era.

The cricketing bible — the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) Coaching Manual — which is followed by students of the game around the world, clearly states that, “Except when the ball goes behind the wicket, the striker must always call.” On June 17, 1999, with South Africa needing just one run from three deliveries to beat Australia and progress to the World Cup final, Lance Klusener did make the call to take a single — whether it was the right call or not is a separate issue altogether — when he hit Damien Fleming towards mid-off and set off for a quick single. Unfortunately, and quite horrifically for the Proteas, Allan Donald at the non-striker’s end did not heed to his partner’s call and stayed put way longer than he should have — this after backing up a bit too much for his team’s liking a ball earlier and almost getting run out. As Adam Gilchrist knocked off the bails with Donald less than halfway across the pitch, to send Edgbaston and the Australian fans into delirium, Klusener just walked off the ground in a mixture of shock and disgust. His unbeaten 31 runs off 16 deliveries that had got his team so near, yet so far, to the World Cup final were now just academic.

There are plenty of cricketers in the years gone by who are remembered for just one noteworthy innings or spell in their careers. While most have nothing else to boast of, it does grave injustice to Klusener’s eight-year international career if he is remembered for just the one match, regardless whether South Africa had won or lost it. Mind you, if South Africa had won that match, Klusener would have been a legend of the game in all likelihood with the kind of tournament he had had. He could not put a foot wrong in the World Cup: he topped the batting averages with a whopping 140.50 to his name via 281 runs in eight innings, including six not outs. He scored his runs at a strike rate of 122. Until South Africa’s Super Six encounter against New Zealand, no team had figured out how to dismiss him. Coming in to bat in the lower middle-order, Klusener almost rudely snatched games from the opposition with his baseball-style hitting: his 52 off 45 balls did the job against Sri Lanka at Northampton; a 40-ball 48 was enough to defeat the hosts England at The Oval; a scintillating 46 off 41 balls left Pakistan shocked at Trent Bridge after them being in the driver’s seat; only his 21-ball 36 against Australia at Leeds in the Super Six wasn’t enough to get his team a win, apart from of course the semi-final. With the ball, he took 17 wickets in nine matches. He averaged 20.58 with the ball. There was thus no surprise when he was declared the Man of the Series.

Amazingly, batting wasn’t even considered Klusener’s primary asset when he was picked in the South African team for the first time in the winter of 1996-97 in India. He had made his First Class debut batting at No 11. Considered a fast-medium pacer who could bat a bit, Klusener made his debut at Calcutta (now Kolkata) and was welcomed into international cricket by a rampant Mohammad Azharuddin, who clobbered him for five consecutive boundaries. Klusener was smashed for 75 runs in just 14 overs in his first innings in international cricket; it was enough to scar any quality bowler for life. But Klusener, probably taking from his years of army training as a youngster, took it in his stride and bounced back. And how! In the second innings, he stunned Eden Gardens with a probing and destructive spell of 8 for 64 — the best ever by a South African on debut — and helped his team win the match. Reflecting upon that game, he was to tell the Independent later, “For me the most important thing is to take your chances. At the time I thought: you’ve dreamed and worked all of your life to play Test cricket and here it is disappearing fast in a matter of overs. In the second innings, we changed a few things such as length, but that success helped set me up to where I am today. To experience that great high so soon after a great low has stood me in good stead. Basically, I now know to hang in there and never give up.”

With that never-say-die attitude, Klusener soon made a name for himself as an exciting aggressive all-rounder, in the true sense of the word. He was not a batting all-rounder or a bowling all-rounder; he was an all-rounder. Period. As a batsman, with a three-pound bat in tow, he redefined pinch-hitting with his flamboyant, yet calculative strokeplay. He knew where and how to apply his aggression and always found a way to pierce the gaps and clear the boundary. He was one of the best finishers of the game in the one-day circuit and a vital asset for the South African team, coming to bat at or below No 6. If you ever got the impression, especially after his 1999 World Cup heroics, that he was a one-day specialist and did not have the temperament to play Test cricket, his 174 against England at Port Elizabeth in the southern hemispheric summer of 1999-00 put to bed all such doubts.

As a bowler, Klusener was a few notches quicker than military medium pace. He had a unique side-on action wherein his stride began with a hop, while his bowling arm came in front of his eyes, as if he were taking aim at where he wanted to pitch the ball. It was one of the most noticeable actions in the game — one that the writer tried to ape right through his childhood. It was an art Klusener picked up and worked on in his three years of military service. It was here that he was noticed by Dennis Carlstein, the manager of Natal, who saw potential in his bowling, and recommended him to attend a nets session at the province. At Natal, Klusener was observed by the great Malcolm Marshall, who used to play as their overseas cricketer. Marshall guided Klusener on how to go about his bowling and batting, and in 1993-94, he was drafted into the first eleven. “Malcolm did not believe in interfering with the way you played,” Klusener was quoted as saying by Wisden. “He liked to hit the ball and so did I. He told me not to stop — and to never stop attacking as a bowler.” With that advice, Klusener went on to become a more than able ally to the deadly South African pace attack comprising Donald and Shaun Pollock.

