August 24, 2003

Ngam on the comeback trail

Fast bowling aficionados everywhere, and South African supporters in general, would have winced with deja vu at the pained departure of Monde Zondeki from Headingley on Friday. For Zondeki, who pulled up with a strained side after bowling just 1.5 overs in England's first innings, would have reminded them darkly of the fate of Mfuneko Ngam.

Ngam rose magnificently to cricket's toughest challenge and to a speed of close to 150kmph in his first three Test matches, against New Zealand and Sri Lanka in the summer of 2000-01. He took 11 wickets at 17.18 and, at 21, looked for all the world like the genuine unfinished article.

Which is how his career is threatening to remain for good. Because Ngam has spent much of the past 31 months off the field with an assortment of injuries, most of them stress fractures. In fact, the first struck his spine a year before his debut and the next year his right foot became a casualty.

Fate eased its grip on Ngam's career just long enough for him to show the world what he could do. Then came a stress fracture of the right femur, surgery to his right shoulder to sort out ligament problems, a stress fracture of the right tibia and another of the right foot.

Theories explaining Ngam's sad fate litter the discourse of South African cricket. Several concern themselves with his formative years, with particular reference to diet and the damage that may have been caused to his bones by bowling on concrete pitches.

Thankfully, science has intervened and the most pertinent truth about Ngam's condition is that his body does not absorb enough calcium. Ngam's biokineticist, Raymond Finch, told Wisden CricInfo that Ngam is on medication commonly given to osteoporosis sufferers to increase his bone density. Also, Finch said, "he's got too much flexibility around the ligaments".

Ngam now bowls in orthopaedic boots custom-built for him in the United Kingdom. They are fitted with orthotic inserts specifically tailored to his feet and his bowling action. "Strength-wise he has improved a lot," said Finch, "and his body fat percentage has come down."

Fat? Ngam is a beanpole of a bowler.

"He may have looked lean, but he had quite a quite a bit of puppy fat," explained Finch. "Now there's a lot more stability around his body. He's bulked up, and he's by far the fittest guy at Eastern Province."

Ngam has had plenty of help to make it back - doctors attached to American major league baseball teams had been consulted - but most of the credit belongs to no-one else but him.

"Most days he's waiting for me at the gym," said Finch, adding that Ngam also spends long hours on the road and in the nets, with his workload being carefully monitored at the national academy. "We don't want him bowling more than 45 overs a week."

Finch is confident Ngam would be back in action soon, and this time with the physical staying power to match his psychological strength. "I really can't see him breaking down again," he said. "The one thing people don't give Mfuneko credit for is his ability to keep coming back. He's so mentally strong, and so determined to do it."

Ngam himself was at a loss to adequately explain his singlemindedness to pursue a career in a field that has caused him so much pain and anguish. "I don't really know what keeps me motivated to try and come back from the injuries," he said. "Sometimes when people say I'm not going to do it, that's when I know I am going to do it."

Does he believe he still has a future at the top level? "If I didn't I wouldn't be doing all this to try and get my fitness back."