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Friedel de Wet finds peace in domesticity

Friedel de Wet appeals for a wicket AFP

By the time he had turned 29, Friedel de Wet had reached the level of middle-class comfort many strive for. The fast bowler had a stable job as a professional cricketer and a back-up career as a landscape architect. He had married his childhood sweetheart. He was happy.

His boyhood dreams of sporting stardom were dimmed by the realisation that at his age and with his numbers - he was second on the first-class bowling charts two seasons before in 2006-07, with 48 wickets at 22.00 but had dropped down after that - it was unlikely he'd make it big. He was content with making it medium: being a dependable, good team man, a good husband, and one day, a good father.

Despite being newly married, he was under a bit of friendly pressure from his team-mates for the last of those to happen quickly. One afternoon while driving from his home town Rustenburg, at the foot of the Magaliesberg mountain range, to his franchise ground in Potchefstroom 150 kilometres away, his phone began chiming the sounds of congratulations. "I was getting a lot of SMSes saying things like, 'Well done Friedel', and I was thinking to myself, 'Alecia is not pregnant, is she?' So I wondered why everyone is saying well done," de wet recounted.

"Then Gordon Parsons, who was our bowling coach at Lions and my mentor, phoned me and also said well done. So I told him, 'I don't know what everyone is saying congratulations for. Alecia is not pregnant.' And he just started laughing. He said, 'Friedel, you've been picked for South Africa.' I couldn't believe it."

"Dale came to me and said, 'I'm definitely not playing. You are.' I just said, 'No, Dale. You can't do this to me now', and then I felt like I couldn't breathe"

De Wet had reason to doubt what he had heard. He had finished the previous summer 10th on the first-class wicket-takers' list behind Craig Alexander, Rusty Theron and Garnett Kruger. He had thought he was out of contention.

"I just got this nervous, warm feeling. This is what I dreamt about since I was five and I thought it would never happen," de Wet says. "Even when Gordon told me that I was only in as back-up because Dale Steyn was injured, I just thought that at least I would get to practise with the national team, I would get a shirt and would get a taste of what it was like. Maybe I would even be 12th man. That's all I wanted."

There were still two weeks between the squad announcement and the first Test, so de Wet had plenty of time to get used to the idea of his inclusion. When the time came to join the team camp in Centurion, his suspicions of being on the periphery were confirmed. Steyn had made steady progress after a hamstring injury and seemed a certain starter. "Dale was bowling well in the nets, but the selectors told me I would be in the 13 anyway, in case something happened. That was the day before the game."

On the morning of the game, Steyn bowled a few balls while de Wet got himself ready for warm-ups in the change room. "I was walking down the steps at SuperSport Park when I saw Dale walking up towards me. He had stopped bowling and was going back up. He came to me and said, 'I'm definitely not playing. You are.' I just said, 'No, Dale. You can't do this to me now,' and then I felt like I couldn't breathe. It was that feeling which goes from your heart into your throat."

England chose to bowl first, which gave de Wet an extra day to think about how unexpectedly his dream had come true, but it was not enough to calm his nerves. When he delivered his first ball on day two, after Makhaya Ntini had opened the bowling and had a catch dropped off the first over, everything went wrong. De Wet's delivery was a half-tracker down the leg side and he was no-balled. "It was a shocker," he admitted. "As I was walking back to my mark I just kept thinking about what the commentators must be saying about me."

But three overs later, de Wet got one to land in that tempting region outside off stump that Alastair Cook could not resist having a nibble at. The outside edge carried through to Mark Boucher and "everything just settled".

For the rest of that innings, de Wet was overshadowed by Ntini, who was celebrating his 100th Test and was the focus of all the fanfare. De Wet had his second chance when South Africa had set England a target of 364. England were soon in trouble at 27 for 3, de Wet having dismissed nightwatchman James Anderson.

But Kevin Pietersen was defying his former countrymen and his was the wicket they needed. De Wet nearly had him. "Just after lunch, I had him plumb lbw and then when I turned around, the umpire said it was a no-ball," de Wet said. "If there was ever a time I felt like crying on a cricket field that was it."

After tea, de Wet ran Pietersen out and also accounted for Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and Matt Prior to leave England at 208 for 7. South Africa could sniff the series lead but England clung on to force a draw.

"I was so focused on what I had to do that I wasn't even looking at the game situation," he says. "Every now and then I look back at it and think of what I could have done differently, but when I was in the situation, I was playing on adrenaline. The main thing I learnt from there was that you have to give every ball 100%. Because there are so many times when you think you're bowling six balls so you only give 85% or 90% to some of them but you can't."

"Just after lunch, I had Pietersen plumb lbw and then when I turned around, the umpire said it was a no-ball. If there was ever a time I felt like crying on a cricket field that was it"

Steyn recovered for the next match, so de Wet, like so many others who have acted as fill-ins, had to make way. He had had his one Test and even though he'd given a good account of himself, he understood it may be his only one. It was only when Ntini was dropped ahead of the New Year's match that de Wet was let in on the long-term plans, which included him.

"The selectors told me I would play that Test and the next one and go with the squad to India later on," he said. Finally, the real dream and not just specks of its stardust was coming true.

The Newlands Test unfolded in similar fashion to the Centurion game. England put South Africa in and de Wet had an extra day to get ready. When he opened the bowling, Morne Morkel had already taken a wicket in the first over. Things were already on the up and then they came crashing down.

After his first five-over spell, de Wet knew he may never play for South Africa again. "I felt pain in my back and I knew something was not right," he says. "I just got this horrible, disappointing feeling because I had waited all my life for this opportunity and I knew it was the end of my dreams."

Low on pace and motivation, de Wet bowled another 11 overs in that innings and 12 in the next and with each step the stress fracture in his back got a little worse. When the game ended, in eerily similar fashion to de Wet's debut, with England clinging on for a draw, so did his career.

He spent the next eight months recovering and the next three years playing franchise and amateur cricket and regained his pace but not his hopes of being recalled to the South African side. "I knew it would be difficult from there. I was getting close to 30 and the competition was tough. Morne Morkel was coming up and I always knew Dale Steyn would be one of the best bowlers in the world and the selectors generally want younger guys," he says. "It was difficult to say goodbye to that dream but I had to."

Instead, de Wet went back to being a dependable team man, a good husband and eventually a good father - a role that is about to get much busier. In March 2016, Alecia (sister of former Titans batsman Johann Myburgh) is expecting twins, to add to the young daughter they already have, and another dream has come true. "I love kids - that's why I am involved with the primary school here in Rustenburg where I coach cricket," de Wet says. "But I'm a little nervous about twins. Not as nervous as I was on my Test debut but still nervous. Life is going to change."