1999, World Cup semifinal, South Africa vs Australia
Chasing a target of 213 in 50 overs, South Africa were 205/9 at the end of the 49th over. With 9 runs needed off the last over, Damien Fleming turned on his bowling mark to see Lance Klusener on strike. Fleming ran up and delivered from round the wicket, trying to tuck up the left-hander. The ball missed the blockhole by a whisker, but that was enough for Klusener to muscle it through cover point for a boundary.
Damien Fleming walked back, ran up and delivered the next ball slightly closer to the off stump. Lance Klusener, perched on his back foot, brought down his 3.5lbs willow on it and creamed it through extra cover.
Everyone knows what happened next. Klusener ran, so did Allan Donald, but just a wee bit late.
“I always try to finish games with six balls to spare, because if there is a cock-up, the people coming in get a chance to do something. If you leave it to the last couple of balls then it can go anywhere.” – Lance Klusener
That day, the last couple of balls went horribly wrong, resulting in a shock exit of South Africa from the semifinals of the 1999 World Cup and immortalizing Lance Klusener forever in cricketing history.
Although the sorry figure wearing the number 69 jersey running back to the pavilion, etched itself in our memory, yet whenever we think of Lance Klusener, we think of a swashbuckling soldier who could cut a swath through the enemy ranks with his all-round brilliance.
Klusener belonged to those rare breed of cricketers who could both create and conquer. He could infuse life into a match and change the game either by his uninhibited striking or by his nagging medium pace bowling.
Interestingly, Lance Klusener began his cricket career as a snappy medium pacer who batted at number 11. In 1996, he made it to the South African one day side and later was drafted into the Test squad for the tour of India that year. He was handed his Test cap at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata where he came up with a complete mixed bag debut.
Md. Azharuddin took a special liking to him and carted him around the park en route to a magnificent hundred. Azharuddin was particularly severe on the debutant and smashed him for five consecutive boundaries in one over.
Then the “Zulu” Warrior responded. He ripped apart the Indian batting in the second innings and achieved the career best figures of 8/64 – a performance as maverick as the man himself.
But it wasn’t his sniper stance bowling that made him the most dangerous cricketer during his time. As time went on, his thunderous batting style, that looked like cross between baseball hitter and an aggressive lumberjack, sent chills down the spines of every bowler in the world.
Lance Klusener was not only a hard hitter, he was an image of brutality much like Chris Gayle. Although Chris Gayle portrays a much “cool” demeanor, Klusener was an out and out fighter.
From the way he would walk out to bat carrying that three pound something log, the opposition knew that he was not to be messed with. The crew cut hidden under the helmet, the muscular frame veiled by the green and yellow oversized baggy shirt, the nonchalant biting of the chewing gum and the monstrous backlift added to the menace of the warrior that he was.
The purist didn’t approve of his technique, but he couldn’t care less. The experts tagged him as a “slogger”, but he was happy bludgeoning their concerns with ultimate ease. He would smite 100 balls every day from a bowling machine, and by his own admission, it was the effort in practice which showed on the field.
“You see me hitting the ball out of the ground, but I hit hundreds of those in practice. It may look like a good shot, and it is, but you have practiced it a hundred times before the game…”
A few credited his success to luck, but he had an answer for them too.
“Of course cricket is about luck….Balls go in the air and fall in gaps, but hitting does not just happen. You have to learn to improvise and swipe – and be at peace with what you do.”
He took a “Huckleberry Finn” approach to life and so for Klusener, cricket was only a game and not life itself. Maybe that’s why he would often read a book or magazine before he went into bat and rescued his team time and again from improbable positions.
52 off 45 balls turned the game against Sri Lanka at Northampton; 48 off 40 balls conquered England at The Oval; 46 off 41 balls pulled South Africa out of the fire against Pakistan at Trent Bridge; a six off the last ball yorker at Napier off Dion Nash – slinging that three pounder weapon, did the impossible.
He would walk out, do all that, come back, and behave as if nothing much had happened.
That’s Lance Klusener for you – raw, blunt, honest yet devastatingly entertaining. He neither cared about anybody’s approval, nor wanted to emulate someone who he was not.
He grew up in the rawness of the farmlands and was never groomed for stardom, neither was he desperate to attain it. He never bothered much with appearances or speeches and endorsements. He did his bit on the field and then returned to his lands where he merrily fished or hunted.
That’s the reason why cricket never got to his head and the pressure that tagged along with success could never bog him down to a trembling wreck, because for him, pressure didn’t exist. Growing up among the Zulu kids, Klusener firmly believed in their philosophies and for him “a goat was better than a dollar”, because a goat can be cooked or milked.
His calm approach helped him to scale great heights in cricket, especially in the ODI format, where he was nothing less than a beast. After his ankle injury, his bowling drifted away to a military medium category but that mattered precious little in front of the carnage he went on to create.
In about 170 ODIs, “Zulu” averaged above 40 with a strike rate almost in the 90s and in the 1999 World Cup, he not only averaged a scary 134, but also chipped in with 14 wickets. However, more than the runs he scored, the utter disdain that he showed towards the bowlers in the death overs in that World Cup was a lesson in butchery and brutality on a cricket field.
Klusener deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the top all-rounders in the world. He had the skills and the ammunition, but his typical “gun-slinger” attitude didn’t let him attain the zenith of his abilities.
“We decided Lance as a team man can only cause hassles, and we want to move forward in SA cricket…To be honest Lance, as fantastic as he is…can sometimes ruin a team. His ability as a cricketer is very good, but his ability as a team man is not very good and he kind of can infect a team and bring down the youth…” – The 22-year-old Graeme Smith explained Klusener’s exclusion after he took over.
Klusener’s career coughed and limped from then on, but his legend had been created by then. The rise of Jacques Kallis, Albie Morkel and Justin Kemp saw the end of Lance Klusener, and he found himself out in the wilderness, out of favour in South African cricket.
He went around the world turning out for various counties and state teams, but he never made a serious case for a comeback. Maybe he was not interested in making one anymore, because for him,
“Cricket is not the be-all and end-all. When I’m on the field I’m trying my hardest, trying to win, but in the end it’s only a game.”
However, even now, when the South African lower order looks a tad shaky and there’s no one to break a long partnership during a tiring afternoon, “Zulu” is missed. But the cricket world misses him the most when the annoying trumpets announce the annual carnival’s arrival every April in India.
T20 and the IPL came too late for him. Klusener would have added a different dimension to the shortest format of the game because even with the Pollards, Gayles and Dhonis around, there is nothing more destructive than to see Lance Klusener launching an attack to knock the cover off the cricket ball.