The manager at TuksCricket, the cricket club of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) sports department, Blanche Conradie, is talking about a BCom student who has exams in June, a detail only of academic interest the day after he is being feted as South Africa’s Next Big fast bowler.
She talks about Lungi Ngidi and his very scary Indian experience but she can’t stop laughing. It’s that kind of a day — about 24 hours after Lungi uprooted his 6/39 memorabilia stump at Centurion — when even the most-unnerving of Ngidi tales sound funny.
The feel-good story about the 6’4” young black pacer, son of domestic helps from Durban, who first went to school because of an anonymous benefactor, has got South Africa smiling.
With Ngidi, 21, winning the Man of the Match award on his debut just a week after Kagiso Rabada, 22, became the World No.1 Test bowler; the rainbow nation sees hope.
For a nation that didn’t let sports provide a level playing field during the apartheid era, the long-awaited “transformation” at the ground-level is finally underway. The two 145-plus black pacers — Ngidi and Rabada — will now hunt as a pair, and it’s a sight that will be too tempting to resist for the dreamy kids in black townships.
The smiles are quite wide at the Tuks Oval ground in the UP campus where young trainees are talking about Lungi, their senior at the club, and his scalping of Virat Kohli.
Conradie, meanwhile, is recalling a day in 2015 on the foothills of the Himalayas when the very popular “Gentle Giant” had a panic attack. Conradie was manager of the South African champion side, the UP team, which was in Dehradun for the Universities World Cup.
It was a rare day, when the team’s tallest and broadest member, who loves to sleep, wanted to leave his room and go out. “We were in this bus on the hills with lots of hooting and honking around on the sinuous route with traffic jams. Lungi thought he was going to die and had a panic attack. He was screaming and going crazy, he lay on the floor of the bus because he couldn’t take it anymore,” says Conradie, who has been managing the cricket wing of TuksSports, the university’s sports department, both home and away since 2015.
Those were early days for Lungi at the University. He wasn’t the very popular campus figure that he is now. The University, Cricket SA and the Northerns Cricket Union had combined resources to pay the 80,000 Rands annual fees for the very talented pacer from Hilton School.
On campus, he is seen as a jovial, ever-smiling, shy boy who keeps to himself. However, Conradie does talk about the easy-to-spot cricketer on the campus because of his height, the high-voltage smile, his love for the dance floor.
The celebrity cricketer is part of the three-year course that would give him a BCom degree in social and political science. Conradie is smiling again when she says that Lungi’s grades were great initially but have been falling a bit since he started traveling.
Later this year, around June, the boy who had the Indians on the hop will be grappling with exams. “He was to study sociology, philosophy, history and anthropology…these are difficult subjects, one needs to study for them.”
At TuksCricket they are confident that the UP students have it in them to balance both sports and academics. Kruger van Wyk, former New Zealand Test player who has toured India, speaks about how the university is a perfect place to chase dual careers. “It’s a good healthy life, you study, you make friends and it’s a good place for a young man to grow up,” he says.
Adding how sports can be pursued by UP students on a “booking system” with coaches and facilities open from Monday to Friday. “We are there from 9 to 4, players can do bookings. We adjust and adapt,” says the coach, who takes time from a practice match he is watching close by to talk about Lungi.
“The boys at the camp haven’t stopped talking about him. These kids who turn up here see such players come out of the system and they are delighted. He is one of our lads,” he says.
TuksCricket is also seen as the feeder centre for the local first class team Titans, where Lungi took his first steps as a serious cricketer. Rob Walter, head coach with New Zealand’s Otago Volts, was the Titan coach when Lungi was signed up for the star-studded franchise.
Walters has been following the Centurion Test. He says that the sight of Lungi in full flow reminds him of West Indian pacers of past. “He might be a combination of a few guys. He doesn’t charge in his run-up, he is quite smooth. The guys who used to do that were the guys like Michael Holding. Those were the guys who used to breeze in without you hearing them and they would have great pace on the wicket,” says Walter from Otago.
His phenomenal bowling skills may see him get compared to the game’s greats but on campus he remains one of the lads who is capable of panic attacks and his teething problems as a fresher. Back to Conradie: “I remember in his first year, he phoned me at 2 in the morning saying that he broke the key to his door and he couldn’t go to the common bathroom. I told him that I can’t get anyone now. I had to get him out urgently the next morning. I don’t know what happened in those 3 hours when he was inside the room.”
One day we all can laugh about it, is a comforting line after un-nerving episodes. It was that day at Pretoria.