Classy Klaasen digs deep to make Wankhede his Colosseum

Heinrich Klaasen was so spent by the time he faced his 61st delivery, the one he pulled wide of fine leg to bring up his fourth ODI hundred, that almost immediately after he raised his bat in celebration and screamed, his knees gave way and he ended up in a squat. His face contorted between unbridled exhilaration expressed directly at Mark Wood, to ultimate exhaustion and eventually to the realisation of the unquestionable enormity of the moment: this was not just his first century at a World Cup, it was a century against the defending champions in a match South Africa earmarked as must-win after their chastening defeat to Netherlands earlier in the week.

As the emotions sunk in, Klaasen composed himself, and acknowledged his team-mates and the crowd, which included his wife and daughter, and the heavens. Then, he went straight to Wood to apologise, several times. Wood settled on a fist-bump or three and Klaasen could have his moment back but only until the next wave of weariness set in. Then it was back onto his haunches to try to conserve the energy to bat to the end, and summon the reserves to keep finding the boundary. It’s a small ground but today it felt like a cauldron and Klaasen had to both absorb and transfer the heat.

We can’t continue to lavish praise on Klaasen without acknowledging the platform he had thanks to Reeza Hendricks – parachuted into the side after a last-minute illness to Temba Bavuma – and Rassie van der Dussen, whose dependability is often overlooked. Their 121-run stand came at more than six runs an over and Quinton de Kock’s early dismissal was not allowed to derail South Africa. They demonstrated the blueprint South Africa want to play to, which allows them to get away with six specialist batters and what could look like a long tail. But when it works, it’s a thing of beauty.

And that’s how we can describe some of the shots we saw from Klaasen. His first boundary came when he stepped into a stunning cover drive off a delivery that was only a little too full from Gus Atkinson. His second was a reverse-sweep, well placed to evade the fielder at point and his fourth was the pull, pin-point and powerful. It was not until he had scored 58 that his first six came, when he smashed Adil Rashid over midwicket and 10 rows back into the stands, which showcased the big-hitting he has become known for. But this innings was about so much more.

Klaasen ran 29 singles and four twos off his own bat and accompanied Marco Jansen for his 19 singles and four twos. The more he ran, the harder it became. Eventually, he wasn’t sure he could continue until his batting partner, who is almost 10 years his junior, ordered him to.

“Marco told me I couldn’t leave the field unless I scored a hundred,” Klaasen said. “I told him that I couldn’t run and he said: ‘It’s fine, just give me 100% every ball you face.’ It’s a privilege to play for our country and especially in a moment like this, after a bad loss against Netherlands, you’ve got to dig deep for your country as well. I’ve worked my whole life for it, so it’s a great moment.”

Two days ago, Klaasen spoke to ESPNcricinfo about how he had to overcome falling out of love with the game more than once; how current white-ball coach Rob Walter begged him to stay in the domestic system when he almost walked away early in his career and how former Test captain Dean Elgar helped him get out of a dark space in the months after the effects of Covid-19 had not yet left him. It was just over two years ago that Klaasen could not cycle for more than five minutes without his heart rate spiking to over 200 beats per minute and he feared any resultant damage would leave him out of the game for months.

He has since made a full recovery but the difficulties of being out in the heat and humidity today may have caused some flashbacks to a more difficult time. “It’s like just breathing in hot air and every time you try to run it’s just sapping more and more energy and at the end of the day your body just doesn’t want to work with you anymore,” Klaasen said. “So, it’s like running in a sauna for the whole innings.”

That feeling of the walls closing in on you, even in open air, was only partly created by the weather. The rest was thanks to the place. The Wankhede, hosting its first match of the tournament, was near-full, with an attendance of 24,493, and had the most engaged crowd for a non-India game at the tournament so far. Support for the teams was fairly evenly split and, to the casual eye and ear, there were as many England flags as South African ones and the cheering was constant. At a place where the diameter is small and the stands high, the noise became concentrated and the atmosphere, feverish. As South Africa’s total built, the voices of support began to reach a crescendo, like a kettle about to reach boiling point. But instead of getting there and switching off, they stayed close to maximum intensity and just kept going.

A drenched Klaasen soaked it all until he lost his leg stump off the first ball of the final over of the innings. By then, he had given everything he had and then some. He dragged himself off the field, to a standing ovation from an appreciative audience and, unsurprisingly, did not take the field with his team-mates half an hour later. He sat in the change room, with a towel wrapped around him like a toga, looking like a Roman emperor. It was a fitting outfit after the Wankhede had become his Colosseum and the bowlers only needed to complete the sentence he started: “South Africans are very good under pressure,” as he put it.

On one hand, there can be no arguing with that after this performance and on the back of three of their four results so far, all comprehensive wins, batting first. Between them, South Africa have five centuries at this World Cup – more than double that of any other team, scored by four different players. While there will be questions about Temba Bavuma’s form and concerns that David Miller has not yet come off, there is no better-performing top six at the tournament.

On the other, there remains the question over whether they could do the same in a chase and the only evidence of this tournament comes from their failure to chase 246 against Netherlands. But no one knows better than Klaasen that there are times when people and teams are brought to their knees, and if and how they recover is what comes to define them. On this Super Saffaday, Klaasen stood tall.

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