South Africa’s 21-year-old-pace bowler, Lungi Ngidi, had the sort of international debut few can dream of. In the second cricket Test match against India at Centurion (13-17 January), his 6-39 in the second innings helped South Africa win the Test, the series, and got him the man-of-the-match award.
After the One Day International (ODI) series, which India won 5-1, Ngidi spoke about choosing cricket over rugby, scoring his first run, and being picked up by Chennai Super Kings (CSK). Edited excerpts from an interview:
What first attracted you to cricket growing up in Durban?
There was a field in front of my house and every weekend, I used to go with my father and watch children playing cricket. Eventually, I asked if I could join in, and I have loved the game ever since.
How has your childhood shaped you as a cricketer?
My parents couldn’t afford to buy me cricket kits. Even when I went for trials and was selected for district competitions, I never had batting equipment. I saw that as an opportunity to become a bowler. It just happened that way, pushing me towards becoming a fast bowler.
You lived in a boarding school and needed scholarships through college to pursue this sport. Did the hardships have an impact on your career?
Living away from home, I understood that I had the opportunity to actually go forward in sport. It wasn’t just cricket at that time—I was also playing rugby. I hadn’t made up my mind on what I was going to do until high school and it was probably in grade 10 that I decided to pursue cricket. After all these years, cricket has afforded me the opportunity to bring my parents to Johannesburg for the first time, to stay in a hotel and watch me play Test cricket. Not many people get to do that and through cricket I have been able to improve my parents’ lives.
What made you choose cricket over rugby?
My coach in high school, Shane Gaffney, who is also the coach of Temba Bavuma (the South African cricketer), said I could play for my country. He told me this in grade 9. I was 15 years old, so it took a lot of convincing for me to quit other sports and turn to cricket. I chose to trust him. He was there at my debut Test—he had promised he would be present whenever I played my first day of Test cricket. I got to speak to him, he met with my parents as well, so it all worked out brilliantly.
Can you talk us through that first Test on your home ground?
I was nervous on the first day, playing with and against the best players in the world. I couldn’t stop thinking that it was my debut. Perhaps it helped that this was my home ground, where I play for the Titans. But I was also pumped up because I knew we could win the series there. I guess that was natural.
Coming up against Virat Kohli, I knew everyone would be watching. A youngster bowling to probably the best batsman in the world, so I had to step up to the challenge. I felt that not many opportunities like this come by and I wanted to make the most of it. We had a good battle, I think.
You took 6 for 39 in the second innings…
I felt confident at that time. The crowd was cheering me. There were moments when I felt that Virat was on top (of the bowling) in the first innings, but the crowd helped push through those tough moments. I didn’t expect them to cheer that loud when I came out to bat and scored my first run. But it was a special moment (he scored 1 each in both innings, but was unbeaten in the first).
In the second innings, on Day 4, we knew that Virat’s wicket would put us in a good position. We were working towards that as end of play approached. Then I got his wicket (leg-before-wicket for 5) and the team experienced a lot of energy. It spurred us on. The next day, I was talking to Vernon (Philander) and he told me that I had the opportunity to win the game for South Africa. So I was running in hard and managed to pick up a few wickets.
Kagiso Rabada had a good battle with Kohli as well. He is your teammate and friend. How does he inspire you and do you think this is the start of a special pace pairing for South Africa?
As a young cricketer, he has already made a name for himself. We have been friends for a long time and he inspires me to do well. We were rivals in junior and school cricket. I remember once he bowled out my team for 90-odd runs and it pumped me up. Having seen his bowling, I got back and had them at seven or eight wickets down at 70-odd. So it was always a good challenge to bowl against him.
We do have an opportunity to be able to put up a deadly partnership like that. It is in our hands to carry on and bowl consistently. We are both 21 and 22 years old, so time is on our side.
The ODI series against India didn’t go so well. What was your experience of the debut series?
We went from a high of winning the Test series to a low. But it tells you that international cricket is never easy. India’s batsmen were in good form during the ODIs. Their spinners put us under a lot of pressure and won the series. I enjoyed this challenge nevertheless.
Did you expect to be picked up in the Indian Premier League (IPL) auctions? You will be playing with Mahendra Singh Dhoni for CSK in the 2018 IPL?
No, I didn’t (laughs). I knew I had a good T20 domestic series and my first few international T20 games had gone well. I was obviously hoping to be picked up (in the players’ auction) and was nervous about it too. I didn’t watch because we were playing a Test match. After the game, I checked my phone and everybody was congratulating me. I asked “what for" and then I realized I had been picked up by CSK.
I have been to India before with the South Africa Under-19 team, but the IPL feels like a bigger stage. I will be playing with Dhoni, which is a dream come true for any young cricketer.