Patience is his virtue

"I knew that it was not going to be easy to get picked for the Test side. I understood my situation; I didn’t give up. I knew that when (Graeme) Smith retired, I would be the next guy in. If that didn’t happen, I would have been disappointed," says Stiaan van Zyl, the South African all-rounder.

Stiaan van Zyl in action against India A in the second unofficial Test in Wayanad, Kerala. "I have been a No. 3 all my life, but I don't mind opening the innings," says the South African.   -  RANJITH PERALAM

Stiaan van Zyl addressing a press conference before the second unofficial Test against India A.   -  RANJITH PERALAM

When one man bats with ease on a track where all his team-mates struggle, you know he has class. Stiaan van Zyl of South Africa ‘A’, indeed, looked classy and composed in the second unofficial Test against India ‘A’, on a turning wicket against a varied spin attack, at the Wayanad Cricket Stadium in Krishnagiri (Kerala), recently. He scored 96, and the next highest score in the innings was 30.

The left-handed opener’s knock was marked by elegance and patience. Patience is one quality van Zyl has in abundance. Somebody less patient would have given up hopes of playing for South Africa, looking at the Test line-up that contained players of the calibre of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla. But van Zyl waited and scored tons of runs in South Africa’s domestic cricket before he finally made his Test debut against the West Indies at Centurion.

Van Zyl scored a hundred on debut, which also turned out to be the 100th century on Test debut.

On a lovely afternoon at the Wayanad Cricket Stadium, van Zyl, who has scored more than 13,000 first-class runs, spoke to Sportstar on his century on debut; how he started out as a right-handed batsman and why he admires Kumar Sangakkara and AB de Villiers.

Excerpts:

Question: You were 27 when you made your Test debut. It would have been tough for any batsman to break into the South Africa Test squad, as there was no vacancy. Did frustration creep in at any stage?

Answer: Not really. I was scoring heavily in domestic cricket, but I knew that it was not going to be easy to get picked for the Test side. I understood my situation, I didn’t give up. I knew that when Smith retired, I would be the next guy in. If that didn’t happen, I would have been disappointed.

How do you look back at that century on debut at Centurion?

It was my dream to play Test cricket, but I didn’t dream of scoring a hundred on debut. I had come in as a replacement for J. P. Duminy, so batted at No. 6, though I bat at one drop for Cape Cobras. I was hoping to get a good start in Test. Now I know that I could score an international hundred.

I was very nervous at Centurion; I scored just two off my first 25 balls. Every new guy is under pressure, but it gets easier once you are there for a while. That was what happened with me too. My first boundary was off Sheldon Cottrell, whose short ball I pulled through square-leg.

After playing in the middle-order against the West Indies, you opened in Bangladesh. It seems you might be doing more of that for the South African Test side…

I bat at No. 3 for my franchisee. I have been a No. 3 all my life. But I don’t mind opening the innings.

The job of an opener is to see the new ball off, and I did that when I opened in Tests; I made 34 in the only innings I got to play in the two-Test series that was ruined by rain.

You could also be a handy medium-pacer, as we saw here in the ‘A’ series…

At school, I was little more of a bowler than a batsman. I was a medium-pacer who bowled at a good length; I didn’t have a lot of pace. I still batted No. 4 though. I continue to work on my bowling.

How important was the tour of India with the South Africa ‘A’ team for you?

I have learnt a lot from batting on this track. I could face bowlers who have been part of India’s senior team. This experience should help me in the Test series against India.

It has been a very enjoyable tour, though it is disappointing to finish with a defeat in the second unofficial Test. It is a lovely venue and Wayanad is a beautiful place, with greenery all around. It was nice to play first-class cricket in front of good crowds.

Who have been your idols, growing up?

Justin Langer, Michael Hussey and Kumar Sangakkara.

It is sad that Sangakkara has retired. He was such a classy player. I think he is one of the best batsmen of all time. I always enjoyed watching his cover drives and the way he hit the spinners over the top.

I also like watching Yuvraj Singh, who is such a sweet striker of the ball. Shikhar Dhawan is good too, though I hope he gets low scores against us.

My favourite batsman is someone who plays in my own team — AB de Villiers. It is a privilege playing along with greats like AB, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn.

The great thing about AB is that he keeps on working hard on the game, though he is phenomenally gifted. I think he has an upper hand against bowlers because they are scared of him.

How competitive is domestic cricket in South Africa?

I think it was harder than what it is today. We still are proud about playing tough cricket, though. The first-class cricket, when I started out, was much stronger.

It was two years after I finished school that I became serious about a career in cricket. I was introduced to the sport by my father; I used to bat with a plastic bat in our backyard as a four-year-old. You know, I was a right-hander when I began, but he turned me into a leftie.

How do you unwind?

Fishing, hunting and golfing.