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Pitch perfect: Rising star Dewald Brevis has the world...

DM168

CRICKET

Pitch perfect: Rising star Dewald Brevis has the world at his feet

Dewald Brevis of South Africa plays a shot during the ICC U19 Men's Cricket World Cup match between England and South Africa at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on 26 January 2022 in Antigua, Antigua and Barbuda. (Photo: Matthew Lewis-ICC / ICC via Getty Images)

Up-and-coming cricket star Dewald Brevis broke a 17-year record at the recent Under-19 World Cup. He scored 506 runs in the tournament, breaking Shikhar Dhawan’s record of 505 runs. Brevis has since picked up a R6-million contract in the Indian Premier League.

It became a sort of tradition. A family thing. Every summer, Yolanda Brevis would sprinkle soil on her lawn to help it thrive. As soon as it became green and lush, her sons Dewald and Reinardt would cover a five-metre strip with plastic, to kill the grass.

The strip was the batter’s end. Behind the stumps, they put a table – that was the wicketkeeper. If you nicked the ball and it touched the table, you were caught out by the keeper. The flowers and little bushes acted like fielders. A couple of times the windows also acted as fielders. That drove Yolanda to ban the use of hard balls on this pitch.

Regardless, every summer the boys diligently worked on their little pitch. Their mother got over it quickly; there was no reason to stop. They hardened the pitch by rolling a weighted drum over it.

“We made it nice and hard like a pitch. We would also ask the gardening service people to cut the grass extra, extra short so that it [could] almost be like a pitch,” says Reinardt Brevis. “Our mother was never happy about us killing her grass.”

Yolanda didn’t understand why they created this other pitch. They had a good one already. In 2010, her husband, Okker Brevis, had a concrete pitch laid at the back of their house. He figured that as the boys were growing older – they were aged 10 and seven at the time – they couldn’t continue playing their backyard internationals on the lawn.

Okker figured that Reinardt would enjoy bowling a proper cricket ball on the concrete pitch as opposed to the tennis ball on the grass. Reinardt always wanted to grow up to become a pace bowler. But he suffered a back injury and had to stop playing before he had really started.

Okker also kitted the area with nets. He figured that young Dewald would be swinging his bat hard, trying to make the balls go further. It would be good for his little batting star. Dewald always enjoyed going after the bowlers.

Let him play

Okker caught Dewald in the passage. He was trying a bowling action. Young Dewald would visualise the pitch, do a little run-up and bowl.

“We asked him what he was doing and he said he had been watching Shane Warne and wanted to bowl like him,” says Okker.

This was just before Dewald started playing Bakers Mini Cricket, now KFC Mini Cricket, and he was around four or five years old. He had watched Warne spin his magic around the opposition. He was inspired.

A young Dewald and Reinardt with former Proteas fast bowler Dale Steyn. (Photo: Supplied)

That was the start of his leg spin

Reinardt and Dewald have always taken inspiration from TV. When they were a little older, the brothers used to host friends on sleepovers at their house for days on end. During those days, they would host an international Test match. One of their childhood friends who slept over for the Test matches is SA 2021 Under-19 captain Schalk Engelbrecht.

While Dewald was playing one of his first Bakers Mini Cricket matches, not too long after the passage incident, a parent saw him bowling his leg spin and was impressed.

“He approached me and asked, ‘Who taught him to do that?’” Okker recalls. “I said to him, he just watches cricketers on TV and copies. He taught himself. The parent was so impressed he said we need[ed] to get special private coaching for Dewald.”

The impressed parent even made a suggestion of who to go to.

Okker was not a cricket player. Neither was his wife. He didn’t play it in his youth and his family was not a cricketing family. He enjoyed watching it, but he was never overly invested in it. He was learning how to deal with cricketing kids through his two sons. Advice from other parents was always welcome, but he was not going to take it blindly.

He consulted Yolanda. They did their research and decided not to send Dewald to private coaching.

