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Sarel Erwee: 'England is where you learn Test cricket as an opener'

South Africa's batter embraces the pressure of series-decider at The Oval

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Sarel Erwee drives en route to his fifty in the Lord's Test  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Sarel Erwee drives en route to his fifty in the Lord's Test  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Batting in England, according to Sarel Erwee, can feel like being at the top of a slide you've been down many times before. You know your head will spin when you survey the journey below, your stomach will turn as it begins, your ears will pop somewhere en route and you will scream, probably all the way. Even though intellectually you know to expect all these things, when they're actually happening they will surprise you. Then you will steel yourself and want to go through it all again.
"In these conditions, the ball moves and swings and nips and you know it's going to do that," Erwee told ESPNcricinfo. "It's almost like going to India where the ball turns and you know it's going to turn. When you see a lot of movement, sometimes that plays on your mind a little bit. The challenge is to stay in the moment and not let the one or two balls that swing a lot play on your mind."
Erwee talks from some experience. Although this is his first tour to England as an international, he has spent several seasons at Weybridge Cricket Club, playing in the Surrey Premier League, where he faced the moving ball. It may have caused him some difficulty then but it's definitely asking much more of him now. "The English attack - just two of them [James Anderson and Stuart Broad] - have got over 1,000 wickets between them and it's quite nice to face experienced bowlers in bowler-friendly conditions," Erwee said.
For the record Anderson and Broad together have 1,223 Test wickets and while Erwee is in awe, he is not intimidated. "It's tricky but you wouldn't want it any other way as an opening batter," he added. "This is where you learn your Test cricket and what you're about. To face these guys in their conditions is tricky but a nice experience. It's something we will take with us into many more series to come, or even just to franchise cricket when we go back home. It's all a learning curve really."
The issue is that South Africa's batters have been in the knowledge-seeking phase for what seems like too long. In the last three years, only West Indies and Bangladesh have a top six that averages lower than their figure of 30.84, and they have only scored seven centuries between them, more than only Zimbabwe and Afghanistan.
Erwee is one of those century-makers, and one of only two South African batters to have scored a Test hundred this year - Kyle Verreynne is the other - but he doesn't see the individual numbers as the most important statistic right now. "The key thing for us is partnerships," he said. "Everyone wants to score runs and hundreds but when you face tricky conditions it's all about fighting for the next ball and fighting for your partner. That's a focus."
On that metric, Erwee has had done everything right so far. His partnership with Dean Elgar, though still in its infancy, is South Africa's most successful in average terms since Graeme Smith and Neil Mckenzie in 2008-09.
Smith and McKenzie shared in five hundred and eight fifty stands in 27 innings together; Erwee and Elgar have had two hundred and three fifty stands in 11 innings. They average 47.09, which suggests they are giving the middle-order something to build on. The real dilemma stems from them not always being able to, but Erwee has faith in players he has spent more than a decade playing alongside and against in domestic competitions.
"They are excellent," he said. "Watching them in domestic cricket and watching them train here, facing our bowlers - we're talking about our four seamers who are world-class - for us to be facing them and watching these guys train against them, they are definitely the future of this batting line-up. I'm sure these guys are close to getting onto a good run and I look forward to watching that in years to come. Once I am done playing, I am sure they'll still be playing. They are class players."
For someone only six matches into a Test career, and 32 years old, talking about no longer playing seems too soon but it's part of Erwee's ideology of not looking too far ahead. "I haven't really thought of [my] long-term prospects. I just try and play my best game so that I have a good foot to stand on in the following game," he said. "If I score the runs, I'll stay."
You don't want to run away from pressure. You want to go towards it. If you run towards it, when pressure does hit, it becomes easier to face
So far, so good. Erwee is currently the only South African batter with more than 100 runs in the ongoing series and the only one with a half-century. But the expectation on him in an inexperienced line up - which will only get more inexperienced now that Rassie van der Dussen has been ruled out with a broken finger and one of Ryan Rickelton (two Test caps) or Khaya Zondo (one) will replace him - is immense. Asked how he copes with the scrutiny, Erwee offered a philosophical answer: "It's Michael Jordan who said something about he has failed so many times but he has still become successful," he said.
The exact Jordan quote is: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games, 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed," and the message holds: success is not only measured in numbers but in the way someone responds in tough times.
"You don't want to run away from pressure. You want to go towards it. If you run towards it, when pressure does hit, it becomes easier to face," Erwee said. "I don't really feel I am under pressure every game. I've just got to enjoy and make the most of each game that I have, I try to embrace it as much as possible."
The attitude of in-the-moment living comes from the work Erwee has done on his mental health, which hit a low that almost led him to quit cricket, and has now seen him to commit to having as much fun as he can, while he can.
And it shows. When he dropped Ollie Pope at slip in England's first innings at Lord's, juggling and then falling as he tried to take what should have been a routine catch, he brushed it off as 'one of those things' and then saw the lighter side of juggling and taking the catch that ended Joe Root's innings in the second Test. "When I dropped the first one, I heard the crowd play up a bit. I was like, 'oh my word, this is crazy'," Erwee remembered, with a laugh. "But luckily I held on to the second one because that could have been another interesting reaction from the crowd."
In all seriousness, fielding in the slips is not as straightforward as it may seem in these conditions, for exactly the same reason batting is challenging. "It's quite tricky with the ball that wobbles a bit once it's past the bat. It's not something I've experienced before," Erwee said. "We train our slip catching quite intensely. You've just got to train it over and over again to get used to the wobble of the ball once it comes past the bat. It's just about keeping your body as relaxed as possible and your head nice and still so that if something happens you can move quickly."
South Africa routinely do their fielding sessions last in training, when the players are already quite fatigued, to challenge their concentration levels in the same way a Test match might. It's about forcing them to be as present as possible. "You've always got to be switched on. I have really enjoyed the challenge of that," Erwee said.
And that means that, even if he knows exactly what to expect on the field, he is also always ready for a few surprises.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent