A successful sportsperson’s career is often compared to that of a roller coaster – a journey filled with unprecedented highs and the lowest of lows. While the crests often outnumber the troughs, there can’t be anything more depressing than watching a player’s career being affected by injuries. South Africa’s JP Duminy is a perfect case in point.
From making a smashing Test debut in 2008 to being relegated to the sidelines for two years and then returning only to suffer a serious injury, Duminy’s international career has been nothing short of dramatic. However, as he has shown over the years, his will power, self-belief and determination are remarkable. No wonder then that he stays calm and balanced even when things are not going his way.
“I got a taste of international cricket in 2004 and then got left out for three-four years. I guess, at that time, I got an understanding of what is needed to play at that level,” says Duminy to Wisden India. “It was then that I realised I needed to reform my game. I have never looked back since. I’ve been blessed to have had the career that I’ve had so far.”
Currently part of Delhi Daredevils in the Pepsi IPL 2014, Duminy has been one of the shining lights in an otherwise ordinary campaign. He’s made batting look easy even as some of the other established Twenty20 stars like Kevin Pietersen, Dinesh Karthik and M Vijay have failed to live up to expectations.
Now, even as Delhi fight to stay in the competition, Duminy’s gritty performances lower down the order haven’t gone unnoticed. While his batting position is debatable, the man himself isn’t too fussed. “Playing for Delhi Daredevils has been a wonderful experience,” he says. “What makes the tournament a wonderful experience is the fact that you mix with different individuals, different cultures, so you learn a lot. Things may have not gone well for us in the tournament so far, but I’m hopeful we can rectify our mistakes and string a few wins.”
That Duminy draws positives even from a tough campaign is commendable. After all, these are the very qualities that have helped him remain grounded and successful even during the tough times.
“You need to be an all-round player these days,” he continues. “You can’t go out and decide you will only slog, or you will only play in a certain way. You need to adapt quickly. You have to innovate, because the game evolves at a fast pace and you have to keep up with it … you can’t play catch up. Therefore, it is important to find ways of getting ahead of the opposition because the mental demands are much more. And just having the right people to guide you is important and I’m pleased to be working with the group we have here at Delhi.”
Just like his batting, there is a sense of calm when Duminy talks. His words are well thought out, yet spontaneous.
So, while working with that group of people, which aspects of his game has Duminy focussed on? “Firstly, we experience different wickets across different parts of India. The more you are exposed to such wickets, it stands you in good stead. So making those fine adjustments to encounter different conditions has helped me become a better player of spin bowling. We tour Sri Lanka in July; that is on the back of my mind as well. But yes, definitely these experiences benefit you a great deal,” he says.
What is surprising though is the fact that despite being in the mix for close to a decade, he has managed to play just 24 Tests. For someone of his talent and ability, there is a sense that he may have underachieved. But that isn’t exactly how Duminy reflects on how things have panned out so far. For him, the chances he had outnumber the ones he didn’t.
One such opportunity, perhaps his most special memory on a cricket field, came in 2008 during South Africa’s tour of Australia. An injury to Ashwell Prince in the lead-up to the first Test in Perth paved the way for Duminy’s debut. His first outing was far from memorable as he made just one. For three days, South Africa were under the cosh. After conceding a 94-run lead, they were set a target of 414 to win the Test. Duminy made an unbeaten 50 and South Africa scripted the second highest successful run-chase in Test history.
Then, in the Boxing Day Test, which was his second, Duminy made 166. The significance of that knock comes shining through only when one glances at the scorecard. South Africa were tottering at 184 for 7 in reply to Australia’s 394. Duminy’s 180-run stand for the ninth wicket with Dale Steyn put South Africa ahead and set the tone for a historic series win.
“It feels a long time ago, but of course I remember it very vividly. I was nervous and it didn’t go as per plan in the first innings on debut. But the fact that we were chasing history the second time around inspired me,” he says. “Even today, people ask me if I rate the 166 that I scored in the second Test, but I always tell them the 50 I scored in the second innings on debut was definitely a notch higher because if not for that knock, the second one may have not come. That series was special because we went on to win it.”
That series catapulted Duminy into instant stardom. And he rode a wave of success before a string of poor performances resulted in his axe in February 2012. A middle-order of Jacques Kallis, Hashim Alma, AB de Villiers, Prince and Mark Boucher only made things tougher.
