June 18, 2014

The kids from Kenridge

Stiaan van Zyl and Dane Piedt were once young boys who dreamed of competing in the big leagues. Now they're on the verge of playing Test cricket

It was the final day of the season at Kenridge Primary School. The children were going to play against the teachers in a traditional match-up, whose result mattered far less than the reputations that would be built and broken.

The best batsman among the teachers, or at least the person who fancied himself as the best, was in to bat early on. The bowler had had a sleepless night waiting for this moment and was revving himself up as much as he could. He ran in with rage, everything about the furious movement of his arms and legs suggested it would be his quickest delivery of the season and perhaps even his best.

And then the ball was released. The hurried swing of the willow was premature; the ball only reached the batsman after he had played the shot but before he could recover in time to attempt another. The bowler could barely believe his pace had abandoned him but watched with glee as the stumps splayed. The slower ball had done the job. Golden duck. The youngster could claim bragging rights for years to come.

Nico Aldrich, the Under-12 coach of Kenridge Primary School, chuckles when he tells the story. "It was just one of those funny things. He thought he was bowling really quickly but it must have just come out wrong, and that teacher really thought he was going to score a lot of runs that day," he said. The teacher remained nameless but the bowler was Stiaan van Zyl.

Yes, the man who scored 933 runs in ten first-class matches last season and one of two players to have received a maiden call-up to South Africa's Test squad for Sri Lanka, was a roaring quick as a youngster - or at least he thought was.

The match took place more than a decade or so ago. Aldrich doesn't remember if Dane Piedt, the other rookie in the touring party to Sri Lanka, was in attendance, but there is a good chance he was. Piedt was also a pupil at Kenridge and being three years younger than van Zyl was probably watching in awe, dreaming of the day he would be good enough to play against the teachers.

Piedt's superiors all thought that day was not far off, given his talent. He was only nine years old when he was identified as a bright sporting prospect. "At that age, kids are in grade three and the following year, in grade four, they move on to hard-ball cricket. But kids who show potential in grade three are allowed to use hard balls from the third term of that year, which is really quite something for them. Dane was one of those kids who was allowed to play hard-ball cricket early," Felicity Hill, a teacher, remembered.

Piedt was part of Hill's mini-cricket group, formed after she and some of her fellow teachers had a Bakers coaching course at the school. "I never thought I would become involved in cricket but when I started at Kenridge, 25 years ago, they offered the coaching course and I did it. After that, we ran mini-cricket at the school for a group of kids. They even got invited to play on the field at Newlands during one of the internationals," Hill said. "I'm 61 now and I am still doing it."

The Bakers programme, which ended in 2010 after being a part of the South African game for 27 years, and has been succeeded by KFC, was initiated by Ali Bacher and tasked with allowing children of various backgrounds to learn the basics of the game. After that, more specialised coaching was required and the cricketers of Kenridge Primary found that from a high-profile source.

"Eric Simons' son was also in that group of children with Dane, and Eric would come to the training sessions and offer the kids a bit of advice," Hill said. "It was just awesome to have someone like him there."

Simons, a former national fast bowler, may have had some influence on van Zyl's ambition of becoming a bowler but he did not change Piedt's mind about what he wanted to do. "He was an opening batsman - very talented, a fantastic leader and always smiling, always happy," Aldrich said.

Piedt was the captain of Aldrich's Under-12 side, which would often go on short cricket trips to compete against other schools. On one of them, in the nearby town of Worcester, Aldrich remembered Piedt being particularly optimistic.

"We were sleeping over on the Friday night to play in the tournament on Saturday, and when we met for breakfast on the Saturday morning, Dane came to me and said he had a dream that we would win the tournament. I just laughed but later that day we actually did win." Piedt was the star batsman.

He continued batting in the Under-13 matches, where his coach Eddie Fitzroy explained that he didn't bowl much because of his stature. "Dane was short and quite small and everyone who was bowling then was bowling quickly, so he didn't really bowl."

Fitzroy knew all about wannabe firebrands. Before coaching Piedt, he had coached van Zyl, whose enthusiasm knew no bounds. "Stiaan wanted to play everything across the line. We just couldn't get him to play straight. And he didn't want to take singles. Everything had to go," he said. "So he batted in the middle order and we actually used him more as a bowler. He was left-arm over and absolutely devastating. Schoolboys struggle with that angle and he did really well."

It was up to Keith O'Kennedy, who ran a cricket academy at Kenridge, to help van Zyl refine his technique. "He had the ability to attack and it was about teaching him control," O'Kennedy said. "After a while, I didn't think I had seen a batsman who applied himself to playing so correctly as him."

Van Zyl also dabbled in rugby and was the school's Under-13 fly half on an overseas tour to the UK, but his father steered him towards cricket. "The support Stiaan got from his parents was immense. They were always around to watch the Saturday games," Fitzroy said. "Stiaan's dad was very committed to cricket. He was involved with the South African blind cricket team, and then when Stiaan went to high school he coached the cricket team there."

Although O'Kennedy wanted to get talented players into traditional cricketing schools "so their games would progress", van Zyl completed his schooling at the Boland agricultural school, Boland Landbou. His father took over as a sporting mentor and the teachers at Kenridge didn't hear much about his progress until he started playing for the Cobras.

O'Kennedy tried to get Piedt into Rondebosch Boys' High School, where Gary Kirsten and Jonathan Trott had studied, "but they were full that year". Piedt's parents eventually enrolled him into SACS, Peter Kirsten's alma mater. Piedt's progression as a batsman continued and he was selected in the Western Province Under-19 side for the national tournament at the end of 2008, where he opened the batting and bowled.

The competition was played in Port Elizabeth, where O'Kennedy had retired to, but he did not manage to see Piedt in action. "He called me and said he had been selected and I wasn't at all surprised," O'Kennedy said. "He was such a good player, even from a young age, that I always knew he would reach great heights. To know that I may have played a small part in that, and Stiaan's achievements, is really superb."

For Kenridge, Piedt and van Zyl's selections is a sign that they're doing something right. "We work with so many kids - to see some of them progress so far is a great achievement for us," Fitzroy said. He described the school as an "ordinary co-ed government school," which sets them apart from the more elitist, single-sex privately-owned schools that have the resources to spawn international sportspeople.

But what Kenridge has are "beautiful facilities," according to O'Kennedy, and a way of "making sport really enjoyable for all the kids because it's about having fun, playing games and giving people a chance."

Soon, it will also have two South African Test caps.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent