South Africa find their Cummins
Early last month, Marchant de Lange made his way to his first media conference. It was an informal gathering of a few local reporters who wanted to quiz him about his five-wicket haul for South Africa A against the touring Australians in Potchefstroom.
At first, Vincent Barnes, who was coaching the team, did not want de Lange's day to be interrupted by a press engagement and said it would be best to speak to him at stumps. But, deadlines and the thrill of an evening in the North-West town triumphed and Barnes allowed de Lange to appear earlier.
He bounded toward them, his grin as wide as the open road outside and eyes dancing from one journalist to the other as they introduced themselves. Barnes kept a watchful eye on proceedings while de Lange soaked in the attention and once he saw that de Lange could hold his own, eased off.
The questions were varied, starting with his background and weaving in and out of issues ranging from whether he drew inspiration from fellow small town sensation Dale Steyn to how he felt about the rapid pace of his cricketing career. He spoke with casual ease and after about 10 minutes, when it was time to leave, politely asked, "Do you need anything else?" The scribes smiled knowingly at each other. Starlets always start out this way: engaging, helpful, friendly and over eager. Once they become stars, it changes.
Two weeks after that, 18-year-old Pat Cummins made his debut for Australia. His eyes were even brighter than de Lange's, his grin super-sized and his enthusiasm in interviews overflowed. His carefree lack of restraint was refreshing. With Cummins in the Australian attack, they were somehow more buoyant. His obvious and immense talent didn't hurt either. He displayed impeccable control, especially because of the superior pace he had and he was able to work out complex plans, like how to get Jacques Kallis out.
It's tough to say whether South Africa were envious of Australia. They had Vernon Philander, who was crafty and calculating in his first two Tests. Still, somewhere in the back of some minds, lurked a yearning for a spring chicken to burst on the season and steal hearts, minds and wickets the way Cummins did. De Lange had been training with the South African team ahead of the Wanderers Test, which Allan Donald said was merely a way to integrate a young prospect into the set up. He was named in the squad to play Sri Lanka and convenor of selectors Andrew Hudson explained that it was "unlikely" that de Lange would play. At the time, de Lange had a dislocated thumb and there was thought to be no room for him in South Africa's attack.
He was a backroom boy and nothing more, as South Africa's bowlers tore through Sri Lanka in Centurion. Days later, de Lange was named in the Titans squad to play a first-class match against the Lions that will start on Tuesday. Fortune had other plans.
Vernon Philander had what he called "one bad landing" during training on Saturday and did not recover in time for the Boxing Day Test. Lonwabo Tsotosbe, who is probably next in line, was bowling at about 95% after suffering from a side strain. Others in line, such as Wayne Parnell, Rusty Theron and Ryan McLaren, were not named in the original squad and with management opting to wait on Philander until morning, would not have made it to Durban on time.
Twenty-four hours ago, de Lange was simply an intern but he leapfrogged the queue overnight and found himself on the receiving end of Shaun Pollock's hand, which had a national cap in it. "He said congratulations to me and he wished me all the best and that hopefully I will be part of the team for a long time to come," de Lange said, his expression revealing that he too hoped that would be the case. "At first, I as quite nervous, but I enjoyed the challenge".
South Africa have found their own Cummins, albeit a touch older, but as a jovial, as carefree and as keen. He is no great orator and does not have Cummins' style of confidence, but that can be explained by simple enough things like the fact that English is not de Lange's first language. He is far more proficient in Afrikaans.
What he can do is talk with the ball. De Lange started his career with a short ball to Sri Lanka captain Tillakaratne Dilshan that the opener wanted to pull with power but ended up playing onto his body. Eleven balls later, he had Tharanga Paranavitana caught behind after inducing the drive. "I was very excited, full of joy basically," de Lange said, about his first Test wicket. Two balls later, he had Kumar Sangakkara caught behind as well, with the best wicket-taking ball of the day. It was on a tempting length and so close to off stump that Sangakkara had to play at it. In a later spell, he plucked a return catch off a full toss, with eyes closed, to dismiss Angelo Matthews.
Of course he made mistakes, occasionally bowling too full and mistiming a leap that would have given Imran Tahir Thilan Samaraweera's wicket. But he ended the day as he started it, with promise and a wicket - that of Thisara Perera who played a loose drive.
"He's done well, especially to start off like that with nose on the button from ball one," Jacques Kallis said. "Even when he started playing first-class cricket, he took to it like a duck to water."
With only 14 first-class matches behind him, it's fair to say his ascendance has been somewhat astounding. Sri Lanka were more than surprised by a bowler they had not seen before. "We struggled to get video of him because he has played very little cricket," Geoff Marsh, Sri Lanka coach admitted. "It's great to see young kids coming through the system. He's definitely got a lot of talent."
It's a talent that a clutch of reporters standing in Potchefstroom a few weeks ago spotted and made a mental note to keep track of, not expecting they would see him again quite so soon. When he walked into this press conference, de Lange recognised some of them from that day. He caught their eyes and smiled, wider than most of them thought was possible.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent