A ‘normal South African’ cricketer

Senuran Muthusamy had a remarkable Test cricket debut with ball and bat, including taking the wicket of India’s Virat Kohli. It was enough to make his captain sit up and take notice.

Senuran Muthusamy has a cricketing brain and a Protea in his heart. It’s an impression he confirmed to the South African cricket squad’s back-room staff, veteran players and fans at home over the course of the first Test against India in Visakhapatnam in early October. 

He was the last man standing in both of the South African innings, as India claimed 20 wickets to win by 203 runs and take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series. 

His 33 not out in the first innings was invaluable as South Africa clawed themselves back into the game and within 71 runs of India’s mammoth 502 as a result of centuries by Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock.

Together with a half-century by Dane Piedt, Muthusamy’s 49 not out in the second innings helped add some respectability to a South African loss. He had walked to the middle with South Africa reeling at 70/8 and little chance of making it to lunch on day five. They almost made it to tea as the tail wagged and Muthusamy batted with dogged circumspection and grit.

There was also that wicket in the first innings. Of the biggest brand in world cricket. Of the Aggressively Arched Eyebrows. Of Team India’s captain, Virat Kohli. 

Kohli was caught and bowled for 20 by the debutant orthodox left-arm spinner whose grin appeared in danger of dislocating his jaw afterwards.

Muthusamy’s joy was palpable and he smiles again when retracing the memory on the rooftop of the team’s hotel on Visakhapatnam’s beachfront, an endearingly less appointed version of his hometown of Durban’s promenade. The lightning and thunder – a few hours too late for any hope of a rain-affected draw for the South Africans – was cataclysmically familiar to Durbanites, though.

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After Muthusamy’s wicket-taking over, he shared a word and a chuckle with umpire Richard Illingworth, a steady left-arm spinner for England in the 1990s. What was said?

The full-toothed grin is back: “A few overs earlier, I’d jokingly asked him where he would bowl to Kohli and he said, ‘If I was playing, I wouldn’t want to bowl against him.’ After I got the wicket, he came over and asked me: ‘Why were you asking me? You don’t need my advice.’”

It was a nice touch, one of many that Muthusamy says he experienced in the build-up to his Test debut for his country, a match he was only aware he’d be playing the evening before. After a pitch inspection that suggested assistance for the slow bowlers, the Proteas leadership cohort decided to go into the match with three spinners.

No time to ‘overthink things’ 

Muthusamy says the late inclusion worked to his benefit because “I didn’t have time to overthink things. I was overjoyed to be given the chance to play and fight for my country and obviously I was playing scenarios out in my head the night before. But I didn’t really have a chance to overthink anything.” 

During the capping ceremony before the match, a candle was lit and spinner Keshav Maharaj, a teammate at the KwaZulu-Natal Dolphins, said a few words about Muthusamy and what it meant to be a Protea. “It was really nice, he also capped me when I made my debut for the Dolphins, so that was special. He has achieved the kind of things in his career that I aspire to,” says Muthusamy.

Like most South African players, Muthusamy credits the team’s technical strategy analyst, Prasanna Agoram, with helping him fine-tune his game before the match. It lent confidence to his batting and bowling, ensuring that he went out to “play calmly and trusting in my defence”.

The defence was rock-solid. The response to spin – and speed – accomplished. There was a gorgeous cover drive here, a dug-out yorker there and a canny use of the wrists that prompted the Times of India to enthuse about his “remarkable poise” and suggest that South Africa had discovered a player ready-made for Test cricket on the sub-continent.

Aside from the work done in training and the video analysis room, Muthusamy credits his participation in the South Africa A tour of India earlier this year and in the spin camp in the month preceding this series for getting his game to where it is now.

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It has certainly caught the eye of captain Faf du Plessis who, during the post-match press conference on 6 October, said there was “a case” for his continued inclusion in the first XI. 

“Before this Test match, I would have probably said no … because I haven’t seen enough of his batting. But the way he batted in this Test match proved to everyone, not just to myself, that he can definitely play a number seven batting position as a batsman-bowler in the sub-continent. If you can do that, then you can create one more opportunity to play someone else,” said Du Plessis.

No apartheid baggage 

Muthusamy grew up in the formerly Indian-only suburb of Asherville in Durban, where his late, sports-mad father Colin encouraged his only child to play football and cricket at every opportunity. 

The youngster loved both, but deviated more towards cricket at some point, prompting his father to hire a coach for him at the age of eight. Muthusamy was 11 when he lost his dad and says he draws much of his strength, “determination and resilience” from his mother, Vani. 

Being raised by a single mother has made him more aware of the world around him and he credits his level-headed and “chilled” approach to life to the stability she, together with his extended family and friends, have provided. 

He attended Clifton School, an almost 100-year-old independent institution for boys in the formerly whites-only suburb of Durban North, which he describes as a “massive” influence on his life and cricket. “I was there from grade 1 and I always had access to great coaching,” he says. “Also, the cultural and academic life I enjoyed there made me a well-rounded person, I think.”

He considers Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Rangana Herath his heroes. But as a youngster, Muthusamy was also weaned on the exploits of some great South African teams. He is too young to remember the bitterly hostile responses to the South African cricket team in the 1990s and early 2000s by sections of the country’s black population, angry over a lack of transformation in cricket. 

The all-rounder has no apartheid baggage. Rather, he carries in his heart the “grit and never-say-die” attitude of South African teams that “fought for the country and the badge” and dominated world cricket for long periods.

He is because of the players who came before, of the teams that redefined South African cricket as it held on to the number one ranked Test status for periods and inspired youngsters with their exploits. He’s a product of Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Vernon Philander, JP Duminy, AB de Villiers and Graeme Smith.

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Muthusamy remembers especially the South African tour of Australia in 2008 as one that defined for him what South African cricket encapsulated, what it meant to have Protea Fire and how a national team player should play and behave when representing his country.

South Africa beat Australia 2-1 in that series, the first such loss for the hosts since the West Indies had toured there in 1992-1993.

The making of Muthusamy 

It was a series of stirring performances. Duminy dominated with the bat after making his debut at the Waca in Perth and scored 166 in his next match, where fast bowler Steyn made 76 during a ninth wicket stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Captain Smith batted with a broken hand in an attempt to save the dead-rubber New Year’s Day Test match in Sydney.

These are the parts of Muthusamy’s whole.

A born-free who came into the world a few months before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Muthusamy’s personal and professional trajectory is a reflection of the narrow success of South Africa’s middle-class experiment. 

His is what may have been for millions of others his age, still struggling in the purgatory of a democratic government’s failure to normalise a country riven by racial fracture and economic marginalisation. 

Muthusamy is a “normal South African” whose heart beats with a pride and hope for a country he calls “the most beautiful in the world”.  A South African who was provided with the enabling environment to ensure he fulfilled his true human potential.  

There should be more like him 25 years after apartheid.

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