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DANIEL GALLAN: So long JP, we’ll always have that one night in Melbourne

OPINION

MANCHESTER - Do you remember where you were in the early hours of 29 December 2008? I do. I was an undergrad on holiday in Cape Town with my fellow vaalie mates and had just stumbled into our rented flat in Green Point after too many drinks on Long Street.

We were gathered around a TV watching history unfold. JP Duminy, a skinny 24-year-old from Strandfontein, was putting on a masterclass that will forever be eulogised so long as there is breath left in a South African cricket fan.

In only his second Test, he was carving Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee to all parts of the gargantuan Melbourne Cricket Ground. Sure, he’d scored a half-century a week before to help AB de Villiers chase down 414 in Perth, but that was AB the genius, and the Australian west coast had always been a home away from home for South Africa.

This was the MCG. This was Johnson and Lee. This was an innings that began the previous day when South Africa were 126/4, 268 runs in arrears, and continued for 448 minutes that included a 67 run partnership with Paul Harris and a 180 run stand with Dale Steyn.

Duminy left me slack-jawed. Something didn’t compute. What was this? Who was this? I had to double take and confirm that it was indeed a South African inflicting pain on Australia. I had grown accustomed to my heroes being battered by those damned Aussies. Like a young Gaul under the yoke of imperial Rome, I had accepted that this is how the world worked.

But here he was, a pockmarked nobody with elastic wrists and unbridled gumption pulling and cutting and driving his way to 166 runs that still make me smile like an idiot in public whenever I think of them. South Africa won that match by 6 wickets and with it the series, their first on Australian soil. In doing so they exorcised ghosts that had made themselves at home in the brains of every Proteas fan and player for over a century.

No longer was this the unconquerable land a world away. Steyn may have earned the man of the match award for his 76 first innings score and his ten-wicket match haul, but there was no doubt in my mind who had kicked in the Aussies' door and planted our multi-coloured flag in their living room.

Duminy would never reach those heights again. Not even close. He would play another 43 Tests and score just five more centuries. An average of 32.85 does not do his talent justice but adequately reflects an adequate career that exploded into life but fizzled as it dissipated over the years.

Yesterday, he played his 199th ODI for his country. That is a remarkable achievement. Only six other South Africans have played more. But by ending one game short of a milestone, he fittingly leaves with a lingering sense of what might have been.

Duminy was always the player who was almost there but not quite. He was so much more than most and yet not as much as some. He was so often your second or third favourite player but rarely your first.

He sparkled like a comet that only passes once every few years. You know his brilliance exists out there somewhere, burning bright in the unseen infinity, but you can’t set your watch to it. Miss it this year and it could be a long wait before you see it again.

“The numbers produced are not going to go up against some of the best,” Duminy said after the 10 run victory over Australia that bookended his 15 years wearing the Proteas badge. “But that’s OK. It’s not about the numbers you want to be remembered for.”

Instead, Duminy wants to be remembered as a team man. He said his adaptability gave him an edge and allowed him to flit between varying roles; part-time off-spinner batting at seven one game, top order accumulator the next. He also wants to be remembered as a good person who transcended the boundaries of the cricket field and influenced the lives of those within his orbit.

In 2015, he founded the JP21 Foundation which has since used his platform as an instrument for change in disadvantaged communities in the Western Cape. The Foundation regularly hosts fundraising events and seeks to turn the heads of young people away from gang violence and drug use towards physical activity and social engagement.

In twenty years time very few will talk of JP Duminy. Averages of 32, 36 and 38 in Tests, ODIs and T20Is respectively hardly warrant more than cursory glances, especially when his career coincided with the likes of de Villiers, Kallis, Amla and Smith.

It is a cliche to say that cricket is a slave to numbers, though it rings true. This sport reduces a frightening spell of fast bowling or the swashbuckling carnage of a rampant pinch hitter to balls faced, runs scored and wickets taken. Little else matters. Context fades. Sober figures endure.

Duminy is right. His numbers do not stack up against the best. They barely stack up against the slightly better than good on the international stage. His contribution is perhaps the most quintessentially South African of all his contemporaries: outrageously talented, inconsistent, disappointing when it mattered, delicious when in full flow.

It has been a maddening joy watching him play for a decade and a half. He made you pull your hair out and swoon in equal measure. He may not have given me a lifetime of happiness but we’ll always have that one night in Melbourne, and what a night it was.

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