Under-19 cricketers can learn from the class of 2004
Local cricket fans will not be immediately familiar with the name Vincenzo Pennazza. But Pennazza – or Vince, as his cricket mates call him – has a story to tell, playing in the same South African under-19 side at the 2004 World Cup as Vernon Philander and the Dolphins' Craig Alexander and Divan van Wyk.
While Philander has spent time these past few weeks on the golf course, wrestling with his five-handicap after playing three not-entirely-successful Tests against Australia, Pennazza, a resolutely hard-working left-arm quick, has come out top of the bowling averages in the time competition of the Gauteng Premier League.
His 23 wickets at 10.09 make up one of the reasons why Wanderers, rather than the more-fancied University of Johannesburg or Old Edwardians, are 20 points clear of their nearest rivals, with a few games to play. For a man who has suffered more tribulations than he might have expected when he was part of that under-19 side 10 years ago, Pennazza could be forgiven for looking forward to a rare day in the sun.
The son of a Italian father and a mother from the little town of Sanbartholomeo just south of Rome, Pennazza matriculated from Paarl Boys' High in 2002. He was part of a scandalously gifted South African under-19 side that toured England the following year (his teammates included AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy) and his big break came at Hove in a 50-over game against England's under-19 team in late August of that year.
Opening the batting for England that day were Alastair Cook and Tim Bresnan; Pennazza took the new ball, was hit for four by Bresnan and, as if on Autocue, the rain came down. "At least I got my baggy green," said Pennazza this week with a slightly rueful smile.
An inconsistent affair
Partly because he was still young enough, Pennazza managed to qualify for the under-19 World Cup squad in 2004. Unlike the vintage campaign of 2014, in which SA's under-19s cruised past Australia and Pakistan in the final to win the competition, the 2004 World Cup sortie to Bangladesh was a halting, inconsistent affair. Having beaten India in the Super 8s, South Africa needed to beat Sri Lanka in their next match to catapult themselves into the semifinals. They failed by 30-odd runs.
Many in the side, including Pennazza's teammates Keegan Africa, Jaco Booysen, Chad Bouwer, Waylain September, "Blackie" Slwana and Frans Nkuna, were suddenly forced to confront not only the wider cricket world but also the wide world in general.
Lawrence Mahatlane was the assistant coach at the 2004 World Cup. Well he remembers a situation a few years before when an under-19 side travelling east were stranded in Dubai airport on Christmas Day, awaiting further funds to travel on.
By 2004, the professionalism surrounding the under-19s had improved considerably but talent identification and planning were still in their infancy. Unlike today, there was no national database for the tracking of players and Ray Jennings, the full-time under-19 coach, had yet to be appointed.
"The big issue with the 2004 side was that the scouting systems of today just weren't in place," Mahatlane says. "Still, CSA [Cricket South Africa] deserves credit for how the system has played out in later years and become more intense."
Rumblings in the bedrock
Pennazza's return home to Paarl in 2004 coincided with deep rumblings in the bedrock of the domestic game. He didn't accept the minor contract proposed by the Boland Cricket Union, and 2004 was also the year in which the 11 first-class provinces, including smaller entities such as Boland, Border and Griquas, were subsumed into the six franchises we have today.
Pennazza might have had his green cap but he was rather like a tadpole in a big, cold pond. Boland could not compete in terms of playing numbers or reserves with Western Province, with which they were amalgamated, and the path upwards was by no means clear or well trodden.
Although his union, Boland, was joined with Western Province as part of the new professional dispensation, Boland continued to field an amateur team in the tier of cricket beneath that – the United Cricket Board Provincial Cup. Boland finished the season placed fourth out of five in pool B (the 11 provinces were divided into two pools) and, in the 2004-2005 season, Pennazza didn't play a single game for the Boland senior team.
For his former under-19 teammates, life was similarly tough. Philander played twice for Western Province's amateur team, Slwana three times for the Eastern Province amateur team and Booysen four times for Easterns. Africa played five times for KwaZulu-Natal's amateur team, his top score of 29 and best bowling of two for 48 suggesting that the laaities (youngsters) were finding that there was some mean, heavy traffic in the provincial cup fast lane.
Worse was to follow for Pennazza. Playing koshuis (residence) rugby at Stellenbosch in 2005, he tore ligaments in his left knee. "That was one of the most devastating things that has ever happened to me," he said. "I took a while to recover."
But he did. In 2008, he received a letter from the Italian Cricket Federation inquiring about his availability, and later that year he spent 100 days in Italy putting the finishing touches to his qualification. He has played for Italy ever since, his next assignment coming later this year when Italy play against the United States and Oman in a World Cricket League qualifier.
With rare exceptions, Pennazza's colleagues from 2004 have experienced broadly similar fates. Booysen probably had the best run, but he eventually disappeared from view. Mahatlane believes Slwane's hands as a wicketkeeper were the best he had ever seen. In the end, it couldn't help him. Africa's immense promise never quite materialised, neither did Bouwer's or September's.
Indeed, the story of the class of 2004 offers a salutary reminder not to get carried away by under-19 World Cup campaigns, whether the side loses to Nepal, as they did in the group stage of that tournament, or beat Pakistan in the final, as they did memorably a few weeks ago.