When Christi Viljoen got out of his Cricket Namibia contract at the end of 2014, it appeared to be the end of his five-year career with the national team at age 27.
The main motivation for the South African-born allrounder's decision was to pursue higher professional ambitions abroad, specifically in New Zealand where he now qualifies as a local player. He earned a full-time contract with Otago this past season, the next step in his quest to qualify for New Zealand and hopefully get picked one day to play Test cricket.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Viljoen showed up in Scotland this week to boost Namibia's touring squad for a set of matches in the Intercontinental Cup and WCL Championship. After scoring a half-century in the four-day match, Viljoen made his return to one-day cricket for Namibia in style by taking two wickets in his opening over of both WCL Championship matches, the second of which sparked Namibia in the field to pull off a stunning 50-run win over the hosts.
"To be honest, it's really nice to be back with the boys and give them a win, though I probably didn't have that big of a part but I think it was a really good team performance for the lads," Viljoen told ESPNcricinfo after he finished with 3 for 58 in the win for Namibia, just their second in 10 matches in the current WCL Championship tournament.
The matter of Viljoen's Namibia comeback was aided in part by the fact that the Scotland series was away in the UK rather than in Namibia. After the first-class season with Otago ended, Viljoen was signed by Burslem Cricket Club in Stoke-on-Trent as an overseas professional in the North Staffordshire & South Cheshire Premier League. If it had been at home in the Namibian summer, the series would have clashed with his Otago commitments. Instead all that was required was permission from Otago and a four-hour trip north up the M6 motorway to join the squad.
"I was so surprised when I first got back with the team as to the youngsters how good they actually are and how much some of the boys have improved that I've not seen for a couple of years."
"My intention and my dream has always been to play cricket at the highest level," Viljoen said. "So when I decided to move to New Zealand, I wanted to give myself that chance at least. Even if I don't get picked in the long run, I wanted to be able to have the chance to do it. So in doing that, I think it's probably made me a better player.
"Now being there for a couple of years and all settled down, I just put some feelers out and asked [Otago] if I'm allowed [to play for Namibia] firstly and secondly if they said if you don't miss any qualification days, and they're happy with my intentions of staying there and that I'm not just gonna do one and leave, they said by all means it's extra good cricket for you to play and it's a good standard and you're over [in the UK] already so why not."
Namibia twice came within one win of reaching their maiden World T20, at the 2012 Qualifier in the UAE and again in Ireland in 2015, but fell short on both occasions. Since then, they have suffered poor results. The spine of their batting order, Raymond van Schoor, died tragically in November 2015 after suffering a stroke during a match and his death has taken a profound toll on many involved with the national team. Much more than van Schoor's runs, the spirit and leadership he provided a young squad is virtually impossible to replace.
Now more than ever, Namibia have been in need of senior figures to lean on to help them recover. Louis van der Westhuizen played his first internationals in more than three years in January for Namibia at the Desert T20 and Viljoen's return has given them both an emotional and competitive boost while helping to bridge the gap with some of the raw talents. Viljoen hopes that he can use his professional experience to help the next generation.
"Over the last couple of years, Namibia's had a bit of a downer but this past season in the Cricket South Africa competition they played in the one-day final and played exceptional cricket," Viljoen said. "So I think if they keep doing that, and with the odd guy coming in and out of the team, the future looks bright especially with the Under-19s coming seventh in the previous Under-19 World Cup, there's a lot of really good youngsters and I think the future is really looking good for them if they can keep moving up."
Rather than this appearance in Scotland being a one-off, Viljoen said he is more than open to continue representing Namibia in the future until and unless he comes into consideration for New Zealand selection. If so, results like Tuesday's win over Scotland might come off looking like less of a shock upset and more of a return to Namibia's former place regularly challenging the top-tier Associates.
"If in the future, if they do allow me to play again and I don't miss any of my qualification, which is obviously my number one goal for the future then I would love to play again with the boys because it's been really good this last week and a half," Viljoen said. "I was so surprised when I first got back with the team as to the youngsters how good they actually are and how much some of the boys have improved that I've not seen for a couple of years.
"It's been really nice to actually also give a little bit of knowledge that I've picked up in playing full-time professional cricket in New Zealand to pass that on to the younger lads and they listen and it's been nice to see them trying stuff as well. Hopefully whenever I do play, I can add a little bit of value and do my best."