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Andile Phehlukwayo: 'Allrounders bat in the hardest place; the game is always in the balance'

"I believe I'm a genuine allrounder because I can win games with bat or ball" Getty Images

At age 24, Andile Phehlukwayo is just 11 caps away from one of his goals - to play 100 matches for his country. Over four Tests, 58 ODIs and 27 T20Is, he has established himself as one of the most promising allrounders in the country, able to finish games with bat and ball.

He spoke about the risks and rewards of being a two-in-one player, the expectation that come with the role, the training it requires, and whether those skills can be transferred from white- to red-ball cricket.

When it comes to allrounders, we talk about genuine ones and then there are batsman who bowl and bowlers who bat. Which of those categories do you think you fit into?
I believe I'm a genuine allrounder because I can win games with bat or ball, but I understand that those arguments about the kind of player someone is would look at the stats. I don't think they consider whether the team needs you to bat or bowl more. Also the circumstances and environment on the day will dictate whether you will be better at one discipline in the situation. And then it's also about the opportunity and how long you're able to bat or bowl on the day. Sometimes you're only at the crease for a very short period, for example, and it's about the impact you can make in that time. That's what makes an allrounder a big position in any team and one of the most important positions in the team.

From a batting perspective, the lower-order allrounder is expected to be the finisher, and that's what you have become known for. Is that the kind of batsman you've always been?
No, not really. I used to bat higher, especially in school and at provincial level, and that exposed me to different positions and game plans when building an innings. But even as a youngster, I could hit the ball long. When you can do that, you tend to get put into that finisher's role. So if you usually have to play a certain way, that means you're playing a certain role: you have to be the one that hits big, but it also means maybe you are not batting in every game, so you don't always have time to build up consistent performances.

And then on the bowling side, you're also expected to finish things off. What does that involve?
You can't stay stagnant. There are so many shots in the game now - you have to be able to counter them. As much as we talk about slower balls, you also can't forget about an old-school yorker and being able to bowl that at will, and then the change-ups are a top-off. You can't become predictable because then guys can line you up.

How do you deal with the expectation of this dual role?
It can be tough, because if you look at where games are won and lost, it's at the end. People are not often highly critical of what happens at the top. A guy can score a hundred and the team can lose, but he still scored the hundred. I speak a lot to David Miller about it and I also draw from my experience of the Canadian [Global T20] League, where I talked to guys like Andre Russell and Shoaib Malik. We all put a lot of pressure on ourselves and we know that where we bat is the hardest place to bat because the game is always in the balance.

What we've realised is it comes down to communication, backing yourself and having good plans. With someone like Miller, people might say he hasn't fulfilled his potential, but look at his stats - he averages over 40 and bats low down. Not many people besides MS Dhoni do that. It takes a lot of hard work to get to the point where you're doing that.

Does it mean you spend more time training than most, because you have two things to work on equally hard?
At first you spend a lot of hours doing both, but once you have played a few games then you can consider which one you need to work on more. Within series, when you are playing every few days, it's difficult to spend that much time training both disciplines, so you need to look at which skill is rusty and which skill you feel confident in and then you work a bit more on the one that needs it. There are a lot of hours involved but when you become consistent in one discipline then you can put those hours in the other and even more time when you are not playing series.

What was your focus in the 2019-20 season?
It was on batting. I think there were a few occasions where I could have done better and had more of an impact. There were some matches where I didn't give myself the chance or I had the wrong shot selection. In others, I was not batting long enough.

And from a bowling point of view, we saw someone like Lungi Ngidi step up at the death, which gave you someone to share that responsibility with.
Exactly. It's always better for the team to have more than one guy who can do that job. Depth is vital. When I have a bad game, I would like to be treated as a human and for someone else to do the job.

Do you think there is room for more than one allrounder in a team?
You can definitely have two allrounders in a team, but the team needs to have room for it and players who show the potential for it. Look at England. They bat so low down that with them you are never in the tail, even when you think you are. The more players with two skill sets you have, the better chance that your team will win. You could even have three allrounders if the spinner is going to bat a bit. It adds big balance to the team. I think that's where cricket is headed and there will be a lot of allrounders in teams in the future.

We've been talking a lot about white-ball cricket, but you also played four Tests. What was your experience of that and are you aiming to play more?
It was hard. Test cricket is way more difficult than white-ball cricket, mentally, physically and even emotionally, but I want a few Test caps to my name, it's on my wish list. I need to get the numbers up and perform. That's how it is. People get into teams on potential or numbers. I played a few games for the Dolphins last season and I didn't always bowl a lot because we were preparing the pitches for spinners and for home advantage, but I got a few 60s with the bat. Every game, I feel like I am improving. I'm going to play for them a bit more this next season and then we will see what the future holds.

It sounds like with all the training and the amount you hope to play, you don't have time for a lot of other things?
Not really. With the lockdown, I have looked into a few other things. I have a business partner and we are starting a small business where we are doing some stuff in meat. I can't say much more. And I am also looking to study a few short courses because I don't have time to do that during the season. I just want to get a bit smarter and to be able to have something to work with in the future.

Are you someone who does a lot of planning for the future?
I have ambitions to play in leagues and see different places. It's always nice to learn about different cultures and religions, because it expands your capacity as a person, and [you also get] to experience different stadiums and vibes. But I also want to play as much as possible for South Africa, so it's not a train smash if that doesn't happen.

Which have been your favourite places to tour?
England is quite a good place to tour. There's a lot of history but also a lot of fun and going out. Australia was also quite good. I'd never been in a country with different time zones. And their wildlife was quite cool.

Having been part of an ODI World Cup squad and being in the plans for the T20 World Cup, what do you think South Africa need to do to win a World Cup?
We are not far away. Even though people always say it, I really believe it will happen. Maybe it didn't look like it at the 2019 World Cup, where we really didn't look after situations that on normal occasions we would take care of, but if you look at the current generation, it's a lot of new players who are really hungry to perform. Even in our current rebuilding phase, we have managed to beat strong teams who already have their formula set. It's all about the mindset. Our brand is work in progress but we all know where we want to be. We are fully committed.

Is the T20 World Cup what you are most looking forward to next season?
The T20 World Cup is obviously a big thing for me, but I don't want to make that the only focus. I want to take care of the smaller performances and not overburden myself, and the World Cup will take care of itself. Mostly I'm looking forward to a fresh start and I have written down a few of the goals that I want to achieve. I want to become at least 20% better.