DM168

SHIFTING BOUNDARIES

Proteas play back into fans’ hearts, but India victories feel like ‘start of something bigger’, says resurgent Ngidi

Proteas play back into fans’ hearts, but India victories feel like ‘start of something bigger’, says resurgent Ngidi
Proteas fast bowler Lungi Ngidi took 15 wickets in the recent Test series against India and played a vital leadership role in the ODI series. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP)

The Proteas have delivered inspiring performances over the past five weeks. In spite of the off-field drama – and the ongoing legal battle between Cricket SA and head coach Mark Boucher – a multicultural team has discovered its identity and claimed some important results against India.

The Proteas have given South African cricket fans a reason to smile. And with three major tours looming, and another T20 World Cup campaign, “the team without any superstars” is well placed to climb the rankings.

“It’s been a crazy four or five weeks. What we achieved against India only started to sink in the day after the third ODI,” Proteas fast bowler Lungi Ngidi told DM168.

“It feels like the start of something bigger, though. We’ve had a taste of success, and now we must build towards the next big challenge.”

Fighter mentality

The Proteas lost the first Test against India at Centurion. Thanks largely to skipper Dean Elgar, they clawed their way back to win the next two Tests – and the series. South Africa carried that momentum through to the ODIs, winning the first two matches to take an unassailable lead. In the final fixture at Newlands, they pushed hard to complete the whitewash. While the performance was far from polished, the players – led by another warrior in captain Temba Bavuma – showed their mental fortitude.

Ngidi was one of South Africa’s standout performers across both series. The tall, powerfully built fast bowler took 15 wickets at an average of 15.00 across the three Tests. Though he was less prolific in the ODIs, Ngidi produced several important spells at the death to swing the contest in South Africa’s favour.

Rebounding from Covid-19

Two months ago, there were doubts about Ngidi’s fitness and whether he deserved his place in the Proteas team.

Ngidi struggled with his form and conditioning over the course of 2021, and was forced to withdraw from tournaments such as The Hundred and the ODI series against Ireland.

He played three matches for the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League, and did not feature for the Proteas at the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Behind the scenes, however, Ngidi worked closely with strength and conditioning coaches to address his injury problems and his overall fitness. Having made significant gains, he went into the three-match ODI series against the Netherlands determined to prove a point. Unfortunately, Ngidi contracted Covid-19 in the lead-up to that series and was dealt another devastating setback.

“Prior to that, I wasn’t getting much game time. It would have been easy to slip into a downward spiral if I didn’t have so much going on in the background,” he says.

“I was in a reasonably good mental space ahead of the Netherlands series, though, because I was putting in a lot of physical work, in an attempt to get myself into peak condition. Then I got Covid. Not only was I ruled out of the games, but out of training as well. Guys my size tend to pick up weight pretty quickly when they’re not training – and 10 days in isolation is a long time.

“I just had to push through it, mentally if not physically. I shut down in the sense that I took a break from social media. I engaged with things I enjoy; things that inspire me personally.

“The support I received from my family, coaches and teammates helped a great deal. At no point did I think that the chance to return to the Proteas had passed me by.”

Boucher’s faith in Ngidi rewarded

Eyebrows were raised when Ngidi was fast-tracked into the Test team ahead of the series opener against India on 26 December. Critics highlighted the 25-year-old’s lack of game time in 2021 and wondered if he would be fully fit.

“There were a lot of nerves ahead of that first Test,” he says. “I shut out the noise from the outside. It made a massive difference to know that my coaches believed in me and backed me to perform against India. I really needed that at that stage.

“Then everything fell into place. I stuck to my plan and took six wickets in the first innings. Even though we went on to lose that game, I felt that I’d made a breakthrough.”

Not a team of superstars… yet

Kagiso Rabada finished the Test series with the most wickets (20), followed by newcomer Marco Jansen (19) and Ngidi (15). It’s early days, but this group may develop into a fast-bowling combination that warrants comparison with Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel – the trio that terrorised opposition batters during South Africa’s reign as the leading Test side.

“When all of those legends retired, it fell to KG, Anrich Nortje and myself to spearhead the attack,” Ngidi says. “We saw how well that went in the series against the West Indies last June.

“It was sad to see Anrich missing out on the series against India because of injury, but Marco slotted in beautifully. He also offered something new as a left-armer. It’s exciting to think that we’re building some depth in that department.

“We’re honest with each other as bowlers and batters in this team,” Ngidi adds.

“We’re not a team of superstars, so we need to understand our individual roles and how they fit into the overall game plan. I’m probably in the Vernon Philander mould now. I’ve worked hard to develop an away-swinger, and have focused on my accuracy. It’s my job to bring the run rate down and to build the pressure. If someone else takes a wicket on the back of that, I consider it a success.”

Cultural shift

Nortje missed the ODI series against India and, with Rabada rested for those three matches, Ngidi took on a more senior role.

“During the series, someone came up to me and spoke about the change in my demeanour,” he says. “They said that I was angrier, more determined, and ultimately hungrier to succeed. My response was that I had to be, because I was going up against a world-class Indian batting line-up.”

Ngidi credits the coaches for creating the right environment. Boucher may have his critics within the corridors of Cricket South Africa, but within the team, players like Ngidi are quick to give the head coach his due.

“Boucher has done a great job with this team – and has got the right captains in place across the formats,” he says.

“Dean said recently that we can be the No 1 Test side once more. Temba has led from the front for the limited-overs teams. If we stick to our process, and continue to fight, we will continue to grow.

“These are exciting times. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy from here – quite the opposite, with us playing a lot of big series away from home against New Zealand, England and Australia in the coming months.

“Those top teams will have noted how we performed against India. They will know that the Proteas are a force again. It’s important that they see us that way. On the other hand, it means that they may be warier of us than before.”

Warriors on and off the field

When Rassie Erasmus took charge of the battling national rugby side in 2018, he spoke about changing the culture and recruiting players who would fight for their team and country.

After identifying a group with the necessary mentality, Erasmus guided the team to the 2019 World Cup title. In 2021, Erasmus as director of rugby and new coach Jacques Nienaber steered the Boks to a monumental series win against the British & Irish Lions.

South Africa are currently No 1 in the world rugby rankings. That team is stacked with strong characters who are not afraid to speak up and fight – on or off the field. Siya Kolisi, Makazole Mapimpi and many others have gone out of their way to support noble causes, such as the fight against gender-based violence in South Africa.

This Proteas group boasts like-minded characters who are strong enough to take action. Bavuma has spoken out against injustice on many occasions and continues to give back to the community through his foundation. Ngidi has partnered with the United Nations Women for Change programme and the Uyinene Mrwetyana Foundation to raise awareness about gender-based violence.

“I believe in consistency, which is why I’m the same person on and off the field,” Ngidi says.

“I like to smile, even in situations where things aren’t going my way. I realise that things could be a lot worse; that there are people who don’t have the opportunity to play this great game for a living. I will never take that for granted.

“I want to help others realise their dreams just as I’ve realised mine – that’s my motivation for giving back.

“I won’t hide who I am or what I believe in. I will fight against gender-based violence. I will fight for the [Black Lives Matter] movement. I won’t compromise on my values just because I’m a cricketer.”

The Proteas and indeed the greater South African cricket community are buzzing after the recent win against India. Recent results have lifted a fan base in need of a good-news story.

Ngidi suggests that the best is yet to come from this group of players.

“We like to draw inspiration from other teams and sporting codes. The Springboks shut out the noise, built a brilliant culture, and stuck to their processes. Look at what they achieved, and how they lifted the country.

“We won’t get there overnight – but it’s fair to say that we are on the right path.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

 

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