Lance Klusener: ‘I preferred a position where it was almost hopeless’
Towing a heavy bat with an iron grip and a fiberglass protection on two fingers of his glove, Lance Klusener was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon who looked defeat in the eye and pulled off many near-impossible run chases. Part of the glorious South African generation of hulky, athletic cricketers that won everything apart from the 1999 World Cup, Klusener was almost a pinch-hitter who went on to make lower-order batting a specialty and finishing tight matches a routine. Head coach of Afghanistan at this T20 World Cup, Klusener gives an insight to how it’s done.
You pioneered finishing one-dayers in those last three-four overs. How did it happen?
I started my career batting at No 11. I should have been batting at No 10 but Malcolm Marshall refused to bat at No 11 (he was then overseas player at the Kwazulu-Natal side). So the only way I could work my way up was to not be out till the end and maybe win the game. That was the only way I could get an opportunity up the order. It was really hard when it started. Opening the batting was a little bit clogged up in ODI. I just felt I had a better potential at No 11.
You once scored 92 (against Australia) opening the batting. Didn’t you think you would have been a brilliant pinch hitter?
I opened with Gary Kirsten actually and did so for quite a while through the Australia, New Zealand tours. We had a very good middle order so it’s easier to take someone from the bottom and since pinch hitter was quite fashionable those days, that was kind of where I fitted in, from No 9 to having a go at the top. I wasn’t wasting any balls. I had a bit of success and kind of nailed it down for a little while but it wasn’t really something I enjoyed.
So how did you find that lower order position?
I think it just happened that way. In the South African team those days you went in as a pinch hitter at No 8 or 9 and I took every opportunity that I got. Also, Herschelle Gibbs came along and he kind of nailed those sessions down (opening) with Gary.
What was your philosophy of batting where you did?
Firstly, I think at the end of the day the secret of batting is either finishing games—which makes up 50% of it—or when you are batting first, trying to set a target you think is competitive. For me anyway, it was really about preparation and just hitting a lot of balls. In those days, things were a lot simpler because it was either a yorker or a bouncer, maybe the odd slower ball. Things are a lot different now, there are lots of different variations, bowlers have a lot more skill than there were back in those days. But pretty much everyone bowled yorkers in those last four overs. I must be honest it was a little easier those days to what I see now. But for me it was just looking at the scoreboard and seeing how many balls are left, how many runs are needed, it doesn’t really matter what the score is or what’s happened before you. You are just dealing with what’s on the plate at the moment and try to matter every time you bat. Nine times out of 10 it was with the tail.
Present day, what equations do you think you would have been comfortable with?
I think I will have a crack at two runs a ball for about four overs. As soon as it gets to 40 off 20 I would take my chance because it might get difficult after that. Look, you need a little bit of help with whoever you are batting with as well. You also need a little bit of help from the bowler because if he nails those yorkers, you are not going to get close anyway. If the bowler missed his mark, I could take advantage of that. If he got it right, then there is nothing much you can do.
So you miss, I hit?
Absolutely. And I would hit thousands of balls (in training) to get to that. Eventually it just became a habit for me, you know. It was confidence that allowed me to take advantage if the bowler missed his mark. I liked to get into that space.
VVS Laxman once said he didn’t feel motivated enough to bat unless the team was in some kind of danger. Did you feel the same way?
Oh yes, absolutely. I can relate to that. I actually preferred a position where it was almost hopeless. It allowed me to play a little more freely. It brought out the best in me.
Like Michael Bevan or MS Dhoni, you were hardly emotional about the job. Is that something you must acquire to be successful as a finisher?
I think so. From my point of view, it allowed me to think clearer, maybe I should have taken things a little bit seriously if I look back. But my outlook was really that it’s just a game of cricket and the sun will come up tomorrow as long as I try my best. I spent four years in the military as well so I had a good perspective of life. That helped me a lot, it helped me calm myself down. I knew there is a lot more happening out there in the military so a game of cricket doesn’t really scare me.
