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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Petersen skill & grit prompts hope he could be another SA trailblazer

For much of this torturous series for batsmen, on both sides, Petersen has been South Africa’s best batsman.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: January 13, 2022 1:39:29 pm
Keegan Petersen (Twitter/Cricket South Africa)

After Temba Bavuma notched his maiden Test hundred in Cape Town five years ago and became the first, and till now the only, black South African to score one, he told the press: “I believe I have planted a seed in younger guys. If they see me – someone from the same roots – coming up and doing it at international level, they will have the belief that they can too.”

Keegan Petersen, the son of a schoolteacher, a decent rugby and cricket player himself, might not have heard these exact words. But he has harnessed the essence of Bavuma’s words. “Bavuma is one of my inspirations, and a trailblazer,” he once told Village Cricket website. His first five Test innings have embodied the desire and belief Bavuma had referred to. Petersen is a vastly experienced first-class cricketer — his Test debut came soon after a century of games and he has travelled a fair bit as part of the South Africa A team, besides a few stints in English grade and county circuit — but the level of comfort he has exuded against the world’s most deceptive bowling firm on devious tracks telegraphs the unfurling of a fabulous talent. Perhaps, the future cornerstone of South Africa’s middle order; perhaps a bigger inspiration for black African batsmen than Bavuma, who is 31 and perpetually flattering to deceive.

For much of this torturous series for batsmen, on both sides, Petersen has been South Africa’s best batsman. Unfussy, uncluttered and unflustered, few of his colleagues have dealt with the fire and rage of Jasprit Bumrah and Co, with as much serenity as Petersen. He is seldom beaten for pace, a curse for most first-timers; he is rarely hurried into his strokes. He barely prods or stabs; the pushes are firm and strides definite, one doesn’t see him frozen in half-forward or half-backward steps. He is often in the right position to negotiate the ball.

It stems from a clarity of mind. It manifested fully in his splendorous 72 on Wednesday, replete with his trademark drives through cover and back-foot punches. Petersen has stroked more languid strokes than most batsmen in this series. Batting has been a labour for most, an exercise of patience and doggedness, even for the masterful Virat Kohli and the fluent KL Rahul, the lone centurion of the series yet. But not for Petersen, who has batted as if he were on a different pitch.

South Africa’s Keegan Petersen in action. (Reuters)

Class is evident

No shot of his bore the stamp of pristine class more than a back-foot punch off Bumrah towards the end of the second session. Judging the length early, he sprang back onto the back foot, and rose with the extra bounce of the back-of-length ball and just buffeted it, both feet in the air, through point, flipping the bat-face ever so lightly to thread it through the gap. Though he produced more eye-catching strokes, taking toll on errant full-pitched deliveries from Shardul Thakur and Umesh Yadav, a frame of this four off Bumrah could proudly adorn the wall of the drawing room of his home in Paarl. There is a streak of audacity too, manifesting itself when he reverse-swept Ravichandran Ashwin (successfully) and upper-cut (unsuccessfully) Mohammed Shami. The latter, though, was driven gorgeously through mid-on for a three. The good-length ball nipped back venomously, and for a moment seemed to hustle Petersen, but with the dexterity of a batsman from the subcontinent, he rolled his wrists over it.

Largely, he treated the probing pair of Shami and Bumrah with due diligence. He defended them stoutly; always behind the line, always close to the body, his hands never dithering away, his feet making cute, measured strides, his movements minimal. He left them with equal discretion. Once Petersen seemed to have dangerously left a Bumrah ball, but closer replays only enforced his judgment skills. Beneath the silk of his bat, there is a tough mind. He has made tough runs – both of his half-centuries came in crises – but without looking tough. The off-side predilection is clear — 47 of his runs came on that side of the wicket; eight of his nine fours were fetched through the cover region or through the semi-arc between point and third man.

Petersen’s game is not without flaws, though. Like Bavuma, he is prone to lapses in concentration. At least three of his five dismissals were avoidable had his mind not wavered. He was majestically leaving Bumrah on length on Wednesday, but after tea, he hesitantly hung his bat outside off-stump. He was devastated as he dragged himself back to the pavilion. A century was in sight and he had missed it. He could have been just the second black South African to have scored one, and would have invariably helped his team obliterate India’s lead. It’s the second time in the series that he had looked set for a hundred, before getting out. At Wanderers, he perished in pursuit of an expansive drive when on 62, and later rued it. But the way he has been batting in the series, it would not be long before South Africa have their second black centurion. He, as Bavuma said that evening, seems to have that belief.

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