The road back to the top was arduous but Duminy didn’t lose hope. “In hindsight, I think I lacked the adaptability factor and needed to work on a lot of areas of my batting and fitness to be able to become a better player,” he points out. “I’ve had an excellent working relationship with Shukri Conrad, my coach at Cape Cobras. I worked extensively with him. He has been influential in my career right from my younger days. Even today, whenever I have the time, we work a lot on my game.
“I realised, perhaps, I didn’t have the mental strength to push through tough situations initially. You don’t necessarily go through such situations in franchise cricket, so I knew I had a big challenge on my hands if I had to succeed. But, in hindsight, being left out that early gave me an opportunity to learn to value my wicket even more, because every opportunity mattered.”
Duminy made his comeback during the tour of New Zealand in March 2012, and was subsequently picked for the England tour in June that year. His return coincided with a great run for the Test team as Gary Kirsten, the coach, and Graeme Smith, the captain, formed a perfect working combination. Amla’s unbeaten triple ton set the tone for what was to be a historic series win that took South Africa to the top of the Test rankings.
“The best part about our team during that time was we have a group that was self-motivated,” says Duminy. “Not just those in the XI, but even the guys on the fringes were good enough to take anyone’s place. Whenever there was an opportunity for someone to step up, they took the responsibility.
“Everyone had an identity within the team. Roles were clearly defined, and I think all the hard work culminated in our series win in England. The way we won that series was hugely satisfying. Apart from Gary and Paddy (Upton, the mental conditioning coach), Mike Horn (the motivational speaker and adventurer) also played an influential role in helping us build up for that series.”
But, just then, Duminy was dealt a big blow, one that could have pulled the curtains down on his career. He ruptured his Achilles tendon during a warm-down session after the opening day of the tour of Australia in Brisbane. Scans revealed a serious damage and meant he had to undergo surgery immediately, and he would be out of cricket for at least six months.
Duminy’s injury paved way for Faf du Plessis’s inclusion in the side, and the middle-order batsman impressed immediately. Du Plessis played a knock of immeasurable mental strength and determination that helped South Africa hang on to a draw in Adelaide before they won the third Test and the series.
“Injuries are never good. There are times when you begin to think if you will ever play again, particularly if it is a serious injury. What if someone who replaces you does well? Those sorts of thoughts can only complicate things and make you feel low,” says Duminy. “As it is, there is nothing more low than being out injured and that too for a length of time like six months, which was the case with me. So, at that time, I decided to have a positive outlook and not worry about all these things.
“Just the demands of international cricket these days are very taxing on the body and mind. So to get the time off at that time perhaps came as a blessing in disguise. Of course, that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the support around me. That was the biggest motivating factor. My family, my wife, my medical team, all of them kept reinforcing me. I thought that time allowed me to focus on different facets of life. After all, there’s so much more to life than just cricket.”
With injuries and the up-and-down performances firmly behind him, Duminy is enjoying a phenomenal run as a cricketer at the moment. In February this year, he scored 116 in Port Elizabeth, an innings that helped South Africa beat Australia by 231 runs in the second Test to level the series. And while the batting has come along, Duminy has constantly worked on his offspin and has been successful. That he is no longer seen as a part-timer is in itself an indication of how far he has come.
“Offspin is something I’ve worked on continuously. There is a lot of emphasis on being multi-dimensional today. I’ve been putting in more hours because you need to reinvent your game, because it doesn’t wait for anyone,” he explains. “Bowling a lot more has allowed me to understand my game better. It gives me a bit of a release when I know you can contribute to a team’s cause even if you have a bad day with the bat, by taking wickets.”
At 30, Duminy has played 24 Tests, 115 One-Day Internationals and 55 Twenty20 Internationals. In all likelihood, he would be central to South Africa’s plans post the Graeme Smith era and, in ODIs, he is set to form the core of the side in their run up to the 2015 World Cup.
As Duminy reflects on his journey so far, even if there is a tinge of regret, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he is optimistic of what the future has in store. “I don’t have any regrets at all. I am thankful for the time I have had so far,” he says. “God-willing, I still have five-six years of cricket left in me. It’s not the number of times you play, but the number of times you can make an impact and win games for your country. So playing with the mentality to win and help the team’s cause has meant I’ve stopped worrying about these things and it shows in my game too.”