van Wyk benefits from change in technique
It was only 18 months ago that Morne van Wyk felt the need to fundamentally alter his batting technique. After eight seasons with a first-class average over 40, he was in a rut, having had it dip to under 30 for a season and under 20 for the next three. His limited-overs form was better, not having reached the same lows, but he thought it was teetering on the edge of a downward spiral because of a self-confessed “ugly” style.
“I was watching players like Boeta Dippenaar bat, so pretty and so graceful and so elegant. When I tried to bat like that, it was still ugly and it was also ineffective,” he said. Something had to change and van Wyk wasn’t sure what until he came with the Eagles franchise to India for the Champions League T20 in October 2009.
Twenty-over cricket is seldom the source for an improvement in technique but in van Wyk’s case it was. “We had long breaks between games, so I would sit in my hotel room and watch Adam Gilchrist bat, especially to see how he hit the ball in the air,” van Wyk said. “I was not hitting it in the air much; I was mostly keeping it on the carpet.” He noticed that Gilchrist kept his hands quite high up on the handle of the bat, which allowed for a greater range of movement and more use of the wrists.
On returning home to Bloemfontein, van Wyk decided to try for himself. He explained it to his batting coach, Adri Swanepoel, who spent a week throwing underarm to him in the nets. That Friday he would test the new technique in a match situation, a forty-over game against the Lions. The result: 168 not out off 125 balls.
“My balance was better and instead of just hitting the ball over mid-wicket, I could also hit it over the covers and mid-off. It opened up the whole field for me,” he said. “We carried on with underarm drills for the next few months, my strike rate was up and I’ve had so many different shots since then. He says his batting is still not “poetry in motion” but at least it’s now effective.
World Cup watchers have not been able to see much of van Wyk’s technique, which also includes an unusually high backlift. He batted just once, in South Africa’s six-run loss to England. When he arrived at the crease, it wasn’t a stage for performance art but a hole that required grit to get out of. When the team lost three wickets with the score on 124, in search of 172 to win, van Wyk was the most senior batsman at the crease. “I felt pretty confident that I would take it through to the end,” he said.
Although he was unable to do that, he showed that the kind of composure that, on a different day, might have yielded a different result. What was most important is that van Wyk experienced, first hand, the kind of pressure that soared higher than the temperature in Chennai and didn’t panic, as some of his counterparts have in the past. “I was relishing it out there,” he admitted.
van Wyk appreciated the difficulty of the situation and instead of blaming the surface for crumbling, spinning and offering reverse swing, he embraced it, even saying it prepared him for more like it in future. “I don’t think all the pitches will be like that but as the squares deteriorate, we might get that again and now we will know how to play on it.”
His self-assurance cannot be mistaken for arrogance and he has managed to strike exactly the right chord of confidence without sounding self-important or gloating. It’s the depth of his belief in his own ability, combined with the humility to always play it down, that makes him so vital to this South African team. It makes him the kind of person who can be told at lunch that he will have to be the wicket-keeper in the second half of the match, as it happened between South Africa and the Netherlands in Mohali. With no fuss and bother, he put on the gloves and got on with the job, while AB de Villiers was allowed to rest his stiff back. “I didn’t expect to keep so soon in the tournament but with AB being the in-form guy, the management is doing everything possible to make sure that he keeps scoring runs.”
van Wyk did not come into this tournament as one of the automatic picks for the starting XI and even said that he would be happy to just carry the drinks if he had to. Now, he’s had a taste of what playing in a World Cup feels like and “once you experience it, you want to hang onto it.” It’s one of the reasons that he wants to continually make adjustments to the way he does things, so that he is at forefront of the selectors’ minds. “I would have taken out an extra bond on my house to be here. I’ve got a passion for the game.”