A couple of days before the second Test, a group of young boys from a township just outside Pretoria would burst into an evil chortle every time a South Africa batsman would get hit by a racing delivery from a tall well-built young pacer. “But they wouldn’t play him, they will pick Chris Morris in place of Dale Steyn,” they would groan.
The animated young fans were just a few of the many locals who wanted 21-year-old Lungi Ngidi to play the second Test. And as Ngidi kept troubling the South African top-order batsmen at the training session, their voices became stronger and chuckles louder. Maybe, the decision-makers in the South African dressing room, like the black kids, were impressed by what they saw. Ngidi would unexpectedly get into the playing XI.
Expectations were unusually high. That had nothing to do with him being the country’s best-ever Steyn’s replacement. In these parts, young black cricketers carry the burden of their entire community. First there is the quota system—loosely every playing XI has to have two blacks—that makes it important for players like Ngidi to make a good first impression.
Very early, they need to show that they belong because of their cricket skills. They need to be role models too, for the game to penetrate the townships so that the government can achieve “transformation goals”. Being the second Zulu-speaking player in the squad, after Andile Phehlukwayo, Ngidi had a lot riding on him. With cricket not quite popular in Zululand—that’s because the British couldn’t reach them—Ngidi’s career would be seen with interest. His success would be a fillip to the cricket structure in KwaZulu-Natal province since now the original inhabitants were taking up the game.
The world called Lance Kluesner ‘The Zulu’ but the real deal, Ngidi, was now taking the stage. And how. The son of domestic workers from Durban would grab his chance with both hands. Ngidi is the youngest of four brothers. He went to primary school, thanks to a mystery donor. His six-wicket haul would get him the Man-of-the-Match award in his debut Test. Centurion would be abuzz. Once Ngidi would walk to fine leg after a wicket-taking over, he would wave to the crowd where he would recognise many faces. Pretoria knows him well because this is where Ngidi grew from a pacer with raw pace to someone who is getting compared to the West Indian pace greats of the 1980s. “He has a Walsh-like run-up,” says former opener Boeta Dippenaar.
However, for Ngidi the trip to his El Dorado, the place where he found fame, and where fortune will follow, wasn’t smooth. The shy Zulu boy wasn’t keen to move to the South African capital. But there was someone who wasn’t ready to take a no for an answer. The Titans and Dolphins all-rounder Pierre de Bruyn didn’t give up. He had heard about the talented pacer from ex-Zimbabwe all-rounder Neil Johnson, who worked at Hilton College where Ngidi was on scholarship. And now he wanted the youngster to be at Centurion.
On his big day, Ngidi says he couldn’t thank de Bruyn enough. “I don’t think thanking him would be enough. I wouldn’t even know where to start. He moved me from where my cricket had taken a dip and brought me to a place where I’m now able to flourish as a sportsman. Words wouldn’t be enough to thank him.”
On the long days of negotiations, he said, “It took him three years, actually. He first arrived in my Grade 10 year and asked me to come to the Titans then, and I wasn’t having it. But it was amazing how consistently he would arrive and keep asking for me. I wanted to see if he really meant it, so I also kind of played hard-to-get.”
After his matric year, Ngidi wanted to study so the lure of the Tuks University at Pretoria was a big pull. “I wanted to further my studies and he offered me that opportunity and playing cricket at the same time. When I arrived here, I honestly didn’t know where it was going to go. I thought to myself: Just play, do what you can do as best you can. and here I am today.”
While at Titans, Ngidi would meet Mark Boucher, a hard taskmaster, who would have a heart-to-heart with the bowler who wasn’t really ready for international cricket. The boy from Natal was on the heavier side. Ngidi would lose 8 kgs and be much fitter and faster. As Boucher says, he would have the stamina to bowl 17 to 18 overs and still have legs. It’s not been an easy ride for him. Ngidi had missed both the u-19 World Cup and later the ICC World T20 because of injury. However, the man who he missed bowling with at both these events—Kagiso Rabada—was here by his side all the time. Ngidi considers Rabada an inspiration and relished the moment with him.
“I do remember that moment and it did strike me when I was thrown the ball and he was bowling at the other end. During the game, I couldn’t say anything, I had to internalise it, but it really was a dream come true to bowl with him. It has been a dream of mine.”
To watch two black boys running through the opposition is a dream for many here. Those township boys were there at the game again and they couldn’t stop chuckling gleefully.