When Richard Levi was 12, his cricket coach at Kronendal Primary School in the Cape seaside town of Hout Bay made an important phone call. He rang up Keith Richardson, headmaster of Wynberg Boys High School, with an unusual request.
"He asked me if Richard could come and play for our team because he was too good to play against the kids in junior school," Richardson told ESPNcricinfo. "He was always bigger and stronger than the other boys, and he had arms as though his father was a blacksmith."
Richardson was immediately impressed with the powerful prospect he was offered and Levi was allowed to play for the high school team. From then, he always played a year above the boys his own age, and by the time he was in Grade 9 (the second year of high school), aged 14 was picked for the first XI. At a school that has produced players including Allan Lamb, Garth le Roux and most recently Jacques Kallis, to say Levi was walking in the footsteps of giants would be putting it mildly.
Wynberg Boys is considered one of the top institutes of learning in South Africa, having produced many notables, including the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd. It has been the breeding ground for 20 international sportsmen, eight of them rugby players, and that's not including Levi.
In a galaxy of stars, Levi shone brightly on both the cricket and hockey fields (he was the South Africa Under-16 goalkeeper) but it was only years after he left that he made the big leap. "A school like ours has a lot of talent but it takes special mental strength to be able to make the step-up to international level, because you have to be able to get over disappointments," Richardson said. "Richard always knew he was a guy with ability and he was able to combine humility with confidence."
The mental strength that Richardson describes did not come to Levi immediately. For the first part of his career he relied on his natural talent to get by. He represented South Africa at the 2006 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka but returned with an ordinary showing - 102 runs in five matches at an average of 20.40.
The skill was there, though. Dean Elgar, who led South Africa in that tournament, said the squad was well aware of what Levi could do. "Even then, you could see he could hit a ball," Elgar said. "He was actually quite a quiet guy then, but a good guy to be around."
Levi spent four seasons in the Cobras set-up, performing adequately but not outstandingly, perhaps leaning overly on his schooling pedigree. "He probably rested on his talent a little," Richard Pybus, current coach of the Cobras, said. "He was one of the sons of Cape Town and he did well enough without really producing." In the fifth season, someone turned the heat up and Levi responded explosively.
"We had a chat about how hard he had to work at franchise level to be able to play international cricket and the mind-shift that had to take place," Pybus said. Levi went from averaging below 30 in the 2009-10 season in first-class cricket to over 50 in 2010-11. His List A average in 2011-12 lifted to 49.44, and he also made an impression in Twenty20 cricket at the 2011 Champions League T20. "His game came along really well. He put in a huge amount of hard work and trained as hard as any batsman in the country," Pybus said.
What caught the national selectors' eyes was probably the role Levi played in the Cobras' Franchise 1-Day Cup campaign. He was the team's top scorer with 424 runs from nine matches, and his 84 in the final was instrumental to the Cobras capturing the title.
He also shared in a 122-run partnership in that game with Owais Shah, who has acted as a mentor to Levi over the past two seasons. "He has spent a lot of time with Owais, talking about the short-form game," Pybus said. "In that final he really showed his ability to adjust his game. He batted well on a slowish wicket and with a lot of maturity. He played very well under pressure."
Since Herschelle Gibbs disappeared from the national side, South Africa have been looking for an opening batsmen who can absorb pressure while still remaining aggressive. That requirement was probably in the selectors' minds when they included Levi in the T20I squad to play Australia in October last year. But in the interests of giving Graeme Smith time to find form, Levi did not play in either of the two matches in that series.
Instead, Levi made his senior debut in South Africa colours in a game hardly any of his countrymen saw. The South Africans played a tour match against Canterbury as part of New Zealand's earthquake relief effort, but the game was not televised in South Africa. Levi scored 63 off 32 balls, an innings in which he found the boundary ten times and went over it on three occasions.
That performance put him on the map, particularly for their opposition, New Zealand. Peter Fulton, the Canterbury captain, suggested that international bowlers would test Levi with the short ball, because he did not score much off the back foot during that match. In the first T20I, that's exactly what Tim Southee did, hitting Levi on the helmet and getting him dismissed later in that over. But in the next match that ploy did not work.
Levi smashed the fastest century in T20Is, including the most sixes in a T20I innings - 13. The short delivery was sent over the boundary with as much power as a ball of any other length. Those who know Levi said ducking bouncers is not a technical issue for him. "He sees the ball really early," Pybus said. "He's got no short-ball issues, no judgement issues."
Elgar is also an admirer of Levi's technique and said he is the player most franchises fear on the domestic scene. "He hits the ball better now than he ever has. Even at U-19 level, he had a good technique, but he's got more of a concrete base now," Elgar said. "He is definitely the guy that teams are concerned about. He has that reputation and that aura about him."
Sounds like someone else who came from Wynberg Boys as well. Although as batsmen Kallis and Levi have very little in common, there is something the pair share. Richardson said he soon saw what that was. "They both hate giving their wickets away."