Ngidi's journey

Where South Africa's latest spearhead came from

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Ngidi has come from facing off against Kagiso Rabada at school to taking bowling honours alongside him  •  Lee Warren/Getty Images

Ngidi has come from facing off against Kagiso Rabada at school to taking bowling honours alongside him  •  Lee Warren/Getty Images

A day in the early 2010s
Hilton College, a private boys' boarding school located 100km outside Durban, was playing St Stithians, a Methodist-church, co-educational Johannesburg school.
"Kagiso Rabada was leading the St Stithians attack, bowling at the speed of light, and bowled us out for 90," Neil Johnson, the former Zimbabwe cricketer and then head of cricket at Hilton, remembered.
"And in the change room Lungi [Ngidi] was sort of saying, 'Just wait till I get out there.' He wanted to get stuck in.
"He had Saints 90 for 8 in response but by then he had sent one player to the hospital and another one almost had a broken arm. It was just amazing to see how Rabada and Ngidi spurred each other on."
A day in January 2018
South Africa, a country that is home to the No. 2-ranked Test side in the world, were playing India, the No. 1, on their home turf. South Africa led the series 1-0 and set India a target of 287 to square the series. On the fourth evening, three Indian wickets fell for 26 runs, two to Ngidi, on Test debut, and one to Rabada, ranked the world's top Test bowler, in his 25th Test. The following morning seven more wickets were taken - one a run-out, two more by Rabada and four for Ngidi. Rabada and Ngidi shared all the wickets taken by bowlers, to see South Africa to a memorable win.
"It was amazing to see these two massive opponents from years before as team-mates today. It gave me goosebumps. They have such massive futures," Johnson said.
"He wanted to be a batsman but didn't have any kit, so he decided to give bowling a go. The rest is history"
Sean Carlisle, Hilton College cricket coach
All the days and weeks and months before and in between
Ngidi was born two years after the arrival of democracy, to domestic workers in Kloof, an upmarket suburb 30km outside of Durban. The leafy streets, country club and polo field were not his family's to enjoy. His mother and father toiled in other people's grand homes, a legacy of the apartheid system that was officially dismantled in 1994 but affects people's lives to this very day.
The only benefit the Ngidis got from their jobs was a sound education for their son. Lungi was schooled at Highbury Preparatory School, the alma mater of Mike Procter and Dale Benkenstein, where his talent as a sportsman was recognised. On completion of his primary schooling, he was offered a scholarship to Hillcrest High, a public school in the area, but Hilton College, a much fancier private school, produced a counter-offer. It was a no-brainer where he would end up.
Though going to Hilton took him 70km further from home, it brought him closer to success. At Hilton - where today it costs US$22,565 a year to be schooled, which would equate to more than a million rand over a five-year high-school period-- Ngidi was a boarder, one of around 30% of children from previously disadvantaged communities on a grant, and one of 16 in his dormitory. It was a lot to get used to for someone from a completely different environment but Ngidi fit in well and thrived.
"He was never embarrassed about his background and where he came from," Mile Mills, Ngidi's housemaster, said. "He realised he had a wonderful opportunity and he made sure he took it. And he excelled at sport, which really helped. With young boys, when you do well at sport, it gives you a platform from which to command some respect."
Ngidi played rugby and was an excellent swimmer "but cricket was his big love", Sean Carlisle, Hilton first-team coach said. "It was the sport that he shone at. He had natural, raw pace and seemed to handle pressure well. He never showed any nerves." Faf du Plessis used the same words to describe Ngidi's performance in his debut Test.
But for all his skill back then, there was a lot Ngidi did not have. Cricket kit, for one thing; parental presence beside the sports field, for another. But neither stopped him.
Carlisle remembered a story Ngidi told him from his childhood about the first time he turned up at cricket practice. "He wanted to be a batsman but didn't have any kit, so he decided to give bowling a go," Carlisle said. "The rest is history."
At Hilton, Ngidi received donations from a particular group of parents that Mills did not want to name, which included bowling shoes and other sporting equipment. Those same parents often hosted Ngidi on weekends when he did not return to his own parents in Kloof. "The drive was quite far and I'm not sure if they had a car," Johnson said. "It was difficult for Lungi's parents to come and support him, but they knew they had a very good kid on their hands."
So did Johnson, who recognised early that Ngidi had something special. "He was an athlete, he was very coordinated, and he didn't like to lose, which is always a good sign. He had that switch, where if he was in the nets and someone tried to smash him, he would just really start pushing the ball through. Pace and fire."
"In the past, I didn't know what I was doing, to be honest. Now I've sort of found my feet and I know which path I'm going down as a cricketer"
Ngidi's aggression meant that a lot of the time, he didn't get many wickets, because "the batsmen were ducking and trying to survive," Johnson said Ngidi's team-mates often benefited from the fear he struck into the opposition, until one day against Glenwood, the school Andile Phehlukwayo was at, when everything just clicked.
Ngidi took "six or seven wickets," according to Johnson and Glenwood were dismissed for "around 30". That's when things really started happening for Ngidi.
He played provincial cricket for Kwa-Zulu Natal through the age-groups and honed his skills with each year. At Hilton College, he had access to high-level coaches and facilities, which he would otherwise never have seen, and Johnson believes it moulded a professional sportsman. "We worked on a lot of things, like how to build a spell, how to structure an over, and we drilled the boys on accuracy. Lungi can hold that length that is difficult to score off. He is accurate," Johnson said.
Producing a player of that calibre is something any school would be proud of, but Hilton are more impressed by what Ngidi did off the field. "He was respectful, humble and a natural leader. The younger boys looked up to him a lot and he treated everybody with the same warmness," Carlisle said.
"He is just a very impressive young man," Mills added.
Ngidi was voted head of his house in his final school year, by which time Pierre de Bruyn, a former Northerns player, who was running the University of Pretoria academy, was sending him regular feelers. De Bruyn wanted Ngidi to move upcountry, where he would pursue tertiary education and potentially play for Titans.
At first Ngidi was hesitant but with national Under-19 honours lurking, Ngidi was convinced. "It took him [de Bruyn] three years, actually. He first arrived in my Grade 10 years and asked me to come to the Titans then, and I wasn't having it. But it was amazing how consistently he would arrive and keep asking for me. I wanted to see if he really meant it, so I also kind of played hard to get," Ngidi said after the Centurion Test. "Eventually, in my matric year, I wanted to further my studies and he offered me that opportunity and playing cricket at the same time."
Before Ngidi was scheduled to start at the university, he was due to play for South Africa at the Under-19 World Cup, a team that included his old rival, Rabada. While Rabada went on to lead South Africa's wicket tally, Ngidi never made the trip, because of a stress fracture to the back, the first of two serious back injuries. He stayed in South Africa, registered for a degree in labour law, and spent a year working his way back to fitness.
When he did return, he played for the university team, Northerns, and then Titans, and made his South Africa debut in a T20 against Sri Lanka in January 2017, where he impressed with his pace and control. He was widely expected to play the ODIs that followed, and possibly to challenge for a place in the Champions Trophy squad, but a rib injury kept him out. He was then included to play for South Africa A in a series in England in June-July 2017 but the second back injury hit and he was confined to four months of rehabilitation.
"He had that switch, where if he was in the nets and someone tried to smash him, he would just really start pushing the ball through. Pace and fire"
Neil Johnson, former head of cricket at Hilton College
It's this second period of strength and conditioning, which involved losing eight kilograms and changing his diet that resulted in Ngidi returning fitter, stronger and faster, and he hopes it will him set up for a sustained period. "I'd love this to be a long career. I know many people talk about how injuries have affected me in the past, but I feel like this is a new start. In the past, I didn't know what I was doing, to be honest. Now I've sort of found my feet and I know which path I'm going down as a cricketer. I'd also like it to be one of the long careers, and maybe go down on the honours board," he said.
He is already on the SuperSport Park board after his 6 for 39 against India, whch included the wicket of the opposition captain, Virat Kohli and a warm reception from the sparse crowd every time he ran back to fine leg. Both mean something to Ngidi. "The captain's wicket was a very special moment. I felt that I had worked hard and sort of figured out a game plan of bowling towards him. So finally getting that really did mean a lot to me," he said. "And the crowd, to be honest, it's actually difficult to describe. It's not something I'm used to, so every time it really does hit me. You get goosebumps and get nervous all over again."
Johnson experienced the same thing. From his new post, at a school in the UK, he watched every ball Ngidi bowled in the Test and felt prouder with each one. "If I never do anything of use for another kid in my life, that's okay. Because of Lungi," he said.
As for bowling in tandem with Rabada? It's still a dream come true, for Ngidi. "I do remember that moment and it did strike me when I was thrown the ball and he was bowling at the other end. During the game I couldn't say anything, I had to internalise it, but it really was a dream come true to bowl with him. It has been a dream of mine. He actually has a lot of knowledge for a youngster as well. He is No. 1 in the world and it shows. We had been chatting throughout the innings and he had been giving me ideas, and to see them work is special as well," Ngidi said.
Rabada feels the same. "Yes, we played together in the Under-19. We even toured India, I remember, but he got injured, unfortunately, and his trip was cut short. But we played together at school and we have a history. So it's just nice to play with your friend from when you were a teenager. Hopefully long may it continue, and we can form a great partnership."
Many South Africans will agree.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent