David Miller has embraced his potential, and wants to become a match-winner for the Proteas, writes Ryan Vrede.
Back in 2010 David Miller spoke to SACricket magazine with the unadulterated confidence that most 20-year-olds in his position would. We met in a photography studio just after his unexpected elevation to the Proteas’ ODI squad to face the West Indies. My understanding of that decision, informed by men close to those who made it, was that the senior core of the Proteas side saw something in him that they wanted to have available to them, something they thought could be an asset if nurtured and refined under their guidance.
Four years on and we’ve seen glimpses of what they first got excited about and understand the determination to have him in the fold. He has struggled for consistency at international level, but, lest we forget, he is not yet 25. Those struggles are in keeping with even those who’ve progressed to be elite batsmen. They are clearly the acute struggles of a supremely gifted young athlete, not the chronic grind of a terminally hopeless one. Critically, there have been recent exhibitions of his class, and these provide a measure of optimism about the future.
That view is primarily shaped by those who’ve played and succeeded at that level, most notably Miller’s Dolphins coach and iconic Proteas slugger, Lance Klusener. As a point of departure it must be made clear that Miller is not a Klusener clone. Certainly they share an eye that appears to inflate the ball to the size of the beach variety, a bat that appears to be impossibly broad, with a middle that could launch space-bound craft. But Miller has a touch and finesse that Klusener never did – the capacity to play sweet symphonies and bleeding ear solos with similarly exceptional aptitude.
‘David is a special player and I’ve said this from early on in his career, so it isn’t me being swept away by his recent success,’ Klusener says. ‘Clearly he has all the qualities to be a highly successful limited-overs player, which is not to say that he won’t extend his value to Test cricket in the future. Technically he is very good, but his temperament helps him tremendously. Most importantly, he has made peace with expectations for him in the Proteas set-up and has displayed the ability to formulate, stick to and execute a plan. He is able to phase out all the distractions and focus on his strategy. People see the outcome, but aren’t aware of what it takes to get there, and lots of that has to do with the ability to think clearly under pressure. If there’s a comparison you can make between him and I, it’s that. I’m flattered by the other comparisons, but I think he is a better balanced player with more skills than I had.’
The frequency of Lance’s lashings and the calibre of opposition against whom he did so set him apart from Miller. This is the next level in Miller’s evolution and the Proteas will hope he reaches that point sometime in the near future. ‘The criticism of my consistency is valid. I have to do better,’ Miller says. ‘That said, it’s difficult batting in many difficult scenarios – sometimes I come in with four or five down and have to rebuild, sometimes there’s five or less overs remaining, sometimes the track isn’t conducive to scoring quickly. The ideal would be if I came in with 15 to 20 overs remaining on a good platform and I was able to play myself in then hit out. But the skill is in adapting to the match situation and excelling however that is defined in the given situation.’
He is on track, and this was evident in the semi-final of the Domestic T20 Challenge. Underlying the previously made point about his ability to rebuild an innings, Miller scored just 24 off his first 20 balls, but stunned the Titans by taking 69 off his next 17 to finish with 93 off 37, which included decimating a Roelof van der Merwe over by striking five sixes and a four. His 25 in victory over the Cobras in the final proved to be a significant contribution in the context of a low-scoring match.
The Proteas need more of this Miller. The national selectors appear to be far from reconsidering their investment, given that he was awarded a national contract for the 2014-15 season. In recent seasons there has been a culture change for the better when it comes to the management of gifted players. Talent identification has been good to start off with, and the willingness of those selectors and administrators to give certain deserving individuals opportunities to adapt to the unique demands of international cricket and grow into the best versions of themselves has been heartening.
Everything is geared towards giving those individuals every chance to succeed, as opposed to waiting for them to fail and moving on to the next big thing. Miller has been a beneficiary and is determined to repay the faith.
‘I’ve had some deep disappointments over the course of a short international career – not making the 2011 World Cup squad the worst of those – but I’d like to think that I’ve learned the lessons I was supposed to from them,’ he says. ‘I’ve come back stronger and now I feel ready to establish myself in the ODI and T20I sides and translate promise into consistent performances. When you have a taste of international cricket you don’t want to be out of that environment. I’d like to think that my performances while out of the side reflected that hunger. The IPL in 2013 was a turning point for me. I faced some world-class bowlers and for me to succeed against them really gave me confidence. I feel like, when in form, I can dominate the best bowlers in any match situation and on most surfaces. I’ve had to have the patience to give myself a chance to get “in” because after that it comes naturally for me to score runs quickly.’
His performances in the ODI and T20I series against Sri Lanka in 2013 suggest things have begun to swing upwards. He has certainly become a match-winner for the Dolphins, and is without a doubt their key player in limited overs and T20 matches. He is determined to replicate that form for the Proteas. ‘When I was at Durham and Yorkshire, or in the IPL and with the Dolphins I feel a sense of expectation that I’ve come to enjoy. I like that those teams rely on me to deliver and that if I do they usually do well. That responsibility brings the best out of me. At first I struggled with the expectation in a Proteas context, but I’ve learned to embrace it and not let it overwhelm me. I believe that I can add massive value to South Africa going forward. Before people looked to force me into the role of match-winner and I wasn’t really ready for that. Now, that’s what I want to define my international career.’