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Remembering JP Duminy as he should have been

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JP_Duminy_South_Africa_CricketEvery sports fan, commentator or writer develops a paternalistic fondness for players whose talent they recognised before everyone jumped on the bandwagon. It’s like cottoning on the latest fashion trend before it goes mainstream, or knowing every lyric of a band before they shoot to stardom.

We defend the player during periods of poor form and sing their name the loudest during purple patches. They’re not just any player, they're our player.

When I was about twelve years old, I had a solid technique and played with a straight bat which meant I was often selected as the opening batsman for regional and academy sides. During that time I was fortunate enough to have incredibly supportive parents who ensured that at least one of them watched me bat in every match I played in. There was one exception.

It was a Saturday like any other during the summer. I had pulled and driven my way to the thirties against the new ball until another damned off-spinner tossed one up and had me caught at midwicket after I once again failed to get my wrists over a lazy flick. Trudging towards the pavilion, I scanned the bleachers for a sign of my father (my mother missed this particular game) who would no doubt be offering me a reassuring smile and small clap to cheer me up. There was no sign of him.

I angrily unpadded and was already well into my sulk when my old man came bounding back and proclaimed that he had just seen a future Protea in action.

Before I could voice my discontent with his apparent lack of concern for his son’s game he whisked me over to the adjacent field to see for myself. It was nothing short of spellbinding.

 

Already passed his half century, a 16-year-old Jean-Paul Duminy was in full flow. Representing the Western Cape in an age group provincial match, the scrawny lefty was dazzling. His cover drive was liquid, his wrists had the dexterity and power of a bull whip and he picked up length as if he were an oracle.

 

By the time my coach summoned me back he was still batting and I didn’t blame my father for staying behind. We both knew we were watching something special.

When, almost a decade later, it was announced that Duminy was selected to replace the injured Ashwell Prince in South Africa’s middle order for the first Test in Australia in 2008, my father and I wore the same all-knowing expression. The day had finally come and our guy would be up to the challenge.

He played a cameo role in that match in Perth by scoring 50 not-out to help the Proteas chase down 414 in what remains the second highest run chase in Test history.

In the next match, the Boxing Day Test at the gargantuan Melbourne Cricket Ground, Duminy announced himself to the world.

With the side 8 wickets down and still 143 runs behind Australia’s first innings total, Duminy (166) and Dale Steyn (76) each registered their highest Test scores in a ninth wicket stand worth 180.

 

All the shots that he had first shown me were now on display on the grandest stage possible. He made Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson look like club level seamers. He manipulated Ricky Pointing’s field at will. It wasn’t just red-eyed South Africans purring over his stroke play. Even the most partisan Aussie commentators and spectators alike revelled in his unbridled confidence and ability.

 

The pendulum had swung considerably in South Africa’s favour as Steyn finished the match with 10 wickets and South Africa’s top three secured a comprehensive 9 wicket victory. It was the first time Australia had lost a series to a visiting team since they were undone by the West Indies in 1993 but all the headlines were reserved for the game’s next superstar.

Ian Chappell called Duminy a “great in the making” and in a colourful piece declared that he would go on to hold the reins as the undisputed king of the batting world. Down in South Africa, my father and I didn’t need convincing. We knew, as we’d always known, that this kid was cut from a different cloth.

And yet the runs never flowed as we expected. It would be four more years before Duminy registered his second hundred and another two before he notched up his third. In 74 innings Duminy has only passed three figures on six occasions and has never bettered that wonder knock in Melbourne in only his second match.

On Saturday Duminy announced his retirement from all red ball cricket after 46 Tests with the Proteas and 108 first class games with the Cape Cobras over 16 unfulfilled years.

 

His career has been frustrating to watch. An imperious drive through the covers is all too often supplemented by a mistimed hoick to midwicket. He has been out to a ball that has either hit his stumps or would have gone on to hit his stumps in 40% of his innings and his LBW dismissal rate of 29.73% is the highest of all batsmen to have played as many games as him, highlighting just how susceptible he is to a straight delivery.

 

How could such a prodigious talent be so susceptible to a straight delivery? How could such grace and poise be contained in the same body as one that so routinely produced glaringly poor errors in judgement? JP Duminy will be remembered for his failure to live up to his potential but no one should forget what a joy it was to watch him when in full flow.

Few South African batsmen have ever looked as elegant. His drive through the off side deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Ponting’s pull or Brian Lara’s lash square of the wicket.

If one were to make an aesthetic South African XI, Duminy’s name might be jotted down ahead of AB de Villiers, Herschelle Gibbs, Hashim Amla and Daryll Cullinan. He certainly makes the side ahead of Graeme Smith, Gary Kirsten or Dean Elgar, three players with more runs and better reputations.

But if Smith is a combine harvester, a vehicle that churns out runs with all the grace of an agricultural machine, Duminy is that slick sports car that inevitably breaks down. Sure it looks good, but one trip too many and you’re sure to see black smoke rising from the hood.

In a generation, very few will speak Duminy’s name. An average of 32.85 with 6 hundreds and 8 fifties is not worthy of song and the memory of Melbourne will soon fade into the fog of history to be replaced by more illuminating heroes and titanic deeds.

But for my father and me, Duminy will forever remain our player; the star whose birth we saw before the atoms had even formed. In our minds, ‘Duminy: the potential world beater’ we saw all those years ago will soon eclipse the reality that came to pass. For us, in some way, that will be enough.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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