Kemp is SA's great enigma
Who do you reckon is the modern, international-standard South African cricketer who has most frustrated and/or confused you over the course of his career in the country? My choice would probably be Justin Kemp.
I imagine there may be a spirited cry of “Herschelle Gibbs” from many observers, although I’d prefer to brand him more mercurial than enigmatic, personally.
Just for one thing, eternal crowd favourite Gibbs – that characteristic clearly lingers to this day, despite his obvious fading – did get to play an awful lot more international cricket than Kemp.
We can probably safely assume that the former, who turns 37 later this month, will not now add to his 90 Test caps and meaty 248 one-day international appearances.
Kemp by comparison has played only four Tests, although he has pulled on the green ODI shirt 85 times and, at 33, is some four years younger than Gibbs and has a better chance (albeit still a long-shot scenario, I imagine) of adding to his tally.
I am not suggesting that Kemp has necessarily been diddled out of appearances for his country or that he should boast a similar number of caps to Gibbs – his Cape Cobras team-mate has achieved much more in the way of true excellence at the highest level and is probably a fair bit more naturally talented, too.
Yet I also can’t suppress a strong thought that Kemp has sadly not quite delivered, for a variety of reasons, on the potential he once demonstrated as a true all-rounder.
My views are influenced, no doubt, by an early assignment I did as a writer for a sports magazine in late 1998, after spending some four years mostly out of the South African sporting loop while resident in the Far East.
I went to Pietermaritzburg to view a four-day encounter between SA ‘A’ and the touring West Indies, with the aim of compiling detailed “dossiers” for publication on several of the younger South African players participating.
Those I chose for a tooth-combing, if you like, included Ashwell Prince, Martin van Jaarsveld ... and one JM Kemp. (The strong SA ‘A’ side also included slightly more established figures at that juncture like Makhaya Ntini, Lance Klusener, Boeta Dippenaar and Paul Adams.)
The weather-affected encounter was tamely drawn but I saw enough from Kemp to be able to predict with some confidence that he would make the next step up to full international duty – he struck an enterprising 38 in the only SA ‘A’ innings and, tellingly employed as first-change seamer, also returned three for 54 in 22 good, hit-the-deck overs – including the scalp of known quality player Carl Hooper.
I asked late coaching guru Hylton Ackerman there and then what he thought of 21-year-old Kemp’s future, and he fancied that he could blossom not only into an authentic all-rounder but also the kind of stellar player generally that the Eastern Cape country districts (Kemp hails from Queenstown) were renowned for producing.
Alas, however, it would not be too long before Kemp’s brisk bowling, including an ability to generate good out-swing against the right-hander, would gradually be marginalised, partly because of injury realities ... but perhaps also because Kemp lost some of his affection for and commitment to the trade?
So he morphed instead into a hard-hitting middle-order batsman with occasional ability to chip in a few overs of now strictly military-medium fare.
It is something that has almost certainly impeded Kemp, as a result, in terms of international consideration, selectors never being really sure whether he will contribute on the bowling front and thus continue to justify an all-rounder tag.
For instance, Kemp has a batting average of 50 from eight Twenty20 international appearances, yet has bowled the grand sum of one over!
How curious, too, that the last of Kemp’s miserly quartet of Test caps came in the first Test against Australia at Perth in 2005/06 – a match he was instrumental in saving for South Africa.
Importantly backing up Jacques Rudolph’s stoic second-knock century, Kemp had drastically curtailed his attacking instincts to accumulate 55 off 166 deliveries at the WACA. (That adaptation under pressure, surely, is a key sign of a good player?)
Admittedly he has flattered to deceive in many instances in between – that will always be a risk run by “finishers” and swashbuckling hitters at the crease -- but some of Kemp’s major ODI exploits will live long in my own memory bank.
Like his successive demolitions of the England attack in 2004/05 at Newlands (57 off 36 balls) and East London (80 off 50 balls). Or his hurricane ton against India in 2006/07, also at Newlands, to power the Proteas from a wobbly 71 for five to an effectively match-winning 274.
In all of those instances, Kemp’s near unrivalled ability to hit “straight, high and long” when the mood grabs him came richly to the fore.
Typically for an enigma, he has sent out some mixed signals in limited-overs cricket for the Cobras this season: he averaged a poor 16 with the bat in their ill-fated MTN40 campaign and did no bowling.
Yet he has started the Standard Bank Pro20 with a personal bang, not only winning the opener against the Titans with a dramatic, cool-headed six and four off the last two balls at Newlands, but unexpectedly bowling sublime spells in consecutive matches from an economy point of view.
Expected to be no more than a sharer of the fifth-bowler duty with Justin Ontong, and potentially vulnerable to a pasting, Kemp has instead eclipsed virtually all of his more specialist bowling team-mates against both the Titans and Lions (the latter game at the Wanderers), returning figures of 3-0-15-1 and 4-0-16-1 respectively.
While basically medium-paced, at best, he has shown the value of canny, stump-to-stump bowling and getting a bit of grip off a slowish deck at times, a little like Hansie Cronje used to in one-day cricket.
Who knows whether some form of meaningful second wind as a bowler is upon him, but Kemp practising this trade again suddenly makes him a wholly more appealing one-day proposition ... and yes, I may even mean for South Africa.
It seems Albie Morkel and Ryan McLaren are the designated all-rounders in standby mode for the World Cup should a man go down on the Subcontinent. Might it just be that Justin Kemp warrants at least equal consideration to this pair, should the need arise?
Rob is Sport24's chief writer
Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.