The first thing that strikes me about Andile Phehlukwayo is his humility. The 18-year-old has just been introduced – together with the rest of the Sunfoil Dolphins team, which will head to India for the Champions League next week – to a full house at a function room in Durban’s Suncoast Casino.
But when I tell him we need to step outside for our interview he readily obliges and helps my 10-year-old son and me to carry three heavy chairs to a quieter spot outside.
After the interview, I can hear his teammates teasing him because he’s promptly returned all three chairs to their original spots (“There are people here who are being paid to do that,” one of them says).
“My mum always encourages me to be humble and to try to remember where I come from,” Phehlukwayo – who is currently in grade 12 at Glenwood High School – tells me during the interview.
Phehlukwayo grew up in a single-parent household with his mother and sister in Port Shepstone on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. His mother worked as a domestic helper to provide for her children.
Ironically, he gained his understanding of cricket from watching it on television in the home in which she worked (her employer was a cricket fan).
“I didn’t grow up in a family that was financially supported,” he says. “My mum worked hard for me, and she worked long hours, just to get me into school. I really didn’t enjoy the environment in which she worked, and, apart from my love for cricket, growing up, I was also motivated to succeed so that some day I can try and support her.”
If his track record is anything to go by, then that “some day” may not be far off.
Phehlukwayo was introduced to cricket in the Bakers Mini Cricket programme as a pupil at Margate Primary School. From there, he progressed to hard-ball cricket as a nine-year-old and worked his way up the ranks before being selected to play for Southern Natal in the under-12 age division.
But it was hockey – another sport in which he excels – and not cricket that brought him to Glenwood. “I was playing in a KwaZulu-Natal under-13 hockey festival and I was lucky enough to be spotted by a coach from Glenwood High School who offered me a scholarship,” he recalls. “Nobody at the school knew that I could play cricket – they only found out in the first week of grade eight, when there were trials.”
Last year Phehlukwayo, who is an all-rounder, was called up to the South African under-19 squad that featured in a quadrangular series in India. He was also part of the team that won the International Cricket Council’s Under-19 Cricket World Cup in Dubai earlier this year, and has recently returned from a tour of England with the squad.
Now it’s off to India with the Sunfoil Dolphins, accompanied by a tutor who’ll ensure he’s on track to matriculate at the end of the year. “It was a little surprising for me [when they announced that I would be part of the squad],” he admits.
“When they called us to train with them, I thought it was just to give us an idea of what it’s like at that level. I feel really humbled and privileged to be going.”
Phehlukwayo won’t be alone. His friend Sibonelo “Sibz” Makhanya, who recently captained the under-19 side on their tour of England and was also part of the winning World Cup team, will accompany him to India with the Dolphins.
Seeing the world
For Makhanya, one of the highlights of excelling in cricket has been the opportunity to travel. “Speaking as an African person, cricket exposes you to the world,” he tells me at Durban’s Sahara cricket stadium, after greeting me with a cheerful “Assalamu alaikum” (a phrase he picked up in Dubai on his first trip out of South Africa for the World Cup).
“Without cricket, I don’t think I’d know what a passport is! I was really excited on that first flight to Dubai to see what was outside of South Africa – and I wasn’t disappointed; it was awesome, it was great.”
Like Phehlukwayo, Makhanya – who grew up in Verulam – was first exposed to the game by Bakers Mini Cricket, at primary school level. “I thought it was fun – you hit the ball really far, you bowl and bat one over and then you get retired,” he says.
Later, his older sister introduced him to a classmate, Prenelen Subrayen, who was playing under-13 cricket for the province at the time. Subrayen’s father took Makhanya under his wing and introduced him to the Verulam Cricket Club, where he learned the basics of the game.
When it was time for him to go to high school, Subrayen Snr arranged for him to be interviewed for a scholarship at Glenwood High, which he clinched.
Makhanya remembers his early days at high school well. “I felt overwhelmed,” he admits. “It was the first time that I was exposed to that kind of a world. I came as a young boy from Verulam to a school where everyone knew one another. You’re basically like an outcast … you have to prove yourself.
“It’s tough, but it’s an experience you have to go through in life in order to become stronger.”
And stronger he did become. He captained the school under-14 A team, made the KwaZulu-Natal under-15 side, and then the under-19 side at the age of 16, before being promoted to captain at just 17.
Makhanya says that, although his parents give him their full support now, when he first expressed an interest in cricket they were taken aback. “My parents knew nothing about cricket. When I used to ask my dad to buy me cricket stuff, he’d be, like: ‘No way, I’ll make you a cricket bat.’ But when it came to soccer, he’d ask me if I wanted soccer boots.”
But this changed over time, to the extent that they would drive him to and from Glenwood High (a total distance of about 60km) for two and a half years.
Makhanya later moved to Durban High School, which offered him a scholarship that included boarding. He matriculated last year.
He points out that there are five black African cricketers in the current South African under-19 side. “We are getting away from the mentality that we are inferior, and starting to see that we are as good as everyone else … When I first got to Glenwood I had my tired, cheap kit, and I looked up to white guys – then I grew up and became more mature and began to understand where I want to be in life.”
Lawrence Mahatlane, South Africa’s under-19 coach, says it’s heartening to note that an increasing number of talented African players are being given the opportunity to hone their skills at traditional cricket schools and make their way through the ranks. “Sibonelo and Andile are examples of this. It’s great that they are being given good opportunities. I’ve worked with them both and they are very special – the key is to allow them to keep growing.”