In the context of the franchise game in modern-day South Africa, Shaun von Berg is a rare breed. Being a legspinner is unusual enough – a glance down the list of wicket-takers from last season’s Sunfoil Series confirms he was one of just two regular leggies in four-day cricket. But what makes von Berg more anomalous is the fact that he is 31 years old, white, uncapped at international level and yet still persisting with franchise cricket.
Last season, only Werner Coetsee, Andrew Birch and Rudi Second were older than von Berg among that category of players, where the average age is just 25. Yet there is a distinction to be made here because while those three players have all been a mainstay in their respective franchise sides, von Berg has stuck around even as he yo-yoed in and out of the Titans team. Most cricketers who find themselves shimmying between franchise and provincial cricket in South Africa have sought out better financial opportunities in other industries by the end of their twenties.
While transformation targets have not always allowed the Titans to pick von Berg, the number of top-level players has also acted against him. When the Proteas squad for the Test series in Sri Lanka was announced on Monday, von Berg was one of 10 Titans players called up. “He’s been an unsung hero for us,” says Titans chief executive Jacques Faul. “He has won us lots of games. He hasn’t always got opportunities to play because of our strong squad and the make-up of the team, but he’s one of the most patient and positive guys I have met. This is a great reward.”
Von Berg himself admits that the question of why he has persisted for so long – when few expected a national call-up – is an interesting one. “A lot of guys have moved to England or New Zealand, but I really enjoy playing for the Titans,” he told Cricbuzz. “All my family are from Pretoria, I was born here and I always wanted to play for them. It’s a good setup, I know all of the people who work in the offices and it’s like a second home.
“There were a hard couple of years where I didn’t get picked and I didn’t play a lot, but I understood the position I was in. Our team is very strong so the opportunities are fewer at times – particularly when the national team players come back, leaving no space for the local players. But I didn’t want to move and play for another franchise. I’ve been playing here all my life and it’s very enjoyable.”
Other opportunities have come around. While the door to English cricket has largely been closed to South Africans who don’t have recent international experience, another has opened over the past five or so years. A couple of seasons ago, a New Zealand franchise came knocking on von Berg’s door. Given that he was in his late twenties, with no guarantee of a regular place in the Titans side and little prospect of international opportunities, most would have leapt at the approach.
“I spoke to my coach, Mark Boucher, and he said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to New Zealand. I want you in my team. I don’t want to lose you as a cricketer.’ I’m happy with that. Moving to a different country would have taken a lot. It was just before I got married and it would have complicated a lot of things. The reassurance from Bouch was enough for me to put all my trust in him.”
While that strong appraisal from Boucher did not translate to a guarantee of games, von Berg’s performances have steadily improved under the former Proteas wicketkeeper-batsman. In 2016/17, the legspinner with a rolling action only played half of the Titans’ Sunfoil Series campaign, but his 32 wickets at an average of 18.93 were the second most at the franchise. It proved to be something of a breakthrough, and last season von Berg finished third on the overall list of wicket-takers, claiming 29 victims in a season that was heavily dominated by the batsmen.
“I haven’t changed my bowling action much over the years, but with Mark having been a ‘keeper all his life, he knows angles in the field and where to put certain fielders at what angle. Also game plans – he knows how to plan for specific types of batter. That was the x-factor for me; all credit goes to him,” von Berg said.
Recognition came elsewhere – last summer he was picked in all three invitational sides that played against touring international teams, and felt that he fulfilled his role in each case. In April he was one of 10 spinners who went to India as part of Cricket South Africa’s annual spin camp.
“It’s a nice camp to go to, because every year you learn something new,” said von Berg. “This year I tried to pick the coaches’ brains to see what they think and what they would do in certain scenarios, what their game plans would be. Neil McKenzie was there to work with the batsmen, and I would listen just to learn what the batsmen would think when they were playing against spin, to help me be a step ahead. It was more about tactics and trying to read the game, instead of learning new balls or techniques.”
Despite those journeys abroad, it is von Berg’s love for local cricket that shines through. “A lot of professional cricketers, if they have a weekend off then they don’t want to play club cricket – they would rather spend some time at home or take a rest. But every time I am available I try to play for my club, CBC Old Boys. It’s a more relaxed environment, and I get to bat in the top order to get some batting opportunities, which I don’t get at the Titans.”
That extra time in the middle served von Berg well last season when, despite batting down the order with limited opportunities, he scored 242 runs at an average of 30 as the Titans lifted the Sunfoil Series trophy. They were runs that probably tipped the balance in von Berg’s favour when it came to national selection – he was picked ahead of 24-year-old Senuran Muthusamy, whose 33 wickets last season came at a much lower average than von Berg’s. Selection convenor Linda Zondi cited von Berg’s batting ability as something that could give South Africa a different way of balancing their side when they get to Sri Lanka.
Whether or not von Berg gets a cap remains to be seen, but on Monday he was able to drink in the rewards for his perseverance as he took to the nets in Pretoria along with some of his new Proteas teammates. “It was a bit overwhelming at first, with everyone congratulating me,” he said. “My phone has been busy all day, and it’s been a lot to take in in one day. I think it will set in over the next couple of days, but it was very nice training, just doing my own thing: a bit of bowling, bit of batting. Training stays the same.”
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