Neil McKenzie almost ended up becoming that frustrating species of cricketer – the artist formerly referred to as the future captain of South Africa. Most cricketers harbour captaincy ambitions, and just before this Test Anil Kumble, in a moving and suitably serious speech, showed just how much it meant to him. But with McKenzie, who first played for South Africa as a 24-year-old, in 2000, the talk surrounding the captaincy overshadowed his batting.
To an extent this was to be expected, for he was captain of the South African Schools’ team, the under-19s, and thought of very highly at Gauteng where he was under the wing of Ken Rutherford, the former New Zealand captain. But McKenzie’s batting numbers did not make for great reading. When he was cut from the selectors’ plans in 2004, McKenzie averaged a little over 32 and had just two centuries from 65 innings.
While a four-year exile from international cricket would have driven most cricketers to distraction, McKenzie – already considered batty by many for his elaborate superstitions that included taping his bat to the ceiling the night before an innings and ensuring all toilet seats in the dressing room were up before he went out to bat – sorted himself out. He toned down on the exaggerated mannerisms and began piling on the runs in domestic cricket.
By 2008, when he scored at over 50, McKenzie had become regarded the best captain in the country, and with three tough series coming up, against India, Australia and England, circumstances for a recall became ripe.
Since his comeback, McKenzie has made up, scoring 226 in a world-record stand against the hapless Bangladeshis. But a century against India would have meant more.
“Test cricketers are really greedy guys. At the start of the day I would happily have taken 90,” said McKenzie at the end of the day’s play. “But it’s always never enough. I was happy to get runs but I’m very disappointed at having missed out on a Test hundred.”
Only recently, before he made his comeback, fast turning into a fairytale, McKenzie lamented the fact that South Africa had invested so much in him as a youngster, but by dropping him when he would have been peaking, had missed out on reaping the dividends. He empathised with Boeta Dippenaar and Jacques Rudolph, who suffered similar fates.
“Ask any of us when we would have preferred to be selected, at 22 or 32, and the answer will be the same,” he said in an interview. “Obviously you grow up and mature and you start understanding your game far better than you can when you’re in your early 20s.”