With the Proteas batsmen requiring some much needed lessons against wrist spin bowling, a two-match old Klaasen put on a show at the Wanderers with a nerveless innings.
South Africa's Pink Day hero, Heinrich Klaasen, had said a while back when he first earned a call-up to the national squad for South Africa's Test tour of New Zealand last year.
The Proteas wicketkeeper-batsman’s carefree approach at the crease seemed to have worked in his favour when he donned the Superman avatar on Saturday after AB de Villiers silenced the crowd by smoking Hardik Pandya straight down deep square leg’s throat.
Even as AB de Villiers went bonkers at the Bullring, there was this underlying feeling that one of David Miller or Chris Morris had to back him to avert a fourth successive loss.
When de Villiers was dismissed, South African hearts sank. A victory from there appeared impossible.
Few counted on Heinrich Klaasen, the man sandwiched between the two reputed big-hitters in batting line-up. There was a reason Klaasen wasn't on the radar in most people's fantasy league team. He had looked all at sea against the spin twins at the Newlands batting at No 4 and like most of his colleagues, fiddled around for a while before he was completely squared up by Yuzvendra Chahal.
Johannesburg was different, though. Klaasen came out to bat in completely different circumstances at his favoured batting position in a rain-shortened encounter. However, he had to deal with the wily wrist spinners, who had found the spring in their steps after the de Villiers dismissal.
Klaasen had done the finishing act countless times in domestic cricket. His pyrotechnics at the crease and clean golf swing with the bat were familiar to the South African crowd but India barely knew him so much so that Virat Kohli referred to him as merely "their wicket-keeper" in the post-match presentation ceremony.
The Titans keeper watched from the other end as David Miller survived a dropped catch, walked back in after being bowled off a no-ball and then slashed Hardik Pandya for three successive boundaries. Klaasen's first seven balls yielded just three runs but he seemed least perturbed as his Dhoni-like persona came to the fore.
“Heinrich stays very calm in the situation. He stays in the moment. There’s very much a ‘poor man’s MS Dhoni’ about him. There are really no sideshows to his game and really takes the game to the opposition. He doesn’t wait for the game to come to him and that is what I like most about him. He is as tough as they come,” South Africa's National Academy coach, Shukri Conrad, had once said.
Like Dhoni, the mental side of the game is something Klaasen works on rigorously. He stays calm under strife, keeps the opposition on their toes and transfers the pressure just at the right moment.
“I bat at 5,6 or 7 I'm was always under pressure, but that’s when I played my best. It’s always how I’ve preferred to play,” he says of his batting.
The pressure of chasing down a gettable target, the pressure of getting back in the series, the pressure of keeping their pink day record intact; all of this seemed to have spurred Klaasen at the Bullring.
When Kuldeep Yadav tried to square him up, he took a leaf from the AB de Villiers manual, moved past the off-stump and scooped him for a triple.
He soon started moving about in his crease with confidence. At one point, he switched way outside off-stump and behind the line of the stumps to smash Chahal for four on the leg, forcing him to think differently. A no-ball stemmed from the pressure and the free hit was bludgeoned over long-on for maximum. A lofted punch off Kuldeep Yadav soon after Miller’s dismissal highlighted that Klaasen wasn't all about restlessness at the crease and unorthodox shots.
By the time he handed over finishing duties to Andile Phehlukwayo, Klaasen had sealed his Man of the Match award with a knock reminiscent of MS Dhoni in his prime. It had everything from clean strikes and brisk running to smart field manipulation.
The noticeable feature of his match-turning knock was the manner in which he dealt with the seemingly indomitable wrist spinners. Except Faf du Plessis to an extent, none of the South African batsmen had any clue against the spinners in the first three matches. They tried to read them off the pitch, poked, nudged and looked to survive when the aim should ideally have been to transfer the pressure back onto them.
Klaasen, with his minimal experience in international cricket, grasped in one game that the sole secret for success was to not let the duo settle down into a rhythm. Even as he was careful to not go after every ball, he remained positive, used the depth of the crease and brought out some unorthodox shots to force the bowlers to do something different.
It was the kind of attitude none of South Africa's senior pros had even thought of adopting in the first three games. The moment Kuldeep Yadav was reverse hit over point, he switched to bowling fuller and slower and Miller reaped the benefits by smashing him over cow corner. Chahal, on the other hand, was taken on from outside the off-stump and as a result bowled at the stumps more to Klaasen, only to be plundered for more runs.
Even when the big hits weren't on, the South African keeper ensured that the strike was constantly rotated, something which put the spinners off particularly since they had the luxury of bowling at one batsmen continuously in the previous games.
His 27-ball 43 was studded with five eye-catching boundaries and a spectacular six but what really stood out was his exceptional mental game at the crease to put the spinners off. Chahal went for 22 off the 14 balls he bowled to Klaasen, while Kuldeep was taken for 15 from 7. The two hadn't gone at more than four an over in any of the first three games but here their plans came a cropper against the skill and attitude of Heinrich Klaasen.
With the Proteas batsmen requiring some much needed lessons against wrist spin bowling, a two-match old Klaasen put on a show at the Wanderers with a nerveless innings that could seal his place in the World Cup squad where the South Africans, more often than not, panic at the wrong moment.
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