"Cricket saved me. I had wise people around me. Black people. That was the best thing I could ask for"
"Cricket saved me. I had wise people around me. Black people. That was the best thing I could ask for"
Once a great South African fast-bowling hope full of rage, Mfuneko Ngam lost out for want of guidance. Now he's hoping to provide just that to future generations of black cricketers
Something amazing happened in the Centurion Test between South Africa and India last year. On day two, just before the mid-afternoon drinks break, the captain, Faf du Plessis, threw the ball to 21-year-old debutant Lungi Ngidi. Not many noticed at the time - the Test was moving at a frenetic pace - but bowling at the other end was Kagiso Rabada. Two young, confident black South Africans bowling in tandem for the national team was a beautiful sight for a country once ravaged by apartheid.
Ngidi would go on to win the Man-of-the-Match award on debut. Rabada was already the best Test bowler in the world. A week later Ngidi would bring his proud parents, who worked as domestic help, to the Johannesburg Test; they were seeing a hotel for the first time. Ngidi and Rabada were in the team not as much-maligned "quota" picks, but as two of the bona fide best bowlers in the country. And they were there to stay. They have gone on to represent South Africa in the World Cup. That is the stuff of wild fantasy for those who experienced the brutality of apartheid.
Briefly the country had realised this dream of a new South Africa at the turn of the century. Makhaya Ntini came from Mdingi in Eastern Province wearing takkies (canvas sneakers) with metal wires for laces. For three Tests in 2000-01, he was joined by Mfuneko Ngam, from Middledrift, a black township in Eastern Province. Just like Rabada and Ngidi, they were great rivals at lower levels of cricket. Whenever Mdingi played Middledrift in the local Macalegusha tournament, grounds would be packed to capacity to watch Ntini and Ngam go up against each other. Even when they were playing for their provinces, they would fly in if games finished early just to be able to play against each other.
Ngam was the first black South African Test cricketer to not have come from a former Model C school. Model C was the term used for whites-only institutions during apartheid. Ntini went to Dale College. Even Ngidi was spotted early and enrolled in a former Model C school. Not Ngam, who studied at Douglas Mbopa in Motherwell, a few kilometres north of Port Elizabeth.
"I grew up angry. I managed to channel my anger, I guess, towards a positive thing. Towards bowling fast. That was how I got my anger out. I could feel it going out."
Ngam was not just any bowler. He was a terror. Bowlers tend to bowl no-balls in the nets, which the batsmen don't mind because they want intense training, but with Ngam, Daryll Cullinan remembers he had to go and pull the stump at the bowler's end out and push it back by three yards. In Ngam's first over in Test cricket, Cullinan put down two catches. The pace at which the ball flew off the edge was something else.
Ngam remembers batsmen didn't want to face him in the nets. Particularly before the Durban Test against Sri Lanka, he was in fine rhythm.
"Herschelle Gibbs said, 'No way, I am not batting,'" Ngam says. "He walked out. Jacques [Kallis] said, 'No way, I am not batting.' Someone else came in, faced three balls and said, 'Nah I am good.' So I ended up bowling at a target and not a batsman."
Gibbs began to use Ngam's pace to settle personal scores with opposition bowlers or chirpers. "Ngamy, see this guy, that guy, I want to see their blood."
The whole country was falling in love. People were asked by radio stations to phone in with nicknames for him. "ChewNgam" caught on. "Ngamy" was convenient. The most significant was "Black Thunder", a tip of the hat to his idol, Allan Donald, "White Lightning". Imagine the power of the image of White Lightning and Black Thunder taking South African cricket forward.
And then it all ended, even before Donald, the man Ngam replaced in the XI, could make a comeback.
But how it all began is just as important as how it ended. Ngidi and Rabada are too young to have experienced it, but Ngam has known apartheid first-hand. "At the time it was tough as a black kid or as a black person," he says. "Even walking around the streets was not easy. You had to carry a pass. I still remember those days. if you walked on a street there would be cops coming, arresting people for no reason."
The kids managed to find entertainment in the toyi-toyi, a protest song and dance in which groups of black people stomp their feet and chant slogans to try to intimidate the police. At a time when they were not considered human, it was important to be together to reclaim some human liberties, albeit briefly. "For us as kids it was just entertainment. So we just enjoyed watching cars being bent and whatever. It was just excitement. When people toyi-toyi-ed, we would just join in."
Ngam had a match haul of 6 for 62 in his last Test, bowling with a fracture in his shin
Ngam had a match haul of 6 for 62 in his last Test, bowling with a fracture in his shin © AFP
Ngam was an angry kid. "I grew up in a family where my father was abusive towards my mum," he says. "Maybe the reason why I kept on waking up in the morning, going jogging and running. Just to get away from the stresses at home. Clearing up my mind. I grew up angry but people wouldn't notice that. I managed to channel my anger, I guess, towards a positive thing. Towards bowling fast. Whenever I had the ball in my hand, I wanted to kill someone. I wanted to bowl as fast as I could. That was how I got my anger out. I could feel it going out."
As Ngam went on to learn more about bowling, it changed into wanting to hit batsmen, but not to hurt them. You hit them, you stop their feet moving, and then you nick them off.
