When Heinrich Klaasen was in Grade 1 at school, and immersing himself into cricket, his teacher warned him that cricket would not get him through school. He has proven the teacher wrong. Proving people wrong has been his thing about him. Even on Sunday night, after he hit a blistering 81 that won the game for South Africa in Cuttack, his team-mate David Miller would admit that Klaasen’s promotion in the order was “more to just hold me back but Klaasy proved us wrong … Klaasy’s knock was phenomenal and one of the best I have seen. It was a bit of a tricky pitch. “
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There was also a touch of deja vu about the knock. Four years earlier, in front of a packed crowd at Supersport Park in Centurion, he had taken down Yuzvendra Chahal, walloping five sixes and looting 41 runs from 12 Chahal deliveries. At least a couple of times, just as he did in Cuttack, he would back away outside leg and sand-blast the ball. On Sunday, he crash-landed Chahal for three sixes. In Centurion, there was a gobsmacking reverse-hit six over point against Chahal during a knock he still re-visits often during bad patches.
“Just to remind myself what I can do. That day, it was a blur on the field; I only realized what I had done the next day, ”Klaasen opens up in the podcast ‘Pavilion conversations with CS Chiwanza’.
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Just after that Centurion knock, he had talked about Chahal. “I fancy him (Chahal) quite a lot. Especially when I was in amateur cricket, there were a couple of quality leg-spinners in that time when I started my career. I faced (leg-spinner) Shaun von Berg at the Titans (Klaasen’s domestic team) a lot as well. We always joke that I need to finish the other leg-spinners’ career so he can go up! “
‘As tough as they come’
Shukri Conrad, the current coach of South Africa U-19, had predicted in 2015, when he was the National Academy coach, that Klaasen would one day play for the country. Interestingly, Conrad had also likened Klaasen to Dhoni for his calm temperament di lui.
“There’s very much a ‘poor man’s MS Dhoni’ about him. Heinrich stays very calm in the situation. He stays in the moment. There are really no sideshows to his game di lui and he really takes the game to the opposition. He doesn’t wait for the game to come to him and that is what I like most about him. He is as tough as they come, ”Conrad had said.
Klaasen’s career was bobbing around when he exploded in the Africa Cup, a T20 competition, in 2015 and sparkled on an Emerging team tour of Sri Lanka, where he worked with Conrad. The pair worked a lot on the sweeps, traditional and reverse, and Klaasen became a natural with the shot. That shot off Chahal in 2018 is as good a reverse-hit as one can hope to see. Conrad also made him adopt an aggressive intent against spin on that tour. “I learned a lot in Sri Lanka with our coach, Shukri Conrad. He helped me a lot with my mindset and how to stay positive and never go into my shell, ‘Klaasen had said.
It’s no surprise then that the options he takes to spinners are almost un-South African in nature. He can back away and slam over extra cover without a hint of panic. He can walk across and swing over cow corner. He can sweep in all sorts of ways. He can charge down and ping the straight boundary. There is a sense of serenity about his game against spin. Not that he is meek against pace. He has smashed the likes of Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins during his ODI hundred in 2020.
But nothing has come easy for Klaasen. Even after high school, he was floating around for three years with club cricket as no call came from any franchise in South African domestic cricket. He was thinking about trying his luck with Cobras when he was told that if he stuck on in his hometown Pretoria, the local team Titans might come calling. And he did, and so did they.
From keeping to bowling spin and back
The wicketkeeping part too wasn’t straightforward. At school he was a bowler, and it was in club cricket for Tuks Cricket, under the tutelage of Pierre de Bruyn, that the ‘keeping bug’ hit him. “I really fell in love with keeping as it was the only thing that kept me in the team!” The openers were in great form and he only got a chance to bat, he says, a couple of times that first season with the club. And so he went to work with de Bruyn, who is a highly-rated coach.
But later an injury to the fingers made him fall out of it. He began dabbling with bowling. Albie Morkel – who was Titans’ captain around then and whose captaincy Klaasen rates highly (“unbelievable in strategy and encouraging players”) – told him one day that he should try spin. I know, Klaasen slogged in the nets. “But Albie left the team, and that was the end of my spinning career!” It was around this time that the Africa Cup and the Sri Lanka tour lifted his profile di lui in the country. Things began to turn for good.
Over the years, he has been a successful captain in domestic cricket, led South Africa A, and was even South Africa’s T20I captain as recently as on last year’s tour of Pakistan.
For a man who is self-admittedly an “over-thinker and likes to over-analyze”, as he says in the podcast, captaincy suited him to the T. “It keeps my mind going in different directions rather than just thinking on my game and over-analyzing. I do enjoy that challenge and it keeps me on my feet. “
Another deja vu between the two games against India, spread across four years, is him fretting over Quinton de Kock’s wrist and fingers. “I knew his finger di lui was a bit sore [in 2018], and he got hit in the first ODI. I was waiting for the chance to come. Quinny is a tough man, sometimes he plays through injuries, he doesn’t want to give anyone a chance, that’s why he is brilliant. When it came, I was very happy .. it was something that you are working your whole life as a cricketer. ” Same situation again this Sunday. De Kock’s wrist was too sore to play and Klaasen made Chahal’s wrist turn sore.
The knock has come at the most opportune time for him as from the highs of leading the country, he was dropped last year and left out of the central-contracts list.
“In my bad patches in life, cricket was my savior. It provides for the family, ”he says in that podcast. “I also know it’s a short career. I guess till 38. I have eight years left. That’s why I work hard in training and preparation. Especially when people from the media and outside start abusing me based on what they watch on TV on match day. I have to make the most of the talent I have gotten from above. That’s the biggest reason for me to get out of bed. “