• Now or never for Miller

    David Miller has the opportunity to show the world what all the fuss about him is. Will he be able to deliver on the biggest stage of all, writes GARY LEMKE.

    It’s Miller time. No, really, it is. It’s time David Miller stands up to be anointed as the best finisher in cricket. And what better stage is there to perform on than at the World Cup in Australia.

    This time there can be no excuses. He is on his way towards his 26th birthday, has some 60 ODIs under his belt and has been playing international cricket for nearly five years. South Africa needs him to fire at the World Cup – and the selectors must give him every opportunity by batting him at No 5 in the order.

    That would see a top six of Quinton de Kock (left-hander), Hashim Amla (right-hander), Faf du Plessis (right-hander),  AB de Villiers (right-hander), Miller (left-hander) and JP Duminy (left-hander). If all come to the party, they could push the Proteas above 250 and in the direction of 300, and as we saw in the five ODIs played in Australia in November, anything around 280 to 300 should be a winning total.

    The balance of the South African side was still not quite right throughout the series Down Under, won 4-1 by Australia, but which the captain, De Villiers, reckoned was closer than that. ‘We were competitive the whole way through; we didn’t fall away.’

    In two of those matches, De Villiers and Miller put on century partnerships. They were chasing 301 to win the first ODI in Perth and came together at the end of the 16th over with the score on 76-4. They took it to 202 for a 126-run partnership before Miller fell for a run-a-ball 65, as South Africa lost their way in the batting powerplay, losing four wickets – and ultimately the match.

    In Melbourne, Miller, promoted to No 5, joined De Villiers at 77-3 in the 17th over. The pair put on 122 before Miller fell for 45, off 61 balls, disturbingly so, again in the batting powerplay.

    Much introspection will go into the hows and whys of him losing his wicket at a time when the batsmen should be kicking on and taking advantage of the fielding restrictions. Both times Miller was caught when he was set in his innings.

    He must bat at No 5 to allow Duminy to follow him and work the ball around with the tail, while accumulating the runs for his team when he can. Miller has to stick his hand up and take on a more responsible role, which is to score, and score big at a good strike rate.

    The powerful left-hander has batted in more than 50 of his 60-odd ODIs, but he still only had seven 50s and no hundreds after the series against Australia. He can be forgiven in that he has often batted down the order, at Nos 6 and 7, but if he is going to be at No 5, those hundreds must start coming. His first one arrived against the West Indies. But that is the West Indies.

    There is a school of thought that Miller reserves his best, flat-track bullying, for the lucrative Indian Premier League, where he was valued at the equivalent of R2-million
    by Kings XI Punjab. Indeed, it is true that he had as many IPL hundreds (one) to his name as he had in List A limited-overs matches until he played the Windies.
    And in the IPL he has a career strike rate of 153.18. In T20 International cricket that rate drops to 129.49 and in ODIs it’s in the 90s. Those are all acceptable rates, but he hasn’t scored enough runs wearing the South African green and gold.

    In many ways Miller has forged his reputation in domestic T20 cricket and the IPL has given him an international platform to show off his clean hitting. ‘If it’s in the V, it’s in the tree. If it’s in the arc, it’s out of the park,’ he used to tell his dad, and in essence that’s the way he bats.

    When he hits the ball it stays hit and he’s particularly strong in the mid-wicket region, his pulling power often resulting in the two fielders on the deep wicket boundary being left leaden-footed and the ball bouncing, once, twice before slamming into the advertising boards.

    That is the way Lance Klusener used to bat and Klusener almost single-handedly won the 1999 Cricket World Cup with his lower-order pyrotechnics. Conversely, it could be said that Klusener almost single-handedly lost that World Cup with that run-out which resulted in a tie against Australia, sending the opponents through to the final, which they won at a canter.

    Klusener would say of his own technique: ‘It’s simple. I try to clear the front foot and not complicate things. I just hit the ball.’ Those who are pushing for Miller’s inclusion in the Test set-up argue that there’s more to his batting than a bludgeoning of the ball. They say his technique would be at home in the five-day format, although I don’t agree on two fronts. The first is that if he were to make the Test XI he could not bat as high as the No 5 I’m advocating for the World Cup, although more importantly, I’m not convinced his playing of fast bowlers on bouncy surfaces is of the highest class.

    In Australia he struggled with the pace and bounce of Mitchell Johnson – as did everyone, it could be counter-argued – but the quicker balls that rise to chest height seem to get him into a bit of a fix. On the lower, slower tracks the ball slips into his arc and it’s no coincidence that his career highlights reel contains plenty of his batting in the IPL.

    Miller is an immensely popular man, followed by over 250 000 people on Twitter, and he’s a good fielder out in the deep and a good team man. He ticks all the right boxes, but it seems to have been forever that he’s been touted as the next big thing in South African cricket.

    Now is the time he needs to stand up and be counted. This World Cup will be the one that defines his career. Miller is certainly not at any crossroads, but this event will determine how history will one day judge him. Will he live up to his potential and reputation and help lead South Africa to the Promised Land, or will it be the great unfulfilled talent?

    We don’t have long to wait to find out.

    This feature appears in the current issue of SACricket magazine, on sale now.

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