SINCE India have surrendered their No 1 Test spot in the ICC rankings and been in virtual free fall since Gary Kirsten’s return to South Africa, there has been much consternation about the Proteas coach’s approach to training while he was at the helm of the world champions.
The general view is that Kirsten gave the Indian players, especially the senior ones, a free rein in determining their practice schedule.
While there is an element of truth in this theory, Kirsten’s personal work ethic can never be questioned.
The former Proteas opening batsman was a firm favourite of the great Sachin Tendulkar. Not because he gave the ‘Little Master’ regular time off to spend with his young family, but instead that Kirsten literally threw “thousands” of balls at him during training.
During his playing career, Kirsten adopted a similar approach. He never had the skill levels of Tendulkar, but still managed to carve out a hugely successful international career through sheer determination to succeed and, of course, hitting many, many balls in the nets.
It is therefore not surprising that Kirsten has offered Cape Cobras star Justin Ontong an opportunity to resurrect his own international career on this tour of New Zealand.
Kirsten and Ontong have a relationship that stretches back for over a decade. The pair were Proteas teammates in Sydney 2002 when Ontong, only 21 at the time, was at the centre of a selection controversy with Jacques Rudolph. Kirsten had seen how much it affected both players, but had also noticed the Paarl rookie’s passion for training.
There are few more diligent professionals than Ontong, now 32, on the domestic circuit in South Africa. And not many hit as many balls in the nets. Kirsten will surely then have to warm up that throwing arm again in New Zealand, where Ontong is a part of both the Twenty20 and one-day squads that departed South Africa on Friday evening.
“Yeah, you could say I’m like Gazza (Kirsten). I do enjoy hitting lots of balls in the nets. I often stay after training to hit a few more on my own once the guys have all left. So yeah, I will hope I get in some good throw downs while I am in New Zealand,” Ontong said.
“But, it’s not just about hitting as many as I can anymore. In the past it might have been. My personal life has changed since I was a young player. I am now married and have a child, so my time is not really my own anymore. I now go to training with a specific goal in mind, instead of just hitting balls as I did in the past. I utilise my training time better, and once I feel that I have achieved that, I am satisfied regardless if I’ve hit 100 or a 1 000 balls.”
This line of attack seems to have had the desired effect for Ontong. Over the past two seasons, he has reached a level of consistency in his game that was severely lacking previously. The “flashy fifties” syndrome has been replaced with regular three-figure totals, especially in first-class cricket, where he has been the heart and soul of the Cobras batting unit at No 4.
But it is not the Test arena where Ontong’s services are required just yet. He is needed in the green pyjamas, where his ability to “finish” games has been noticed by the national selection panel. Ontong was superb during the Cobras’ successful 1-Day Cup campaign, often walking to the crease when his team required a calm approach in testing circumstances. Rarely did Ontong disappoint, utilising a skill set that was based on good placement of shots that allowed for rapid running between the wickets.
“I have had a chat with Gary about my role in the team, and it will be a similar one to what I have at the Cobras. He has clearly outlined my role, yet that doesn’t mean I am automatically going to be in the starting line-up, but as a player it is great to know what is expected of you. Role definition is important. In the past, I was unsure of how I would fit into the game plan, but I feel comfortable now and hopefully I can use my chances should I get any,” he said.
There is almost a sense of relief in Ontong’s voice. It’s not surprising too, considering he has often been a yo-yo for the Proteas, with his string pulled on only under duress ever so often. It’s not just been the Sydney debacle that tainted Ontong’s international career, but also when he was selected as the specialist spinner for a Test tour to India in 2004.
Ontong is, of course, a tidy slow bowler in limited-overs cricket, and will have to perform that duty adequately on this tour when required. However, to expect a part-timer to bowl spin on the sub-continent to the likes of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and company was optimistic at least.
“Honestly, I don’t want to look back. I have experienced many scenarios, and hopefully I have learnt from them, and it has strengthened my character. I only want to concentrate on what lies ahead, and that is another opportunity to play for my country,” he said.
2011/12: 658 runs @ 59.81; Highest score: 146
2010/11: 641 runs @ 53.41; HS: 147
2011/12: 364 runs @ 72.80; HS: 86 – Sunday Independent