January 17, 2013

Henry Williams' homecoming

Remembered for his part in the match-fixing scandal, the former South Africa bowler now mentors young cricketers and rears racing pigeons

A hawk circled Boland Park before dropping a half-eaten pigeon just outside the groundsman's office. For most, it was a sight best ignored. For Henry Williams, it was worth a closer examination.

The bird's partly munched foot had a pink ring around it that Williams immediately recognised. A racing bird. Just like the 120 he has at home.

"It's an amazing hobby," Williams said. "You watch the birds, how they learn by looking around at the environment, how they get stronger and fly away a little bit but come back. Then, at six or seven months, you put them into pens, take them 150 kilometres away and leave the whole bunch there. They start circling, slowly, and then off they go. Back to where they came from. Amazing. Expensive but amazing."

Williams' highest-priced pigeon pair set him back R100,000 (about US$11,800) From them, he sold off studs to the value of R500,000 ($58,800). Of the 20 offspring that costly pair produced, 14 have already won events, making Williams one of the more successful owners in the industry.

It wasn't the same for him on the cricket field. His brief international career is only remembered for his involvement in the Hansie Cronje scandal, which grew new legs this week when Williams admitted he told the King Commission a different story from what actually happened. He realised this would only make him seem a liar, but it was a chance he was willing to take.

"Life has moved on," Williams said. He works as a scout for Cricket South Africa's youth department, as bowling coach of the Boland age-group sides, from Under-11 upwards, and used to be with the national U-19 side and the national women's team.

Those who still regard him as stained by the match-fixing allegations may be uneasy with his involvement in player development, but Williams paid his penance (a fine and a six-month ban) and has a wealth of experience to call on.

Few will know that he was one of the most economical bowlers in South African first-class cricket and finished his career with an economy rate of 2.3. He also pushed for a recall to the national team after the Nagpur nightmare, where he only bowled 11 balls in the match. Williams tore a lateral muscle in that fixture and needed serious surgery, before which he was warned he might never take the field again. "But I believed that I could play again, and then the operation was so successful that after seven months I came back.

"From 1992 until now, we keep thinking this guy will do it for us or that guy will, and it doesn't happen. We like to follow, we can't lead"
Williams' on South Africa's lack of world titles

"I was written off in the country's newspapers before that, but I took four five-wicket hauls in five matches for Western Province and people thought I had a bionic arm. I bowled sides to pieces. I was swinging the ball and guys were nicking off." Unlike Herschelle Gibbs, though, Williams never played for South Africa again.

He retired from domestic cricket when the franchise system was formed in 2004-05, but remained involved in club cricket, and played a particularly important part in mentoring Henry Davids, South Africa's new T20 opener. Davids' father and Williams were both racing-bird enthusiasts, and Williams first saw Davids play club cricket as a boy.

Years later Williams was in the same XI when Davids scored his maiden first-class century against Northerns. It was one of the matches in which Williams took five-fors on his return.

He remembers the details of Davids' success better than he does his own. "That side had Steve Elworthy bowling, and the shorter he bowled, the further Henry Davids hit him onto the banks. That night I called [Davids] and said, 'You will never see a short ball again. People will pitch the ball up and swing it away from you, so please make sure you make adjustments to counter that.' He didn't listen to me."

Davids continued to meander on the domestic circuit but one day decided to move upcountry to play in Centurion, where he had scored that first hundred.

"We had a function for him at our club," Williams said. "I said to him, 'Remember what I said to you a few years back. Now you are going to the same field where you made your debut century and you need to own that field. It's hard for somebody to go somewhere else and make it there."

Davids found form in limited-overs cricket and was rewarded with a call-up to the national side, which Williams thinks he could have been part of years ago. Williams was similarly unimpressed by the 20 Davids made on his South African debut. "I sent him an SMS that day to say that he reminded of an old club cricketer," he said.

The tough love worked. In the next match, Davids scored 55, and in the third, 68. Williams could finally smile. "He has flair and he hits the ball so sweetly. He also has to have a bit of selfishness. That's what made Jacques Kallis great. That little bit of self, but always in context with what the team needs," Williams said.

As one of the few people with a Level 4 coaching certificate in the country, Williams is trying to instill that sort of balance in the kids he deals with. "What I am trying to build in all the age groups is an understanding of what they need to do to get to the next level," he said.

"If you are at the U-19 level, you have to know what's required [to get] into an academy. There are too many people who come out of school and think they can play provincial cricket, but they can hardly make a step. There are a lot of parents that believe in me. They trust that I can make a difference."

Williams is heartened by the potential and progress he sees around him in the Cape, where the culture of cricket is strong. Evidence of that was obvious at the tour match between the New Zealanders and the South African Invitation XI, where more people were present than at most franchise matches. The first Test was a sellout at Newlands, and Williams hopes the South African team's performance will continue to resonate lower down.

"The Test team is playing at a different level now. In Perth, against Australia, South Africa actually batted them out of the game. If South Africa play Test cricket like that, no one can beat them," he said. Like many, he is concerned about whether that will translate to the one-day game and winning ICC silverware.

"We can't find consistency in one-day cricket. We have to find it sooner or later. Otherwise disappointment will be in our face again for the next World Cup. The approach was always very conservative. From 1992 until now, we keep thinking, this guy will do it for us or that guy will, and it doesn't happen. We like to follow, we can't lead."

A bit like a flock of birds, then. Williams laughed at that suggestion before reminding us of the one who never made it back. "I'm keeping this ring because it has a tracking number on it and I'll have to see whose bird it is. I'll tell them to come fetch the ring." Life really does go on.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent