Mackie an eccentric with substance
Neil McKenzie was a pickpocket in an age of bat-wielding thugs. Some gather their runs busily (think Jonty Rhodes); some gather them wilfully (think Graeme Smith). McKenzie gathered his stealthily, with matter-of-fact professionalism. He could whip the big notes out of an opposition wallet without anyone noticing, then pocket the small change.
Suddenly a session could be eased from your grasp, your account strangely depleted.
Where the modern trend was to bigger bats, more outrageous back-lifts, a wider stance at the crease – buff cricket, if you like – McKenzie went in the opposite direction, certainly in the latter stages of a career he called a day on last week.
He economised, downscaled. In his twilight years he hardly seemed to use his bat at all. There was a quick punch back past the bowler, a short-arm jab over midwicket. Sometimes he’d get down on one knee and sweep a spinner through the legside. Even here there was an economy of action. There was no flourish or lingering pose, simply a job to be done. Cricket work refined to its basics.
In his early years, McKenzie was typecast as the world’s most neurotic cricketer. It was a superstition of his to avoid stepping on white lines – often difficult for a cricketer – and he would take guard, make his mark, step out of the crease by opening an imagined gate, return to the crease (by closing the gate) and do it all over again. It made him comic and made you vaguely uncomfortable – as if you were greeted by a stutterer or someone with a nervous tic. Look carefully and you could almost see the demons flapping about in his head.
It got to be so bad that there were even stories about him not eating calamari at team dinners (the circles reminded him of noughts), or pacing around the dressing room putting down all the toilet seats (they also reminded him of noughts). One hates to think what would happen if, on the morning of a match, the car keys weren’t where he left them or the breakfast sausage was on the left- and not the right-hand side of the two fried eggs.
“We used to have long chats about it,” said Dave Nosworthy, who coached McKenzie first at the Titans and then at the Lions. “I never told him to stop it because it was ridiculous. Instead, I wanted him to get to a place where he was comfortable and these little habits of his didn’t dominate.”
In this age of the sound bite and the depthless cricketer, McKenzie’s eccentricities gave him substance. And when his international career was resurrected after yo-yoing in and out of the Test side for years, everyone wished him well. He was the perfect foil for Smith’s belligerence as opening partner and he took his place in one of the best Proteas sides ever, winning series away in England in 2008 and in Australia six months later.
“What people perhaps don’t realise about Mackie is that he was always a very caring cricketer,” says Nosworthy. “He would be the guy who had a beer with someone who was struggling or play the role of team clown or joker – which he was very good at. But it served a purpose. It allowed the guys to bond and feel comfortable.”
There was a backstory to McKenzie and Smith opening the batting for the Test side, because the Test captaincy was once talked about as being reserved for the more superstitious man. Whatever the disappointment, McKenzie rarely gave a glimpse of what he felt. It must all have seemed worth it when he batted for more than nine hours to save the first Test of the 2008 series at Lord’s, South Africa having sacrificed a mighty 300-run first-innings lead.
McKenzie faced 447 balls for his 138, a heroic innings that, when added to Smith’s and Hashim Amla’s second-innings hundreds, saved the Test and allowed them to go to Headingley all square.
My best McKenzie memory was four seasons later, when the Lions were playing in the 2012 Champions League T20. In the group stages the Lions drew the Mumbai Indians, one of three Indian Premier League teams in the competition. Mumbai brought all their big guns, including Mitchell Johnson, Lasith Malinga and Harbhajan Singh and, chasing, McKenzie blunted their attack with an innings of such care and subtle calculation that I was mesmerised. He made 68 in 40-odd balls as the Lions won by eight wickets with seven deliveries to spare.
The way in which he dealt with the dangerous Harbhajan was spellbinding. He never took too many risks, never overreached himself. McKenzie was so masterful that night he could have played the Mumbai Indians blindfolded – and the Lions would still have won.