But how did you switch to Tests where you were not faced with these equations. How did you see your role back then?
Test cricket for me was a little bit more challenging. But I worked out pretty early with the help of Bob Woolmer that batting down the order was really to try and play your natural game. I wasn’t talented enough to be able to play any differently in Test cricket. It was just about being as aggressive. Quite often the bowlers were tired. Or a second new ball that was available that would go to the boundary quicker. That was kind of the game plan we decided and that’s how I played. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it looked a bit ugly but I thought that was probably the best way for me to add value to our team.
Woolmer was the laptop coach. Now almost everything is influenced by data. What part does it play in your coaching process?
Back when I played, I didn’t really want to know too much. All I wanted to know was what the bowler’s style was and what kind of slower ball he had. And that was about it. I didn’t want to complicate things too much. I pretty much use that in my coaching style, certainly in terms of messages to the team. I try to give them the information they want. Some want everything. Some want to know what the opposition had for breakfast. And others are a bit like me, not bothered too much about having too much information that can confuse. I think you need to be careful. You just need to know your players and know what they need. I keep it as simple as possible. I believe if we can do three or four points really well, it’s a whole lot better than having a big complex plan.
Finishing matches—can anyone be trained to do it or it comes naturally to an extent?
You got to want to do it and it has to be a passion of yours. I believe of course you can train for it. But deep down you have to have the stomach for it. If you put yourself in those situations, then certainly you can train yourself accordingly. But I think there is no point in doing it if deep down you don’t believe it can be done or you don’t really want to be there.
We loved the drama of a last over finish in ODIs. But is it more about the 19th over of a T20 game now?
If you can nail that over down, it allows your lesser bowler I guess more runs to play with at the end. You are basically extending the game to the 20th over. I have seen a lot of times the lesser bowler bowling the 19th over and then the best bowler doesn’t get to bowl because there aren’t many runs to defend. That’s why teams are trying their main bowler in the 19th over.
Let’s talk about the variations of bowlers. Is it becoming a more level field between batters and bowlers now?
In my days I just had to deal with a yorker or an odd slower delivery. And when it’s done, it’s done. Slower balls weren’t even fashionable anyway. Those last four bowlers, 80% of the balls they were trying to bowl were yorkers. What I do miss from those days is reverse swing. That was something we had to deal with. That old ball was often hooping towards the end. The other skill in that was to try and convince the umpires all the time that we need to have the ball changed. That is one thing I really miss seeing in one-day cricket—bowlers having that skill of bowling reverse and batters dealing with it. You needed a solid game plan for reverse in ODIs. But yes, bowlers are a lot more skilled now to a degree that if you are a batter and see the field you get a pretty good idea of what they are trying to do. That can kind of give it away a bit. You need a lot more skills these days.
Does being the best finisher in your time help being a better advisor to your bowlers?
It does. I think you just have to be careful with your bowlers. I find sometimes they are trying too much. It’s easy to get away with trying too much. For me, a solid and simple game plan always works. Each bowler is different but I try to steer them away from overthinking things, especially at the death.
Do you feel nowadays batters don’t rely on rotating strike too much and therefore bring more pressure on themselves?
I think it is. Boundary hitting is one thing but if you look at the stats, it’s the teams that are scoring the most twos, the team with the better strike rates that are getting over the line more often. So hitting boundaries is one thing but it’s that strike rotation in the middle that quite often we forget, certainly in T20 cricket. That’s a huge factor.
Some take the game to the last over. Some try to win it before. What was your approach?
I always tried to finish in the second to last over. My thoughts were that if I get out, if there is some confusion, we still got six balls to give us that opportunity. That was the plan a couple of overs out. It didn’t always work out that way. Sometimes you had to just get into the last over to try and put some more pressure on the bowlers. For me, in an ideal world, it would be to finish in the second last over.