Klusener, or ‘Zulu’ as he was eponymously called due to the fact that he spoke the language fluently after interacting with an African native nanny and other children in Zululand as a child. He grew up on his parents’ sugarcane farm and was a thorough country boy. His father played polo, and cricket was nowhere in the horizon until he joined the prestigious Durban High School and, later, the military. Klusener grew up to be a chiselled Afrikaner, whose toned physique was hidden behind South Africa’s baggy jerseys in his playing days. The military routine and training probably helped him avoid many breakdowns given the strain he probably put on his body due to his hopping bowling action. The pyrotechnics with the bat also would have also required an abundant supply of energy and power. But Klusener made it look so easy.

Klusener was South Africa’s go-to guy in moments of need, and more often than not he showed up and delivered. His presence on the field and the times when he was handed the ball or walked out to bat gave the fans a sense of assurance — Calm down and trust Klusener! Only a few days after his debut, he showed the world what he could do by blazing his way to 102 off just 100 balls against India at Cape Town in a Test match. It was the fastest century by a South African in terms of balls faced, and what made it even more special was that it had come after coming in at No 9. In one-day cricket, he became an even bigger game-changer. His fearless and nonchalant approach while batting gave his team the confidence to be optimistic in the unlikeliest of scenarios. His six off the last ball off the bowling of Dion Nash in Napier in 1999 to seal the match for South Africa provided a testament to the destructive batsman that he was.

Lance Klusener: The 'Zulu’ who was one of the world’s best all-rounders

Lance Klusener in his unique delivery stride © Getty Images

After wowing the world with his panache and flair until the early noughties, Klusener underwent a slump in form in the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, which was being co-hosted by South Africa. After a dismal tour of Australia in the summer of 2001-02, Klusener was dropped from the Test squad, just three matches after he had struck a century against India at home. He continued to be part of the ODI setup, but reports started cropping up that he did not see eye-to-eye with the new skipper Graeme Smith after the World Cup. Klusener, 31 at the time, was branded as “disruptive” by Smith, who said that he was a bad influence on the younger players. Klusener responded by saying in an interview that Smith “felt threatened by me”. After Klusener was dropped from the squad, he took legal action against the United Cricket Board of South Africa for loss of earnings; he claimed that he turned down offers to play with English counties after being assured of a place in the Test squad.

Finally, in 2004, Klusener was named in South Africa’s Test squad to tour Sri Lanka, and later in the one-day squad to face the West Indies. Smith welcomed Klusener back into the squad, saying that the duo had sorted their differences. “Lance has come a long way since then. He’s got an opportunity to fit back in,” Smith was quoted as saying by the BBC. However, Klusener played his last Test at Galle and final ODI against the West Indies at The Oval in the 2004 Champions Trophy.

Klusener continued to ply his trade in the domestic circuit, captaining the Nashua Dolphins and also playing for both Middlesex and Nottinghamshire. Later, he would sign on for Northamptonshire for 2006 and 2007. During 2007, he hit 1,013 runs in the County Championship at 48.23, which included two centuries; with the ball, he made an equally good contribution taking 33 wickets. In the 2008 season, Klusener went past the 1,000-run mark again, hitting 135 against Derbyshire and 202 not out against Glamorgan. Surprisingly, he was released by Northants towards the end of that season.

Klusener had a brief association with the Indian Cricket League (ICL), Klusener completed a Level-three coaching course provided by Cricket South Africa (CSA) in 2010. He even held negotiations with the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) about becoming a bowling coach for their national team, but eventually turned down the offer. In January 2012, he was appointed as the interim head coach of the Dolphins, where he is currently employed.

Despite an inglorious ending to his international career, Klusener will always be remembered as one of the most exciting entertainers of the game, which was what he strived for. “Look, I always want to be entertaining when I play, but I never go into any match expecting to do well. That doesn’t mean that I don’t give my best but I always think that you must just try to get what you can out of a game. If there are a certain number of runs to get off a limited number of balls, then you try to get the maximum. If you win, it’s a bonus,” is what he told the Sunday Tribune in an interview in 1999. “Now, if you went into a game expecting to win and didn’t, then you’d be disappointed. And if you expect to win and you do, then you’re still disappointed because there’s no excitement. I just play my best and have no expectations. Sure, sometimes I’m going to fail. I’m not superhuman. I am just an ordinary guy.”

The ordinary guy scored 3,576 runs in 171 ODIs for South Africa at an average of 41.10 and strike rate of 89.91. In the 49 Tests that he played, he scored 1,906 runs at 32.86. On the bowling side, he took 192 wickets in ODIs with a best of 6 for 49. His 8 for 64 on Test debut remains his best bowling analysis in the longer format, where he took 80 wickets.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)