Primarily, though, cricket was an escape. "My parents enjoyed seeing me going to the training sessions because I was not giving them any trouble in terms of crime," Ngam says. "Every time I came from school and I went to practice, they knew where I was. They knew I was safe wherever I was.
"Cricket saved me. It was not only going to practice and being safe at the stadium. So many lessons I learned through playing cricket. In terms of discipline. In terms of knowing what's right and what's wrong. Older people that I was playing with at my club, where after the practice they would come and talk to me in terms of what's right and what's wrong. How they made it, how I could make it. I had wise people around me. Black people. That was the best thing I could ask for."
Except, Ngam didn't have a mentor to tell him how to train, how to look after himself, how to manage injuries. He played his last Test with a fracture in his shin. He told Ntini on day three that they had to finish the Test that day or he would be in bad trouble. Turns out he was anyway.
"I was limping most of those two Test matches," he says. "I could feel there was something. But as soon as I warmed up, I was okay. Also, I had this shoulder problem as well. I had dived on my shoulder in a club game. Whenever I warmed up, I would be okay. But as soon as I am cold, it starts. Those Test matches, I bowled quickly and without any fear, but afterwards I would feel the pain."
And then he had a shoulder surgery that he regretted for very long. He never recovered from it. Every time he tried to bowl fast after it, he hurt his shoulder. Add to that a number of stress fractures in his legs. He refused to become a line-and-length bowler in order to make a comeback. He had many tests done but couldn't figure out why his bones were so brittle. There was a theory that the root of his injuries lay in dietary deficiencies in his childhood.
"It was tough as a black kid or as a black person. Even walking around the streets was not easy. You had to carry a pass"
Ngam thinks it might have been something else. "I would wake up in the morning, go for a 3-4k run. I was chasing my dream. Go for another run later in the day. But I was running on the tar road. Twice a day, five days a week. Then I would still go and bowl on concrete. I would bowl a lot of overs every week. No one was monitoring all those things. I was doing all those things by myself thinking I was doing the right thing. I used to watch Chinese movies - Jackie Chan and all that - where they would be training on their own. Those were the things that were going through my mind."
Ngam believes he shouldn't have had the surgery on the shoulder. "If I was wise enough, I would have said, just leave it," he says. "But I was young, I listened to the wise people, and then it never recovered. Took me longer to recover - wouldn't say never recovered - two years to feel the strength but not a 100%. I never bowled as quick as I did before. Even today when I throw, I can feel it. Had I not done the operation, things would have been different."
He once came close to making a comeback. He was selected for the 2003-04 tour of New Zealand, but two nights before departure he went all out for Eastern Province against Easterns in a virtual semi-final and broke his foot. The day he went for the scans was desperately heartbreaking. He sat in his car for hours and imagined the headlines and cried to himself. He went back to the team and begged to be taken to New Zealand, even if they sent him back on day one.
Pretty soon Ngam learned to deal with the despair. If he was not going to bowl really fast, he was going to help other black kids deal with the problems he had not been equipped to deal with.
He ran the Fort Hare Academy, a joint venture between CSA, Border Cricket and Fort Hare University. Not that he needed help. Even when he was playing, he had set up an academy by himself to help kids in his township. He would bring back equipment international cricketers didn't need any longer, he would teach the kids English, he would tell them how to deal with the media, how to be professional. He knew he was not representing himself alone. He had got calls and messages from Nelson Mandela himself when he made his debut. He felt there was a bigger role for him in life.
Ngam at home in Port Alfred, where he now lives and works as assistant coach with Warriors
Sidharth Monga / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Ngam at home in Port Alfred, where he now lives and works as assistant coach with Warriors Sidharth Monga / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Ngam goes around looking for talent, and they make it to the academy in two age groups: juniors from age 13 to 18, seniors 19 to 23. They are given scholarships, they are educated, and they are given wholesome cricket coaching.
Ngam wanted to be what Adrian Birrell was to him: a father figure. Back then Birrell, who would go on to be an assistant coach for South Africa, helped underprivileged kids in Eastern Province make it in cricket. He speaks Xhosa, he knows cricket. He got Ngam boots when he was 14. He could understand his insecurities and anxieties in an English- and Afrikaans-speaking world. It is one of Ngam's regrets that when he was struggling with injuries, Birrell was away coaching Ireland.
"Since [Fort Hare Academy] started in 2009, about 28 have played semi-pro cricket, provincial cricket," Ngam proudly says. "About 15 have played franchise cricket. Three ladies have played for the national team. Aya Khaka was part of our academy. Latest one is Zintle Mali. We are a factory for black African cricketers."
Importantly, the academy and the university leave the kids equipped to make a living even if they don't make it in cricket. "Not only for one kid but as many kids as possible," Ngam says. "And try and save as many lives as I can. That's why I love what I do."
We met last January at a beach in Port Alfred, where Ngam now lives. After close to ten years at the academy, he has finally accepted one of the more glamorous offers that keep coming his way. He is now the assistant coach with Warriors, but no matter where he goes his academy and grass-roots work will remain close to his heart. That way, he can continue saving lives.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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