Sometime after the World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Australia at Birmingham-arguably the best one-day match ever and one where Australia were declared the winners, even though it had ended in a tie, because they had beaten South Africa earlier on in the Super Six-Australian media magnate Kerry Packer rang up Greg Chappell and asked, "We are two billionaires here flying together, what we want to know is why Lance Klusener wasn't sent ahead of Shaun Pollock in the South African batting order?"
There was a time when 'Zulu' wasn't thought good enough to be in the army cricket team. now, as Jacques Kallis says, "he's the kind of player you'd like to take to war with you."
Chappell didn't have an answer but Packer continued, "If it was up to me I wouldn't blame Allan Donald or Lance Klusener for the last over mishap but Hansie Cronje. As a captain he should have known how to handle his resources better."
If Cronje is still distraught and scrounging for that victory run in his dreams, Klusener is now playing golf in Delhi. And if cricket fans want to know what his attitude was like in the dressing room after that classic, semi-final loss it was something along the lines of, "Nobody died, did they? So cool it."
The nonchalance possibly stems from his rather unusual background. Growing up near the Natal coast on a sugarcane plantation where his father employed 150 labourers, going to boarding school at the age of 12, and then, at 19, joining the army for three years. Not the infantry, or artillery but military intelligence. He spent months holed up in tents in bush country near the border with Mozambique. His skills with the Zulu language, which he speaks as fluently as English, prompted his superiors to use him in that area. Says Klusener, now 27: "The job was basically to mix with the Zulus in the area and see that they were happy." He regrets having missed the action in Angola by a few years though some of his older colleagues in the South African team were in the army then.
Part of the army discipline that filtered through to his brand of cricket was the "need to pull one's weight". Also the powers of observation and analysis. Says Klusener, "I take a lot of mental notes and hopefully remember things when the time comes to work on those observations on the field. I am not like our captain Hansie Cronje though, taking written notes and being the black book man."
Former South African batting great Barry Richards, who comes from the same school in Durban as Klusener, calls Klusener's powers of observation and ability to learn his main weaponry. In South Africa's match against Kenya at Amsterdam in the World Cup group stage, the South African new ball bowlers allowed the Kenyan openers to get off to a rollicking start of 66 for no loss. Klusener watched the demolition from fine-leg. He watched his teammates bowling short on a slow turf. Having worked out that driving on the front foot was difficult, he pitched the ball up when his turn came, mixed his slower balls and at the end of his spell had figures of five wickets for 21 runs. The last one, a reverse-swinger, trapped Tom Odoyo first ball.
There's an interesting history to that. According to Klusener, it was around the time of his Test debut at Eden Gardens, his favourite ground, that Indian speedster Javagal Srinath gave him his first few tips on how to reverse swing, something for which he is grateful. Other Indian players he's friendly with include Saurav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar. Says Klusener, "I think Sachin's the best batsman in the world. He's awesome. I haven't seen any other player have so much time for his shots than him. It's a challenge to get him out. The trick is to get him impatient so he does something silly. It's a hard job being captain of India and I hope he gets it right the second time around. The Indian batting line-up itself is so formidable. Dravid's so organised, Ganguly's got a hell off a timing. I think they suffered in the World Cup because of the lack of good fifth-sixth bowlers."
Klusener's own entry into his national squad was rather unusual. Says he, "Most of them play the age groups before graduating. I missed those chances because of being in the army. I didn't even play representative school tournaments." In fact, he didn't even make it to the army cricket team. He wasn't good enough. Besides, most of the time he was posted away from cities. His chance came when he left the army to do a course in business management in Natal. That's when he started practising with compeers and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Malcom Marshall who was then playing for the province. Part of the reason he stuck with the army for two extra and unnecessary years was because he didn't know what to study and he also wanted to save enough to pay for his business course.
Though he started off as a batsman because, incredibly enough, he felt he didn't have enough strength to be a bowler, he emerged the leading wicket taker in the group league of the World Cup. Of course, it was his lower order hitting that marked his domination in the World Cup-281 runs in eight innings (out just once) with 10 sixes and 26 fours. Also 17 wickets and three man-of-the-match awards in the first four South Africa matches. Last year, during South Africa's tour to England, the latter made a comeback into the series after Klusener left for home with a broken foot. Allan Donald in his autobiography White Lightning remarks that the South Africans became tense after that and if Klusener had stuck on he would have helped with his unmalicious wit and fearlessness. The 'letting-down' of his team worried Klusener too. Says he, "I was determined to get it right in the World Cup because of last year around. I felt I owed them one."
Called 'Slogger' by his teammates (he says he got the nickname because they are jealous of his hitting!) Klusener isn't worried about looking pretty while he's playing his shots. Says he, "I swing hard and as long as it stays hit it doesn't matter to me how ugly I looked." His cricketing philosophy is more out of a Zen handbook. "It's just a matter of being as calm as you can be. I always think that the first team to panic is the one that loses the game. If you can be there till the end without panicking then you have made it. If you are not in a good position the best way is to hang in there and let the other team make a mistake. After all, I tell myself, it's just a game. That I am not going to be shot-not at home anyway. Normally when you play like that the only criticism you have is that it looked you weren't trying. But that's cricket."
Comments Jacques Kallis, Klusener's teammate, "Zulu is a special kind of player. He has an unwavering belief in his own ability. Not only that. He's fiercely determined and never gives up. He is the kind of player you would like to take to war with you."
Klusener's own description of himself is one of a 'boring guy'. Up close, he looks more like a rugby player. On tours he likes to read 'real life stuff'-the National Geographic and Reader's Digest kind of literature. At home he's not into reading at all. He is also reticent. Not shy though. He also loves golf and though drives close to 300 yards it's rarely straight.
Slogger's own magical moment this year has been South Africa's super six match against Pakistan. Says he, "We were dead and buried. But Jacques and Shaun played well to get us up from where we could have a shot." Klusener scored 46 not out and his partnership with Mark Boucher, where they scored 17 runs off one Shoaib Akhtar over, saw the team through. Of course, later in the hotel he got a call from President Nelson Mandela. "Well done," said Mandela. He was watching.
Unfortunately, part of Slogger's lore will have to be the final over loss against Australia in the semi-final. Comments Klusener, "I have always said that Donald should have been watching but not from the other end. On the TV perhaps. But as I said, no one died, did they?"
That's as good a philosophy as any.