Way ahead of his time, Lance Klusener forged a reputation as an ODI finisher, a tag that is often unfairly detached from him for the one time he missed among several bull’s-eye hits, writes Rohit Sankar.
Ten months after the 1999 World Cup semi-final botch up, South Africa welcomed Australia for a three-match ODI series. Heading into the third game, the series was tied 1-1 with the decider a matter of prestige for the hosts.
Lance Klusener had made 4* in the win in Durban, and remained unbeaten on 34 at Cape Town as South Africa ambled along to 144 in their entire fifty overs only for Australia gun down the total in less than 25 overs. It was South Africa’s second-heaviest defeat in terms of balls spared by the opponents.
Needless to say, they were humiliated. The ghosts of Edgbaston 1999 hung over their heads as they went into a series decider at Johannesburg, confidence battered and egos deflated. To compound the palpitations of the heart of Proteas fans, the ODI had several similarities to the 1999 disaster.
Australia made 205 batting first. They had made 213 at Edgbaston. Steve Waugh scored a fifty in both matches. Shaun Pollock picked up a four-wicket haul here. He had taken five then.
The major difference? Klusener walked in at the death at Edgbaston. Here, he had a repair job to do. At 122-6 in the 32nd over, South Africa weren’t quite in the game until Klusener walked out. He slammed a 50-ball 52 with nine fours and closed out the game and series for the Proteas with more than two overs to spare.
In an interview with The Cricket Monthly after his retirement, Klusener recalls this game as the “most satisfying run chase” he was a part of.
Of course, he had the luxury of picking and choosing from quite a few of them. A maverick, Klusener had made finishing his drug and he thrived on seeing the team through till the end. He was in those situations more than most ever were, and completed his job more often than most could.
Two years after the most ‘satisfying’ run chase of his career, at Johannesburg again, Klusener would nearly do an encore. Chasing 224, he walked in at 66-6 and single-handedly got the Proteas to within 19 runs of the Australian score. He made a 77-ball 83 from No.8, the kind of knock that would have social media in a tizzy these days. But for Klusener, it was the norm.
Between 1999 and 2003, Klusener played some outrageous ODI knocks that were way ahead of his times. While his 1999 World Cup knocks alone have a cult status, it all perhaps started out at Napier two months before the World Cup. Against New Zealand, with four needed off the last ball in a tricky chase, Klusener smashed Dion Nash for a six to finish with 29* off 18 balls. It was a sign of things to come.
In the marquee tournament in England, he lit up the world stage multiple times, often single-handedly rescued South Africa from top-order collapses. A 52* off 45 balls against Sri Lanka after walking in at 115-7 and a 41-ball 46* against Pakistan from 135-6 were highlights of his campaign. All this before he nearly put them in the World Cup final at Edgbaston with some telling strikes in the final over.
It’s Lance Klusener’s birthday! 🎂
— ICC (@ICC) September 4, 2018
In 2000, he played two remarkable knocks against New Zealand that were way more impactful than his 1999 World Cup performances, yet way less celebrated than all of them. At Durban in the fifth ODI of a bilateral series, South Africa were set a revised target of 153 to win in 32 overs. Klusener came in at 100-4 with South Africa needing 53 in 45 balls. He made 41 of those runs in 18 balls, leading them to a win with more than an over to spare.
In the very next ODI in Cape Town, chasing a stiff target of 257, Klusener made a half-century as he took South Africa close. 11 needed off the last over turned into seven off two balls and the all-rounder blasted Shane O’Connor for back-to-back fours to take South Africa home.
In the early 2000s, his career was marred by controversies and rifts with new skipper Graeme Smith. He was denied a contract in 2003, primarily because he wasn’t a “team man” according to Smith. At 33, Klusener’s career came to a premature end, and years later, he is remembered more for the 1999 botch up job than the other stunning finishes he regularly saw off for his team.
That he batted the most at No.8 is testimony to South Africa’s all-round depth in the period, but the fact that he averaged 58.66 while striking at 92.30 from there is a record of how good a finisher he was. In an age where strike-rates of 70 were commonplace, Klusener’s death overs heists became a rage.
Between 1999 and 2004, Zulu, as he is popularly called, made over a 1,000 runs from No.6 or lower at a strike-rate of 97.79 and an average of 60.05. No one else hit as many runs, scored at a better average or struck at a better strike-rate than him or hit more fifties (min. 20 innings).
Klusener remained unbeaten 42 times in ODIs in that period, again the most by anyone. 19 of those came in run chases where he plundered runs at a strike-rate of 98.03. South Africa won 12 of those and tied two others. In 11 of the 19 matches, Klusener made 30 or more, and South Africa won eight of those, while one other ended up in a tie.
To put things into perspective, Michael Bevan, hailed as the ‘original finisher’ had 18 unbeaten knocks in run-chases, but struck runs at a rate of 65.79.
Bevan’s strike-rate is hardly ever a talking point when discussing him as the first-ever finisher in ODIs. It didn’t need to be given the team around him. For Klusener, even in a team that had several heroes, he was often the last man standing, single-handedly doing the hard toil to construct a building from scratch quite a lot of times.
Klusener’s madness had a method to it. Each of his cameos had the sting of a viral tweet. He brought emotion, technique and composure to a role that was previously reserved only for those who could bowl fast and hold a bat. He could bowl, even had an eight-fer on Test debut, but Klusener’s magic was his batting and the zeal and fervour he brought into it.
“When you’re in the zone and you’re totally focused on the ball, you get an invincible feeling,” he said once. “It’s not as soon as you come in to the crease: you play a few balls, get going, then suddenly you find yourself in that zone. If only I knew how I get there, it would be fantastic.”
Of course he was being humble. Few knew how to get there as often as Klusener. For a player batting primarily in the lower order, his batting numbers were outrageous. The few glimpses we had of him in T20 cricket weren’t enough to satiate the hunger that was left lingering after he showed us the dizzying peaks of death overs batting at a time where the whole phrase was still being figured out.
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