Pierre de Bruyn does not have to think very long about why his experience of Lungi Ngidi will stay with him long after his other cricket memories fade. It is now more than five years since the pair found an unlikely connection, with the coach taking a “massive financial risk” by offering a young fast bowler from a poor background a bursary, and Ngidi placing his trust in a stranger to move north to an Afrikaans university.
“The first thing I think when it comes to Lungi is the humbleness,” says De Bruyn. “You have to pinch yourself to think how his life has changed, but it hasn’t changed him. That for me is why Lungi is already so successful. He has phenomenal values as a human being, forget about as a cricketer, and he will have a very long career purely because of those aspects.”
It is this humanity – rather than anything related to cricket – that shines through as De Bruyn recalls his time with Ngidi. In a country with the greatest inequality in the world, where the quality of opportunity is so often differentiated along racial lines, the 23-year-old’s story is one to celebrate. Over the past decade, the son of two domestic workers has shown that the best talent in South Africa can rise to the top regardless of background, aided by mentors and institutions that are rich and poor, white and black. Especially when that talent has a value set like Ngidi’s.
The first clear example of this came in his early teens after his size and raw pace had drawn scholarship offers from a number of high schools. Ngidi opted for Hilton College, the most expensive private school in South Africa, and in the process entered another world. Such a radical change in environment could easily have overwhelmed him were his feet not so firmly on the ground.
“At Hilton, you’re in the same class not only with the haves but with the elites. There’s a difference between driving a Mercedes and driving a Lamborghini, or guys rocking up there in helicopters. It’s a different lifestyle,” says Linda Zondi, South Africa’s convenor of selectors who tracked Ngidi’s progress closely during his time picking different age-group sides in the KwaZulu-Natal region. “He went through that phase, but his background and humble beginnings helped. He was brought up very well. He’s not a guy who likes the bling. He’s focused and he knows what he wants.”
Zondi knew what it was like to come from a poor background. As a promising young player he had earned a scholarship to one of Durban’s better schools, but it was not enough to secure a playing career – he ended up with just three first-class caps for Kwazulu-Natal in the late 1990s. When he came across two standout cricketers as an Under-13 selector – Ngidi and Andile Phehlukwayo – he saw an opportunity to mentor the next generation to greater heights.
“My mum was also a domestic worker – so I could relate,” he says. “I knew what sort of support structure these guys required, and I made sure that I created that platform for them so that they became better than what we were when we used to play cricket.”
That guidance sometimes extended to pulling a few strings. With access to premium facilities and coaching at Hilton, Ngidi flourished in his high school years. But soon after he was selected to play alongside Phehlukwayo and Kagiso Rabada for South Africa Under-19, who had the 2014 World Cup beckoning, injury struck. A stress fracture of the back meant that Ngidi missed out as South Africa won the tournament in the UAE.
The serious nature of the injury presented financial problems. Ngidi’s parents could not afford medical aid, and although Hilton had some cover for their student, it only went so far. Fortunately, others stepped in.
“I was close with the MEC for Health in KZN at the time and I sold him the vision that Hilton had done everything they could, and now it was up to the government to help him,” says Zondi. “The only hospital that could give Lungi the support he needed in KZN was Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital, of which you had to gain a referral. But the MEC intervened because he had the vision that this kid could potentially play for South Africa; he used his prerogative to ensure the government contributed and allowed him to see the best specialists.”
The treatment kept Ngidi’s career on track. By this time, the teenager was attracting the attention of scouts from around the country – but none more regular than De Bruyn, who was running the cricket academy at the University of Pretoria, also known as TUKS. The prospect of a black family man from KZN following an unknown white coach up to a largely Afrikaans institution was unappealing at first, and De Bruyn’s first trip to Hilton proved unsuccessful. But he was not to be deterred, and the consistency of his advances eventually paid off – in part because of the all-around package that he was offering.
“We looked in each others’ eyes and I think he saw that I was sincere and truthful about what I was putting on the table,” says De Bruyn, “and how serious I was about developing him as a player and creating a fantastic environment for him – helping with his studies, putting him up in some accommodation, providing meals and everything. I even gave him a coaching job, coaching five to nine-year-olds to earn some extra money. It was a whole life plan. He put trust in me and we went on a journey, and it was a phenomenal journey.”
De Bruyn was adamant that Ngidi had what it took to play for South Africa one day, even if there was work to be done. “Look, he was raw. He was one of those guys who needed to be coached, especially with his action which was one of those that could create problems with his back. It wasn’t a matter of just getting Lungi into the system and saying, ‘There we go, he’s going to be a Protea.’ It took a hell of a lot of work to coach him, hours and hours, and keep on motivating him that his chance would come one day to play for the Titans. He never ever thought that was going to happen – that was the scary thing. When I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘You’ve got the potential to play for the Titans in a year’s time, and for South Africa in the year after,’ he honestly laughed at me.”
If Ngidi could not quite bring himself to believe his coach, that did not deter him from trying. He worked hard on his strength and conditioning, improved his lifestyle, took his studies seriously and never complained. De Bruyn made sure his hulking young fast bowler was fed properly and had cash in his pocket.
In 2015, everything clicked. TUKS traveled to India for a university World Cup, and as De Bruyn puts it, Ngidi “ran in and bowled at the speed of light and everyone went, ‘Wow, who’s this kid?'” Ngidi played a key role in both the semis and the final as TUKS, who were captained by Aiden Markram, lifted the trophy. Back home Ngidi was already turning heads in the Varsity Cup, a televised domestic tournament, bowling at 140kph.
It wasn’t long before De Bruyn was proven right – by January of 2016, Ngidi was playing provincial cricket for Northern. As someone whose progress underwent quantum leaps rather than gradual evolution, he quickly stepped up to franchise level for the Titans, before making his T20 international debut for South Africa in January 2017. Once again he was not overawed by the occasion, turning in a Man of the Match performance in a rain-shortened game against Sri Lanka.
Another stress fracture halfway through the year prevented further landmarks, but a fit-again Ngidi became a household name in 2018 with breakthroughs on the Test and ODI scenes, and an IPL deal with Chennai Superkings that netted close to a million Rand – not to mention the IPL trophy.
De Bruyn wasn’t surprised. He had already seen how his mentee dealt with new challenges. “What I loved when he got his chance for the Titans, is that he bowled every ball with a smile on his face. You know that big smile with the white teeth. That was the most satisfying to see. I knew he could go now and enjoy this journey. The doors were open. He wasn’t tense or stressing about this career he had entered, quicker than he thought was possible. Still today he does everything with a smile on his face.”
That smile will shine brightly as Ngidi makes up the youngest part of a South African squad that is the most representative to go to a World Cup. In 2015 the only black African on board, Aaron Phangiso, did not make it on to the park, and a race-based selection fiasco ahead of the semi-final added further anguish to South Africa’s exit. This time around, the country’s most populous racial group is represented in both the coaching and selection departments, while Ngidi is the first-choice starter alongside Rabada and Phehlukwayo.
“It’s so overwhelming to see him perform the way he does, knowing that you helped to protect him when he was a kid,” Zondi reflects. “My term ends after the World Cup, and if we can do something special there then it will be an incredible moment.”