South Africa A in India 2018 August 9, 2018

Khaya Zondo - deadman rising

Faith, family and friends have kept the South Africa A captain going despite setbacks - and he now has a chance to stake his claim for higher honours

Khaya Zondo celebrates a fifty on a tricky surface © BCCI

The Undertaker's theme, based on Chopin's Funeral March, is arguably the most iconic piece of music in professional wrestling. Its special effects evolved over the years - the death knell, the billowing smoke and fire, the badass customised chopper, the bandana, heck the Undertaker once had a real vulture flapping its wings next to him. It defined attitude in the Attitude Era of the WWE. Now, imagine that music playing when you walk in to bat. Khaya Zondo could not have asked for a better walk-in theme in South Africa.

"When I asked one of my team-mates at Dolphins about it, he said that's the best theme song I could get," Zondo told ESPNcricinfo. "Isn't it cool? (laughs) I just went with it but I need good lights for it to happen."

South Africa are 43 for 2 in the 10th over in the Centurion ODI against India in February. Hardik Pandya straightens one past the outside edge of Zondo, who is playing only his third international. Later, Zondo surges down the track against left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav, manufactures a full-toss, and hoists it over mid-off. The next ball is pummelled to the square-leg boundary. He then carts Yuzvendra Chahal for a brace of sixes, perhaps the cricketing equivalent of the double-chokeslam. Zondo's 54 is only the fourth 50-plus score by a South African batsman in a series they lose 5-1.

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Zondo is dropped from the national team for the subsequent ODIs in Sri Lanka, and is now in India hoping to reclaim his spot. He is on his fifth trip to India, this time as the captain of the A team. He had been part of a nine-day, spin-training camp in Bengaluru in 2012, he played for Dolphins in the now-defunct Champions League T20 in 2014, he made a 60-ball 86 in a tri-series involving India A and Australia A in Chennai in 2015, and later that year he broke into the South Africa limited-overs squads for the India tour.

When JP Duminy was ruled out of the last two ODIs in India in 2015, Zondo, who was the reserve batsman in the squad, was anticipating his international debut. Instead, South Africa flew in Test opener Dean Elgar, who hadn't been in the limited-overs squad in the first place, to fill that void. Zondo was hurt and he turned to his former Dolphins coach Lance Klusener to help him overcome the rejection.

"Not being picked for the last two ODIs in 2015 in India, when I was in the squad, was one of the toughest phases in my career. But I believe now that it happened for a reason."
Khaya Zondo

"Not being picked for the last two ODIs in 2015, when I was in the squad, was one of the toughest phases in my career," Zondo said. "But I believe now that it happened for a reason and it took a lot of effort and support from my family and Lance to bounce back from it. The fact that he was the coach at that tough period for me was a God-destined thing, and he has handled a lot of similar pressures in his career. When everyone else did not back me, it was Lance who backed me. That went a long way for me."

Zondo is in a better space now, having become Dolphins' first-ever black captain, in addition to leading South Africa's A sides. He admitted that captaincy was a "great eye-opener" and relished the support he received from his team-mates both at Dolphins and South Africa A.

"South Africa, coming from the past, was very segregated and I'm honoured to be the captain of both Dolphins and SA A and lead this group of professional cricketers," Zondo said. "Considering the dynamics in South Africa, being a black captain is a big thing. More than that, it's special when team-mates enjoy and say they want me to lead them. So, it's not about the title of captaincy, it's about the people around you who believe you're the one to lead them.

"Captaincy has made me a more compassionate person and what you need is good man-management skills. I noticed that the higher you go, your man-management skills need to be higher. When you play for South Africa, you don't need to say much, however. At the lower levels, you need to understand players' skills and help them around. Faf (du Plessis) and MS (Dhoni) are top man-managers, I did not have a chance to chat with MS in 2015 but I have spoken to Faf about captaincy and even Lance about leadership."

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Zondo began his fifth tour of India with a fluent 67 in a three-day warm-up fixture against Indian Board President's XI at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. He then flickered briefly, scoring 24 in the first innings in the four-dayer against India A, but was trapped lbw for a duck by Mohammed Siraj in the second dig.

Khaya Zondo rocks back to pull for a six © BCCI

Zondo has fond memories of his rapid 63-run stand off 34 balls with his childhood friend and former house-mate Andile Phehlukwayo against Kolkata Knight Riders at this venue in the Champions League T20.

"That match was Andile's debut in the CLT20 and we had some fun. I met Andile when he was about 15 and I remember a photo we have together, when I gave him his cap for KwaZulu-Natal Under-19s at a ceremony in Kingsmead. The next time we took a photo was at the CLT20 in Bangalore, when it was Andile's first game. Then, when I got my first international fifty for South Africa, Andile was at the other end. He's always been there, when something special has happened to me."

When asked about his brother Dudu Zondo, who has a semi-professional contract at KwaZulu-Natal and currently plays club cricket for Hatherleigh, a small market town in Devon in England, Khaya blushes. Is he the overprotective brother?

"I'm not the protective brother (laughs). I'm just guiding him. I have some experience, having done it before him," Zondo said. "I don't want his road to be as difficult as mine was. I started out with Bakers mini-cricket, which was incidentally run by my mother, who is a teacher, and worked my way through Natal Under-13s, Natal Under-15s, Natal Under-17s, Natal Under-19s, and finally South Africa Under-19s. I just want him to listen to me and I'm always there to help him out."

As for Zondo's father Ray, he was appointed a judge of the labour court by Nelson Mandela in 1997, and two years later he took over as judge of the North Gauteng high court. In 2017, he was appointed deputy chief justice of South Africa. "My father is the deputy chief justice now but he wasn't that strict growing up," Zondo said. "He used to come home once in every two weeks but he and mom told me what's right and what's wrong. That's the reason why I'm here as the captain of the A team. I was blessed to grow up like that. I'm also very spiritual and find strength from Jesus and the Bible."

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Zondo has swept India's third-string spinners - Jalaj Saxena, Mihir Hirwani and Dharmendrasinh Jadeja - with authority. He is familiar with Indian conditions and has a variety of sweeps in his repertoire, which is likely to come in handy in the quadrangular one-day series, involving India A, India B and Australia A, in Vijayawada after the four-day matches. Zondo's immediate goal is to stake his claim for a middle-order role as South Africa build towards Vision 2019.

"I think this tour is a great opportunity for all the batters to start getting their names out to the selectors," Zondo said. "If you perform here and the team does really well, I believe you can elevate to the national team. The South Africa selectors, I'm sure, have their eyes on a few boys already."

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo