Tue, 29 Sep 2020

Cape Town - As Theunis de Bruyn walked off the Pune turf with his side in a world of trouble at 21/2, he couldn't help but laugh.

It was day four of the second Test against India back in October and the Proteas were being battered, following on and still 305 runs away from making their dominant hosts bat again.

It wasn't the match situation that De Bruyn found amusing, though.

The 27-year-old had spent hours hitting balls in the nets, relentlessly working on his technique for months in an effort to make the step up to Test level, and it just wasn't happening.

He had played well for 30 in the first innings, but when he was out caught down the leg side in the second, he knew his time was up in the Proteas Test side.

Any top order batsman will tell you that being caught down the leg side off a seamer is one of the most unfortunate ways to get out, and for De Bruyn it was another indication that, sometimes, all of the preparation in the world is not enough.

He was dropped for the third Test, but ended up getting one final crack as a concussion substitute for Deal Elgar. Again, De Bruyn looked in good touch for 30, but his fate in the national set-up had already been decided.

Now, nearly four months later, De Bruyn finds himself far removed from the spotlight, and there is a clear mental and emotional calm that has come with being back home at the Titans, focusing on nothing much more than batting.

De Bruyn has played 12 Test matches for the Proteas, averaging just 19.45.

The talent has never been in question - anybody who has shared a dressing room with him will tell you as much - but it simply hasn't translated into success in Proteas whites.

A superb century against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2018 suggested that he was ready, but a run of 11 innings without a half-century followed and De Bruyn is now firmly in the international wilderness.

It doesn't mean that he has given up on a way back, though, and his short, firm answer when asked if he had unfinished business at international level was drenched in determination.

"For sure," he said.

De Bruyn knows that he will have to score more runs than most to be given another shot, but he is off to a good start having carded 120 at Centurion just last week in a winning effort for the Titans over the Lions.

"It's been a tough journey the last couple of months," he told Sport24, opening up on the reality of being dropped from the Test squad.

"But after a few months of reflection, you learn a lot more about yourself and I feel that the journey has taught me some good lessons. There are going to be a few extra tools in the toolbox going forward.

"I always knew that the runs were around the corner and a matter of time, but you still need to go and do it."

The return to the Titans has given De Bruyn an opportunity to refresh mentally, far away from the pressures that come with representing your country on the highest stage.

"It's quite nice now being back and things are silent. Nobody is really bothered by how many runs I get," he said.

"It doesn't feel like I'm batting for my life. When you slip under the radar, there is no hype, so you can focus on the team and your game and be a bit more patient with yourself.

"Sometimes you force things, and force is not always the way forward."

Ahead of the match against the Lions, De Bruyn was struggling with illness and couldn't practice. It was unfamiliar territory given his usual devotion to time in the nets and hitting cricket balls. What followed was another lesson that De Bruyn says has given him some fresh perspective.

"I can be quite a perfectionist about things so sometimes you get into things too technically. Over the last couple of months, I've realised that it was all in the mind," he said.

"You don't have to hit four hours of balls to be successful.

"It's when you have that peace of mind and you just play the game that you're good at because it's something you enjoy ... that's when you find success."

The Proteas Test top order has not fared well in the ongoing series against England where Zubayr Hamza, Rassie van der Dussen and even the uncapped Keegan Petersen have all moved ahead of De Bruyn in the pecking order.

De Bruyn knows that it could be some time before he is back in the Test side, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other avenues.

"I think I'm more of a white ball cricketer than a red ball cricketer ... I made my debut for the Titans in white ball cricket," he said.

With the Momentum One Day Cup providing the next batch of domestic fixtures, De Bruyn will have an opportunity to put his hand up as an ODI option, but it is not something he is thinking about.

"I'm not trying to make a statement. I'm on this journey, learning about myself and I just want to enjoy batting," he said.

"It's a great learning curve.

"It's obviously not ideal. I'd love to average 50 and win games for my country, but I'm clearly not ready enough. That doesn't mean I can't do it.

"For me it's just a process of getting back to it and I might have to score a lot more runs to do it, but if that's the way forward then that's the way forward."

De Bruyn's philosophical outlook has been born out of wanting something so desperately and doing everything possible to achieve it, but then realising that, sometimes, things don't go according to plan.

"I knew that the second Test in India was my last opportunity. I played nicely in the first innings then played a loose shot and in the second innings I got strangled down leg with a very poor ball," he said.

"I walked off laughing for the first time and I just realised that it doesn't matter how hard I tried, at the moment it just wasn't meant to be.

"What can you do when you're strangled down leg? It's a very unlucky way to get dismissed.

"Surely you don't believe that you've invested most of your life on this and then that's the way it ends. Surely it can't be.

"At the moment it's about needing to believe. You go through a journey, walk the hardships and get stronger, but you can only do that if you believe in something bigger.

"There will be good times again."

The obvious worry for South African cricket lovers when stories like De Bruyn's unfold is that, eventually, these players will leave for more lucrative opportunities abroad.

Kyle Abbott, Rilee Rossouw, Hardus Viljoen, Duanne Olivier, Stiaan van Zyl, Simon Harmer, Marchant de Lange and Wayne Parnell are all recent examples of South Africans who signed Kolpak deals while on the fringes of the national side.

De Bruyn, however, wants to stay.

"You never know what the future is, but my heart is South African and I want to play for my country. That's the reason I wanted to play cricket. I'm not ready to give up that dream," he said.

"I would like to play overseas to be in different environments and experience new things, but not as a Kolpak.

"Not at the expense of playing for my country."

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