Bethuel Buthelezi has engaging eyes and a goatskin bracelet. He also happens to be the Wanderers’ first-ever black groundsman and, as such, is nominally the most important man in South African cricket.
At least he was, for a breathless window on Thursday morning, when AB de Villiers and Alastair Cook put on their blazers and tossed the coin before the start of the third Test between South Africa and England.
At that point all eyes were on the Wanderers square and the No 5 pitch slap-bang in its middle. In a sense, everyone was also watching Buthelezi, an unlikely hero from the heartlands of rural KwaZulu-Natal if ever there was one.
Buthelezi, who has worked at the stadium or in the grounds of the Wanderers Club since 1984, might have had a gentler introduction to international cricket, a September one-day international against Bangladesh, say, or a late-season irrelevance against Zimbabwe.
As it is, he now stands slightly apprehensively in the media’s punishing spotlight. With the series poised at 1-0 to the visitors with two to play, his work will be prodded and overanalysed, every variation in the ball’s bounce looked at 100 times.
Depending on who you listened to, the pitch at Newlands for the second Test was as lifeless as a slice of stale bread. When asked, Buthelezi believes he has prepared something better, more appetising to the age-old battle between bat and ball. Here’s a deck, he says, with some early spite, consistent carry, perhaps some turn later on.
It is, in other words, the thundering “Bullring” we know and love.
It all started more than 30 years ago for Buthelezi, when he borrowed R25’s worth of taxi fare from his mum. The year was 1984, Msinga wasn’t a particularly promising place to be and, like every other young man of his and previous generations, he followed the promise of fortune to the Reef. It was literally a punt in the dark as Buthelezi knew only one person in Egoli, a cousin, living in the Wanderers compound and working as a chef at the Wanderers Club.
In those days the compound was made of orange brick. It smelled of putu pap and Jeyes Fluid and there were always khaki cleaner’s uniforms hanging on the washing line. Although it was crowded, Buthelezi was with his homeboys, old Zulu gents like Elias Sithole. It was a good place to earn his keep. Hell, he might almost have been at home.
In the early days of his apprenticeship he was assigned the Wanderers No 2 Oval. Nowadays, the land is occupied by a faceless corporate monstrosity, but back then the beautifully sculptured ground was surrounded by a grass athletics track.
It had a scoreboard, a listing grandstand and was often peopled by crazy whites in white clothing, playing a game of strange rhythms that Buthelezi looked at but, for the life of him, couldn’t fathom.
In Msinga they played with two uprights and a crossbar; this business of three stumps in the ground with two crossbars on top of them was strange. Football was everyone’s game of choice; Buthelezi turned out as goalkeeper or left back for the local club Gordon Youngsters.
One day he found himself on the opposite side of Corlett Drive to where he worked, at the stadium. The Mean Machine was in its pomp; he had a eureka moment, realising the then Transvaal wicketkeeper, Ray Jennings, was nothing more than a glorified goalkeeper.
“He just made something like a goalkeeper,” says Buthelezi. “He was brilliant. I liked him. Also I liked Fotheringham [Henry Fotheringham, Transvaal’s opening batsman] because he was from my province – KZN.”
So began an unlikely infatuation. Buthelezi took a liking to the game with three posts and two tiny crossbars. He watched it with a more informed eye and brought his newfound understanding to his work, painting the crease with lime or mowing the outfield.
He began to count Transvaal among his favourite teams, with Kaizer Chiefs and Manchester United. In 1997, he moved to the stadium proper, joining the team of Chris Scott, then senior groundsman.
“Bethuel’s always been a hard worker,” says Scott. “He loves the mower. It’s not an easy job. I’m diabetic [Scott is 67] and it was so stressful in the 2003 World Cup that I developed shingles. Over the next year I’m going to quietly walk away and leave Bethuel in charge.”
The Wanderers hasn’t been easy to prepare this summer. A months-long drought has been followed by regular nightly rain, and Buthelezi and Scott took the unusual step last Friday night of allowing the Test-match pitch to be rained on.
Scott isn’t perturbed in the slightest – neither is Buthelezi. They say the rain has come at exactly the right time and the pitch is just as it should be.
Newlands was a comparative anomaly in recent Test cricket: it provided the teams with a draw. The Wanderers is unlikely to offer anything but a win, the caveat to this being that the rain must stay away during playing time.
Buthelezi can’t do anything about the weather, but during the course of the Test he might just play with his goatskin bracelet, turning it on his wrist to get in touch with his clan.
South African cricket has come a long way indeed when it can number as fans a sizeable group of ancestors, sending good vibrations all the way from the hills of Zululand.