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How South Africa tearaway Lungi Ngidi, fast from start, was fast-tracked into limelight

The 21-year-old Lungi Ngidi, who made an impressive Test debut for South Africa cricket team against Indian cricket team, rose from a humble background -- his academic and sporting excellence ensuring his rise up to the international stage through the South African school system.

cricket Updated: Feb 01, 2018 22:39 IST
Khurram Habib
Lungi Ngidi of South Africa cricket team took six wickets for 39 runs in the second Test vs Indian cricket team at SuperSport Park in Pretoria.
Lungi Ngidi of South Africa cricket team took six wickets for 39 runs in the second Test vs Indian cricket team at SuperSport Park in Pretoria.(Getty Images)

South Africa cricket team pacer Lungi Ngidi’s fairytale rise to stardom is an example of what a stroke of luck and help from others can do to talented people living in the margins.

With a huge gulf in the standards of government and private schools, probably bigger than in India if you compare facilities, a stint in the top private schools can guarantee a ticket to success.

South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis, while talking about 21-year-old Ngidi the other day, mentioned the importance of his good schooling.

Some 25-30 km off Durban is Kloof, a locality where Ngidi spent his formative years as his parents worked in the Kloof Junior Primary School, a predominantly white school.

Lungi Ngidi’s parents -- father Jerome (right) and mother Bongi. (HT Photo)

His parents still work there, his father Jerome having risen to managing maintenance from a pool cleaner.

The visit to the Johannesburg Test, where they were invited by Cricket South Africa and put up in a fancy hotel, exposed the shy couple to a new life with cameras constantly trained on them. Back in the school, they are at home in their work uniform, Ngidi’s mother Bongi is holding a set of towels to be given for washing.

Full scholarship

“Life was very harsh. We had to pay for the education of all four sons. Our salaries were very low. However, this kid (Lungi) took some burden off us, getting bursaries (100% scholarships),” says Jerome, who as a youngster used to play soccer.

Lungi Ngidi newspaper clippings at the Highbury High Museum. (HT Photo)

“We never thought we’ll get a chance (like Lungi got). We thought we’d just play on the fields for fun.”

Bongi adds, “Both of us had to work weekends for extra money. I’d work at houses during holidays to make ends meet, often during Christmas, helping the ladies out.”

Lungi was too good. “His hero was Makhaya Ntini. He used to say he wants to bowl like Ntini,” recalls his dad.

The bursar at the Kloof Junior Primary, Jane Wilks, recalls, “He had just joined the pre-primary school close to this place as a tiny kid. He knew only Zulu and no English. But he picked up English in 2-3 weeks at the school and was speaking fluently like other kids, and I was very surprised.” Wilks offered him full scholarship. Children pay 20,000 rand (approx Rs 1.07 lakh) a year here.

Bigger school

It helped that his parents worked in the school. Soon Wilks pushed him into the Kloof Senior Primary School with another bursary. It’s a 10-minute drive from the junior school.

Judy Salomon, a teacher at the Kloof Senior Primary, recalls: “I often discussed this boy with Miss Arde, who taught him and thought highly of him. He was an exceedingly hungry new talent. He had that X-factor.”

Highbury High Museum. (HT Photo)

Education at Kloof Senior Primary, run by the government like the Junior Primary, was beyond the parents’ reach. However, nothing was as expensive as the Highbury Preparatory School, where he went next. Miss Arde’s mother worked there and she put in a word.

Taryn Essery, who used to teach at Kloof Senior Primary, and later shifted to the Highbury Preparatory School, played a key role in getting Lungi a scholarship at Highbury. She says, “It was far too expensive here. But he had the talent. He was good in academics and was good at all sports.”

To get an idea how tough it would have been for Ngidi’s parents, this boys’ school charges 1,00,000 rand (approx Rs 5.39 lakh) a year.

Born to bowl fast

Knowledge Villakazi, a teacher at Highbury who also looks after football, recalls, “He was 10 or 11 and was playing cricket in his age group. The wicketkeeper had to stand further back as he failed to collect edges and balls. He was too fast for his age. Even the slip fielders struggled. Lungi and the team were worried. But I told them ‘he plays the senior team next year and they’ll be able to catch it’.”

Soon word spread and he got a scholarship to the most expensive school in South Africa, the Hilton College in Durban, where only the richest managed to study and sports facilities were outstanding.

His parents are relieved. While one of Ngidi’s brothers works with the trucks, another works at a restaurant. However, the fame and riches, including those from IPL Ngidi has achieved, makes their toil worthwhile. “We lived a tough life, but now we are relieved and happy. It has been worth it.”