“We came up with a decision to just let the boys play as much as they could without private coaching,” he says. “It caused quite a lot of banter at the primary school that my kids attended. Some parents were pro-private coaching. I was quite adamant about not getting them into private coaching.”

Early specialisation is an attractive storyline for elite athletes. But, as David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, points out, that is the exception, not the norm. Okker chose the norm. While early specialisation has its advantages, it has many disadvantages too. It works for some, and it doesn’t work for others.

According to a study that looked at thousands of athletes, elite and non-elite, from all over the world, early specialisation “may reinforce rapid junior success at the expense of long-term success”.

The study mentions deliberate play. Where deliberate practice is focused training meant to improve skill and is regulated by a coach, deliberate play is the opposite. It is regulated by the kids, the participants, and is done primarily for the enjoyment of the sport. Like Reinardt and Dewald’s various forms of backyard Test matches.

Later on, Okker would bump into Johan Rudolph, father of former Proteas batter Jacques. Johan became one of the few people who helped Dewald with his leg spin bowling. Dewald takes it very seriously.

“Johan told me that it is very important that I manage the kids in a way that makes sure that they never lose the love for the game,” says Okker.

“He said, ‘They’re still young, and if the club wants them to play Saturday and Sunday, make sure to ask them if they want to play Sunday. If they really want to play, then you let them play. But if they say they want to have a rest and they want to play with their friends, let them play. So in that way, they will never lose the love for the game.’”

Even though Tiger Woods is the preferred icon for early specialisation, he shared that he was the one who dragged his father to the golf course for practice. He is the one who pestered his father for more practice.

Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father, famously refused to treat his daughters like professionals early on. He always emphasised fun with his daughters. Have fun.

There is a scene in the movie King Richard. A famous coach tells Richard that if Venus, then 11 years old, doesn’t play more matches, “you’re going to ruin her”. Richard responds by pulling Venus and Serena out of the junior tennis circuit completely.

“They don’t need all that pressure,” Richard says. “They need to just be kids.”

Venus didn’t play an official match for the next three-and-a-half years.

At Affies, Deon Botes takes the same approach. He doesn’t care about the student’s reputation coming to the school; he doesn’t play first-team cricket until the end of his Grade 9 year. No sooner.

“He said that Dewald must develop with his year group, it’s very important,” says Okker. “He said that if he plays first-team cricket too early, he will start losing interest.”

Botes’s views were recently echoed by Jacques Faul, the Titans CEO, who warned against placing expectations on Dewald. Faul doesn’t want Dewald’s development to be rushed and hopes that the young man will be allowed to develop at his own pace and that he will have the chance to be the best version of himself.

“You don’t have control over how people see you and compare you, but I do hope that people will allow him to be his own individual,” Faul says.

Besides the coaches at Bakers Mini Cricket, Dewald and his brother did not have specialist coaches. The closest they came to that was when they were “coached” by the Van Heerden brothers, Francois, Wian and Schalk. The Van Heerden boys lived close to the Brevis family and they are the ones who taught Dewald and Reinardt the basic technique of cricket.

The aforementioned study also found that youngsters who do not specialise early are more resistant to injury and psychological burnout. Dewald also played rugby for the Blue Bulls’ junior sides.

Coach Deon Botes with Dewald Brevis. (Photo: Supplied)

Focusing on skills

Brian Radebe wrote Dewald Brevis a letter. Dewald was 10 at the time. Brian was coaching Titans Regional Under-11s. Brian’s letter holds an important place in Dewald’s life and is a valued gift within the Brevis family. At Under-11, Dewald was one of the two youngest players in the team.

“Dewald wanted to do it all – bowl, bat and field,” says Radebe. “But it was not in an arrogant way, he just wanted to help the team.”

That is one of the things that Brian spoke about in his letter to Dewald. He praised him for his team-first mindset. Brian felt that it was vital to praise youngsters when they did well or did things with the best intentions. In the letter, he also encouraged Dewald to keep “extending his boundaries”.

