Certain things are just as you would expect with Andile Phehlukwayo, but others are not as they might seem. It may appear, for example, that he plays a high-risk, high-reward brand of cricket with both bat and ball, but that’s not how he sees it.
Reverse-sweeping and slapping length balls off the back foot for six over long-on have both already featured in match-winning performances during his first dozen one-day internationals, and his willingness to bowl the most difficult deliveries, no matter how tense the match situation, has caught the eye.
He understands that his approach may look risky, even carefree, but he doesn’t agree. There are good reasons for what he does, such as the fact that the hockey skills that earned him a scholarship to Glenwood in Durban make the reverse sweep a far more natural shot for him than for many other cricketers.
Mostly, however, he says it comes down to hard work. At the age of just 20 (he turns 21 on March 3), he already has more bowling variations than many bowlers finish their careers with, and with greater extremity. Not only can he bowl half a dozen different deliveries, his pace can also vary by an almost unprecedented 35km/hour — between 105km/h and 140km/h.
The slower ball delivered out of the back of the hand is one of the hardest to master: “I bowled plenty that didn’t land, some that flew straight out of the nets and some bounced three times,” he smiles, “but it’s a dangerous ball when you get it right so you just keep on working, practising.”
Hard work was always part of Andile’s life — his father died when he was 10 years old and his mother, Thando, had to look after him and his older sister on her wages as a domestic worker.
“It wasn’t an easy time,” he says with obvious understatement. His sister, he says proudly, is studying to be a teacher and he has a clear ambition for his mother. “If I am lucky enough to have a successful career, then I would love to buy her a house and see her live somewhere very comfortable. That would be success for me.”
It would be easy for a young man now viewed as possessing “big-match temperament” in spades to say it was always so, but he does not. Honesty is not something he strives for; it comes naturally: “It wasn’t until [then Dolphins coach] Lance Klusener said he wanted me to bowl the death overs and be there at the end with the bat that I realised how much I enjoyed it. Now I want to be involved whenever I can, whenever the result is on the line.”
Phehlukwayo sidesteps the issue of whether he was “fast-tracked” for transformation reasons and understandably so, because his performances in the national team have been so compelling that there is no need for a verbal answer. Does it matter? If he was, then he is the best possible advertisement for it to happen more often. He does concede that “it happened a lot faster than I thought it would”.
He looks almost sheepish admitting that playing for the Proteas was “a dream from as long as I can remember”, even before he was awarded the scholarship to Glenwood. “I had posters on my wall … AB [de Villiers], Makhaya [Ntini], Justin Kemp.”
Phehlukwayo credits many people for his on-field success and also for avoiding the many off-field traps into which young sports stars can stumble: family, teachers, various coaches, teammates and a good agent or manager. But the best advice in the world is useless if its intended recipient does not have the wherewithal to understand why they should listen.
“It is important for me to remember my roots and where I came from. It is easy for young sportsmen to make bad decisions but I have had good people around me from the end of school days, many good people. So all my thoughts now are on being a member of this team, and winning games.”
A chuckle follows questions about South Africa’s record in World Cup events. Like many other new faces in the current squad, he is aware of how the Proteas have fared in International Cricket Council events and the angst it has caused, but has no experience of it. What can he say? Not much …
“I hope I make the Champions Trophy squad in June and it is every player’s ambition to play in a World Cup; it would be such an honour. I don’t know how I’ll react or if it will feel different, but that is why we play.” He would never say so but clearly he backs himself not to be affected by the big occasion, as many have been before him.
Not many, however, have taken quite so quickly to international cricket at such a young age — not since Klusener. No wonder the great all-rounder was the first to recognise so much of himself in the teenager he inherited in the Dolphins squad and make the decision not to guide him gently into the starting XI but to throw him into every deep end possible. Just as he had been.
Martin Guptill’s astonishing, unbeaten 180, which helped New Zealand to romp to an emphatic seven-wicket win in the fourth one-day international in Hamilton on Wednesday, has set up a mouthwatering and probably emotionally charged series decider at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.
South Africa appeared to have put the game beyond the home team’s reach with an eye-watering assault of their own that yielded 72 runs from the final five overs of their innings to set a target of 280 on a slow, awkward pitch, but they lost with five overs to spare.
“We were well beaten by the better team on the day,” said De Villiers, who scored an unbeaten 72, “but Eden Park will be very different and I have no doubt that we will rise to the big occasion and make it count when it matters. I believe we have the best top six in the world and we have a great stage to prove it on Saturday.”
The home side will be seeking to extend its national record of eight successive home series victories with a win in the final game of the series — and De Villiers, despite his respectful demeanour, is ruthlessly determined not to return home having lost a series, especially after his team have enjoyed the majority of winning moments.
But that perfectly sums up New Zealand cricket. Underdogs and under-valued, they find a way to compete and often win. Especially, so it happens, in the big games against South Africa, such as the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal and the semifinal four years later. Saturday represents a fine chance to change that.