South African fast bowler Lungi Ngidi announced himself on the Test stage as he ripped through India with 6-39 to help secure victory in the second Test in Pretoria on Wednesday.
The victory sealed the series for the home side, and also showcased their impressive depth in the fast bowling department as Ngidi pipped more experienced campaigners Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier to start the Test in what was just his 10th first class game.
He was in the side due to another injury set-back to one of South Africa’s greatest ever Test performers, Dale Steyn, and if ever there was a sportsman who grabbed their opportunity with both hands, it is the 21-year-old from Durban.
His rise to the Test team has been rapid, but also not without hurdles along the way, but he has overcome adversity with the same beaming smile he plays the game with.
Raised in Kloof, Durban, the son of a domestic worker Bongi and caretaker father Jerome, Ngidi won a scholarship for high school at the prestigious private Hilton College, where he was earmarked as a future star … though not necessarily in cricket.
“From a young age he was a natural talent, not just a cricketer, but a very talented rugby player and a swimmer,” Hilton College Executive House Master Sean Carlisle told The Field.
Carlisle was Ngidi’s first team cricket coach along with former Zimbabwe all-rounder Neil Johnson, and together they helped to develop the youngster.
Apart from his imposing physical size, even at that age, what impressed the coaches the most was his mental strength and character.
“There was obviously lots of raw potential there at school level. He was probably a bit frustrated then as at school he suffered a lot of injuries, but the natural ability and the massive potential was clear for everybody to see,” Carlisle says.
“What was evident too is that he stood up in pressure situations. When things were tight in match situations, he come to the fore and that gave you an indication that he could handle bigger pressures later in life.”
Carlisle adds that Ngidi has a natural, easy-going and humble personality that has also helped him stay grounded amid all of his success.
“That is probably one of his greatest assets, that he is humble and down to earth. Right from the start he was very grounded and really was one of those all-round, well-mannered and well-groomed guys. You could say he was, and is, a real good guy.”
A role model to schoolboys
Carlisle believes it is important for the future of South African cricket that players such as Ngidi, even in his tender years, acts as a role model to schoolboys across the country.
“Once boys start to see their peers be successful it inspires them,” he says. “Cricket is under threat at schools, so we need role models. You find in Prep School [junior school], boys will play it, but when they get to High School, you can chat to cricket coaches across the country, it definitely tapers off.
“But we won’t find a better role-model than Lungi for the next generation.”
Ngidi admits to idolising the West Indies growing up, though rather than the great fast bowlers of the past, his heroes were Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Tino Best.
Ngidi is not the only recent Test debutant to come from Hilton College, new England cap Tom Curran, who made his bow in the recent Ashes series in Australia, also hails from the school, along with players from older eras such as Mike Proctor, Johnny Waite and Tiger Lance.
Ngidi’s Test heroics perhaps should not have come as such a surprise considering he also excelled on the international stage 12 months ago.
Injury problems and lifestyle change
He was selected for the Twenty20 International series on home soil against Sri Lanka and returned figures of 2-12 on debut, which also earned him Man of the Match, and 4-16 in the second game.
What this showed was that he would not be overawed on the big stage, but he was denied the chance to play the One-Day International series that followed through injury,
That back problem kept him out of the game for some time and his weight ballooned, leading to a dressing down from his franchise coach, former Proteas wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, that sparked a change in life-style and the loss of eight kilograms.
“It was very difficult but it was worth it in the long run and a lot of credit must also go to the trainer and physiotherapist at the Titans for work they did with me,” Ngidi told reporters this week.
“And the coach [Boucher] as well‚ we had some hard but honest chats behind closed doors and that also helped me much in the long run.
“That was probably one of the biggest challenges of my career‚ coming from a high to a low in a short space of time. Being selected to play for South Africa and then getting injured, it was tough.
“I thought I was doing all the right things but it was not going my way. During my time away from the game I got a lot of time to reflect and now I realise that I am actually stronger than I thought.”
Carlisle admits that despite all his promise, he is a little surprised at how quickly Ngidi has taken to the international game.
“We have been following him and seeing how well he has done at Tuks [the University of Pretoria], and then in the Twenty20s. But to be honest, all of us are slightly taken aback at how quickly and how well he took to Test cricket.”
Carlisle believes that it is his level head and determination off the pitch that, injuries permitting, will make him a super cricketer for South Africa for many years to come.
“He is just an incredibly rounded, humble man and we could not be prouder. The cricket side is fantastic, but for me it is the human element that will make him special.”