Heinrich Klaasen was "100% nervous" before playing a match-winning knock to keep South Africa alive in the series. © BCCI

Heinrich Klaasen was “100% nervous” before playing a match-winning knock to keep South Africa alive in the series. © BCCI

When Heinrich Klaasen walked into the intimidating Bull Ring on Saturday (February 10), the arena was mostly silent, with pockets of extreme jubilation. The silence was from South African supporters who thought their team was sunk with AB de Villiers gone. The noise came from the Indian fans, for the same reason. What could Klaasen do, all of one ODI old in which he had made an undistinguished six runs?

As it turned out, he could do a fair bit of eye-opening. He could hit Yuzvendra Chahal for four to get kick-started. He could reverse-sweep Kuldeep Yadav into the point fence. He could step so far across as to smash a ball that almost didn’t land on the pitch and was spinning further away, into the midwicket fence. He could put Chahal under such pressure that the legspinner delivered a second no-ball after a very costly first – and then had to watch the free hit sail into the Johannesburg sky and land into a Wanderers crowd that had re-found its collective voice. He could hit 43 not out off 27, share in one game-changing partnership of 72 in 6.5 overs, and one knockout stand of 33 in 1.5 overs.

Klaasen would later reveal that he was “100% nervous” while walking out to bat in a cauldron atmosphere, all the top four gone and an equation that read 100 runs to get in 11.1 overs. He did a good job of hiding that. It’s not for nothing that Shukri Conrad, the head coach of South Africa’s National Academy, once said Klaasen could be his country’s MS Dhoni.

On Saturday, he not only went one better than Dhoni’s score, the Indian wicketkeeper having made 42 not out, but did it at a match-turning strike-rate of 159.26, as against Dhoni’s 97.67. Two weeks back, Klaasen, 26, was telling his girlfriend that he didn’t have tickets for the Pink ODI. Today, he had just outdone the man who is the patriarch of the wicketkeeper-batsmen profession, and was earning a Man of the Match in his first-ever Pink ODI while keeping South Africa alive in the series.

“It’s an unbelievable experience that I had today. I always dreamed about it,” said Klaasen later. “Told Aiden (Markram) now that two weeks ago, I told my meisie (girlfriend) I don’t have tickets to come to the Pink Day. The crowd was unbelievable and I’ve never experienced anything like that. Especially, there were some stretches on the field when the crowd were just ballistic. I couldn’t hear any nicks or stuff like that. Unbelievable vibe.”

South Africa had been thoroughly outclassed in the first three ODIs and at 3-0 down were looking listless. The Pink ODI, one of the biggest cricketing occasions in the calendar and one in which South Africa have a spotless record, arrived at the opportune moment, as did the return of AB de Villiers from injury.

“It’s a massive, massive confidence booster for us. We didn’t have the confidence but just to get the first win has just lifted the spirits in the change room,” acknowledged Klaasen. “And the belief in the change room, it’s nice to have AB back again, the environment changed when he is back. He is a huge influence but to get to the first win on a special occasion like the Pink ODI means a lot to us and we’re proud to keep the record clean.

“Talking to (Claude) Henderson, our spinning coach, I just said that I wanted to get the first knock out of the way, get settled with the nerves and all those things. It’s been a long time coming, last season as well, just wanted to get that first knock away in four-day cricket. Just to settle down a bit at this level, that means a world to me. It’s better than hundred, better than anything else to win a match for your country.”

The settling down was particularly needed for Klaasen because he was still upset about how he got out in the third ODI, beaten by the turn and pinged right in front of the stumps by Chahal. It was payback time. “I was quite disappointed in my debut game. I enjoy playing against spinners, I do get out a lot against them but I do enjoy playing against them, it’s a good challenge,” he said. “The way I got out in my debut game, for me it’s tough, that was a soft dismissal, I didn’t like it.”

Chahal almost swung the game irrevocably India’s way, when David Miller survived a dropped chance and being bowled off a no-ball in the same over, the 18th of the innings. South Africa were 108 for 4 then, but Miller and Klaasen then exploded in a flurry of boundaries. Klaasen said that there was a method to the madness.

“I know between myself and David, we can let that run-rate go up till about probably 12-13, especially at the Wanderers where the ball tends to fly quite a bit,” he said. “It was definitely a momentum changer for us, getting that free hit on David’s wicket. He’s a cool, calm and experienced cricketer and he just said, ‘Anything in our slot we need to back and whatever we do we need to do fully.’ And then at the end of the over after a couple of boundaries, the value of David being there and myself being there at the start of the next over – it’s bigger than just having a slog at a couple of balls. So we were very calculated in our approach there. Maybe it didn’t look like it! But it was all calculated and planned out, what we wanted to do.”

The required run-rate was 9.40 at that stage, and Klaasen was not worried, while explaining that everything was ‘calculated and planned out’. It’s no wonder Conrad saw a touch of Dhoni in him.

But only a touch. The moment when Klaasen hit Chahal to the midwicket fence after fetching the ball from outside the strip. It could have been almost comical, but Klaasen connected well, having picked his spot beforehand. “That’s where the gaps were… so I needed to do something about it,” he smiled. “I can’t describe it but for me that was my only boundary option, he bowled quite wide and got a lot of turn and bounce, that was my go-to shot at that moment and I pulled it off.

“On that wide line he got a lot of turn and bounce, so to run down the wicket was for me quite a high-risk shot. I do like over extra-cover, but my option was maybe from the backfoot over extra cover, or the one over square-leg. Those were my two options there for the boundary.”

Klaasen’s use of the sweep proved particularly productive. It’s a shot he learned to master on a trip to Sri Lanka in 2015 with the Emerging Squad, where he hit a century in one of the unofficial Tests.

“It comes naturally to me, but I work hard on it,” he said of sweeping, conventional and reverse. Three years ago we went to Sri Lanka on a National Academy trip. So there, we learned all types of sweeps. Since then, I’ve brought it back into my game and it works, it takes off a lot of pressure. Especially against good spinners, it’s difficult to hit them down the ground if you don’t use your feet well. So that just changed up their lengths and it suits me a little bit better.”

It suited his team much better, and thanks to Klaasen and company, South Africa are not just alive in the series but will go into the remaining matches with the demon of wrist-spin reduced to human proportions.