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As a boy Albert van der Merwe watched South Africa return to international cricket, and dreamed of playing at Eden Gardens. Now he's living that dream - only not for the country he was born in
March 15, 2011
Albert van der Merwe was 12 when South Africa played their first one-day international. He was a young boy, overflowing with dreams, and as he saw them stride out onto the field in Kolkata, with almost 100, 000 people there to watch them, he knew it was an experience he had to have.
"I was watching at home with my dad and I said to him that I'd love to play at Eden Gardens someday," he told ESPNcricinfo. South Africa had been welcomed back into international competition and van der Merwe was an athletic youngster - it was something worth aspiring to. He played sport, enjoyed it and showed talent. He came from a family that did the same, with both his brothers also budding cricketers, but van der Merwe was the one who almost made it.
After completing high school he moved from Cape Town to attend the North West University (NWU) in Potchefstroom, a small student town an hour away from Johannesburg. There he captained the team to their first university title, leading them both with his personality, his opening batting style and his offspin. The next step would have been breaking into the first-class provincial team, the North West Dragons. There was no franchise system in place at the time, so van der Merwe knew that if he could crack the provincial team, the possibilities were endless.
It just didn't happen. "I was doing okay but I didn't manage to make it into the provincial set up," he said. "I carried on playing for clubs, and as I got to the end of my studies I had sorted given up on all those ideas and carried on with normal life." That meant getting a job, and since van der Merwe's interest was cricket, he decided to dabble in coaching. Cricket would always be central to his career but playing the game had long evaporated from his bucket list.
He emigrated to Ireland in 2004, after his friend Pieter van Niekerk, who also played on the NWU team, told him that there were opportunities for decent employment - including in cricket coaching. van der Merwe visited Belfast and something about it said home, so he made it his home.
"My decision to move was not based on the idea that one day I would play international cricket for a different country. I just got the job and I liked the place, so I moved."
Being involved with cricket as a coach meant that he couldn't keep himself off the field. He joined a club to play for, mostly at a social level. Not all of the old hunger had gone and after five seasons the big one came. In 2009, van der Merwe averaged over 40 with the bat and 20 with the ball and suddenly the old dream was stirring again. "I had had a few good club seasons and then the thought of international cricket became a reality again." A stint in the A side paved the way and, at 30, van der Merwe debuted for Ireland.
Twenty years since he first saw South Africa step onto the field at Eden Gardens, he will do so himself, but it won't be for the country of his birth. There won't be anything close to 100,000 people there, but a third of that will do for him. There's something bittersweet about him finally fulfilling a dream that he never allowed to die, but in a totally different way to what he imagined. His family is, understandably, ecstatic. "The support I've received from home has been amazing," he said "Some guys that I was at university with have also got hold of me to say well done, and it's just been fantastic."
van der Merwe has only played eight ODIs and he is yet to be picked in the starting XI at the World Cup. He can't wait to perform on the biggest stage. "It's just massive. Being at a World Cup is like being at the Olympics." Although he hasn't featured in the tournament, he said the experience as a whole, and the morale in the team, who have looked the strongest of the Associate sides, has been a highlight already.
"We've been up there. Obviously beating England was the biggest thing. As we were batting, the whole change room was sitting down in the front, living every ball." That victory looks destined to become what Ireland will be remembered for from this tournament but van der Merwe hopes they can add to the collection of memories. "We've also got ourselves into positions where we could have won two other games, against Bangladesh and against the West Indies. We're not here to be also-rans."
|The South Africans will know of him, and if they don't, they will as soon as he starts speaking. His strong Afrikaans accent will be a dead giveaway and will serve as a warning that he can understand all the chirps in their home language|
The stark reality is that Associate cricket may soon fall into that category, though, especially when it comes to the one-day game. Ireland may be cushioned from a declining interest in the sport because of their proximity to England and the fact that many players play county cricket to make a living. van der Merwe isn't one of them, having had his career kick off with him in his thirties, and he thinks that barring those professional players, Ireland may struggle to attract others, both from other countries and from within.
"People don't move to Ireland for cricket reasons so it might be difficult, but we hope the work we've done in our development programme and to get sponsors won't get washed away. It will be a massive blow if we can't keep going," he said. The development programme is close to van der Merwe's heart because he runs at the Leinster Cricket Club, and it's something he is keen to nurture. Without that, he knows that players with hopes like he once had will find it difficult to make their dreams a reality.
van der Merwe is willing to say that both he and Ireland "have ambitions to keep going," at the highest level but since it's not in their control, they have to savour every moment at this tournament, which is what they are concentrating on now. The next big moment comes against South Africa. van der Merwe doesn't know many of the South African players personally, having only met AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis many years ago, when they played club cricket with his brother.
The South Africans will know of him, and if they don't, they will as soon as he starts speaking. His strong Afrikaans accent will be a dead giveaway and will serve as a warning that he can understand all the chirps in their home language. Besides a shared background, though, van der Merwe has little in common with the South African team, and not having many close ties means that he is unlikely to feel any oddness about playing former countrymen.
"It might be a bit strange when the anthems start playing," he said. van der Merwe left South Africa when he was 25 and knows every word of "Nkosi Sikelele Afrika". Maybe something inside him will be singing along, but he said he won't be tempted to belt out his home country's ode to peace. "I'll be singing the Irish anthem. I'm just as proud to be pulling on the Irish jumper as anyone else."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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