“I told him to keep challenging himself,” says Radebe, “and I also told him to not judge himself based on what other kids were doing. I encouraged him to always try to be the number one he could be.”

“At the Under-11 Week, Dewald played one of the best games I have ever seen played in the age group,” says Cobus Cloete, one of Dewald’s coaches at Titans Under-11. “It was our last game against Griquas. It was a T20. Dewald scored at least 70 of 36 balls to win the game for us.”

Dewald had an excellent all-round performance. He did well with the bat and ball, and in the field. Cloete started calling him Mr All-rounder that week. Dewald did it all. He even kept the wicket and did it well too.

“He actually had to choose between wicket-keeping and leg spin,” Okker says. “So we had to make that call, and it was easy and obvious in the end. He stuck with leg spin because it is a unique skill.”

After dropping the keeping, Dewald has always considered himself to be a proper all-rounder. In the years that his provincial side did not ask him to bowl, Dewald died a little inside. He had confidence in his craft as a bowler and had some of the best mentors, including Billy Brown.

Brown, a passionate man when it comes to leg spin, was Dewald’s Under-14 coach at Affies.

“He has a very traditional leg spin technique,” says Botes, Dewald’s coach at Affies. “He bowls a very good googly. If he works on it he might be a good all-rounder. At Under-15 he took many five-wicket hauls with his leggies. I always pushed him to get better, to not rest on previous successes,” says Botes.

Aptitude does not guarantee achievement. Cricket talent was different from excelling in the sport. Conventional wisdom suggests that in sport the more talented players should excel, leaving the less naturally talented behind. People get distracted by talent and forget about a crucial ingredient – effort. Too much praise leads to less effort from the child. A good balance of praise and nudging to improve creates a “striver” – an individual who strives to be better.

Botes always warns parents about being too critical. He cautions them about the car ride home.

“Do you know what is the one thing that your son will fear the most?” He often asks the parents. “It’s when they fail in a game and then have to make the trip back home with the father in the car.”

Youngsters should know that failure is as much a part of the sport as success, and either way they should work to improve. It helps them to develop resilience and grit.

Having coaches such as Botes and Radebe proved to be very important for Dewald. He was a gritty youngster already. When he played Under-9 rugby for his school, Hennopspark, Dewald put his hand up to play as a scrumhalf or flyhalf.

The coach had someone else in mind and he played his preferred player. Dewald did not despair; he kept fighting and pushing for that specific jersey. He earned the spot in his Under-12 and Under-13 years when he became the scrumhalf for the Blue Bulls. At Under-13 he was placekicker for both Blue Bulls and Hennopspark.

Grit and resilience are like muscles; they need constant exercise. Having Radebe and Botes guide him meant that he was always working on it.

Pushing boundaries

There is this thing that Dewald liked to do a lot when he was playing backyard internationals with Reinardt and their friends. When making runs was proving to be a little too easy for him, Dewald swapped the normal bat for a middling bat.

Dewald also likes to play table tennis against the wall. He starts slow and picks up speed as he plays his one-man match. It helps him with reflexes and hand-eye coordination. For hand-eye coordination, he has also done some work with Jolene Campher, but that was a few years ago. Campher is a renowned wicket-keeping coach. At the time she ran a business where she worked on the visual skills of cricketers.

With Covid and lockdowns preventing sports for an extended period in 2020, Dewald didn’t play a lot of cricket and didn’t practise a lot. These are some of the things that he did as part of his training.

“He has a very strict exercise programme which he was given by the Titans physio that he adheres to,” says Reinardt.

Whenever she was needed, Yolanda would throw balls for Dewald. Underarm. Okker also threw balls for Dewald whenever he was not at work. Reinardt didn’t need any invitation. When home and not studying, he was happy to throw balls at his sibling. From morning till dusk, if they were not interrupted. It was like old times again, when they competed all day.

“I always wanted to bowl and Dewald loved batting,” says Reinardt. “I wanted to bowl all the time and Dewald wanted to bat all the time. It was like an international Test match.”

Dewald is a fit youngster. He has always jogged long distances and has always improvised whatever equipment he can, that he needs, at home.

“I drove down to his house a few times to help him train,” says Botes. “AB de Villiers also went down a couple of times to help him.”

One of those trips was in July 2021. It was a great day in the Brevis household.

“It was an incredible experience for all of us,” says Okker.

It was the second time that he bowled his leggies to a legend of South African cricket. The first one was Dale Steyn. But that is a story for another day.

Dewald Brevis and his brother Reinhardt with AB de Villiers at their homemade pitch. (Photo: Supplied)

Foundations

Billy Brown once called Dewald into his office. He asked Dewald to draw a nice picture of a house for him. Dewald drew the picture. After looking at the picture, Billy Brown told him that his house didn’t have a foundation. Dewald added the foundation.

“That’s your approach to your batting,” Brown told him. “Get the foundation, and then you start building the house.”

That has become Dewald’s batting template – getting a foundation first.

One of Dewald’s best innings, for his family, was just before the Under-19 side left for the West Indies. It was against Easterns at Willowmoore Park, Benoni.

“He had a great partnership with Andile Simelane,” says Reinardt. “Dewald was hitting sixes against the wind.”

Dewald and Simelane put on 236 runs together. Dewald scored 140 from 119 balls. Simelane narrowly missed out on a century. The Easterns bowler bowled a wide last ball. Both batters remained not out as they helped their team chase 304.

The match against Easterns was one of the few matches that his family could attend since the start of the pandemic. Seeing Dewald dominate bowlers in that match, hitting big sixes, reminded the Brevis family of his last premier league match for Laudium Cricket Club.

“He hit a big six that busted through the window of the clubhouse,” says Reinardt. “We were standing right there.”

In that match, Dewald scored 138 from 88 balls against Christian Brothers’ College. He was unstoppable on the day. Laudium won the match.

Dewald’s family has always been there, where possible, cheering him on. Yolanda and Okker have never been the loud parents who shout instructions to their kids while on the sidelines. Neither have they ever been parents who like to talk about their sons, extolling their talents.

“We have never been the parents who post stuff about our boys on social media,” says Okker.

Dewald Brevis with Curtly Ambrose at the recent Under-19 World Cup, where the young SA star set a new scoring record with 506 runs at the tournament. (Photo: Supplied)

On family matters, Dewald takes a page out of Okker’s book. He is thoughtful and considerate.

When Dewald left for the Under-19 World Cup in the West Indies, he missed Reinardt’s birthday. He wanted to do something special for his older brother. So, he sought out and found Sir Curtly Ambrose, one of Reinardt’s heroes. He had a couple of talks with the West Indies legend on different days before he finally asked the West Indies legend for a message and an autograph for his brother on his (Ambrose’s) hat.

“Reinhardt is a massive Sir Curtly Ambrose fan, so it was incredible for him to get that,” says Okker.

Ambrose did Dewald one better. He signed his wide-brimmed hat and the South Africa Under-19 cap for Reinardt.

This attitude to the family also informs his attitude towards his team. He treats his teammates like family.

“He backs his teammates as much as he backs himself,” says Radebe, who has kept in touch with Dewald and his family. “That is a lot considering how much Dewald backs his skills and preparation.”

“He is a good Christian boy,” says Botes. “Respectful towards everyone, including his teammates. He is very helpful with his teammates. He also has a good sense of humour, so he pranks them a lot too.”

And when it comes to the Baby AB issue, Faul sums things up perfectly.

“He has started his journey to be a professional cricketer younger than most,” says Faul. “It’s not new that at that stage they will have idols and people they aspire to be.

“There are so many similarities between a young AB and Dewald. I guess it’s just normal that people would compare him with AB. But from my interactions with him, he is a level-headed, down-to-earth individual.

“He also realises that he has got to develop in his own space and to be his own self. I am actually quite confident seeing how he has dealt with it up to now. He is somebody that wants to be himself anyway.” 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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