At the end of a career haunted by injury, Brett Schultz was invited up to Zimbabwe by his old mate Neil Johnson. The two had been to school together at Kingswood College in Grahamstown and "Johnno" had Schultz fly up for an end-of-season holiday with some cricket-watching on the side.
"Neil was playing for Zimbabwe at the time and at the end of an ODI against England he invited me into the dressing room," Schultz says. "Those Zimbabwe guys could always party. The beer was flowing and there was banter and shit-talking and great camaraderie. I remember sitting there and just thinking: 'This is what I really miss: the fun and the brotherhood.' I missed that - there was just such a strong sense of déjà vu."
Schultz is a physically imposing man - he weighed 100kg in his pomp and played good rugby as a loose forward at school - but he's big in other ways too. He's a bit of an extrovert and you're liable to experience booming laughter echoing down the telephone line as readily as you will occasional grace notes of a different shade: wistfulness and regret, some suffering, some pain.
The story is one of many beginnings but no discernible end. Finally, Schultz could only shuffle away, his knees creaking as he walked. No send-off, no fanfare, no cheque
"It took me a long time to get over the fact that, when it boils down to it, I never really had a career. I feel I missed out because of the injuries. Perhaps I didn't always listen carefully enough; perhaps, you know, I was just too busy being Brett. Maybe it was just the circumstances and the time in which we played, the fact that we went balls-to-the-wall on everything because we were just so determined to prove ourselves and didn't have anyone to hold us back."
A left-arm over-the-wicket fast bowler who thundered to the crease with grand, loping strides, Schultz could deliver his slinging catapults quickly and with menace. People tend to think he played for longer than he did, but a quick roll of the statistical bones tells us that he played only nine Tests across six seasons, one ODI and 60 first-class matches for three provinces. That isn't bad when you consider that Schultz was the archetypal late developer, starting out his cricket life as a wicketkeeper and only discovering he could bowl fast as a 15-year-old.
Then again, the career is meagre relative to what it once threatened to be. He played one Test each in series against Zimbabwe, England, Australia and Pakistan, and played in only the first two Tests of South Africa's first full post-readmission series, at home against India. The story is one of many beginnings but no discernible end. Finally, Schultz could only shuffle away, his knees creaking as he walked. No send-off, no fanfare, no cheque.
His golden hour was undoubtedly the tour to Sri Lanka in 1993, in which he played in all three Tests. "I remember getting the call from Kepler [Wessels]. He was his usual brisk self, you know: 'I've put myself on the line here and I need you step up.' That was pretty much all there was to the conversation. Then he rang off."
More than anyone else, Wessels helped Schultz along. He was wise, he was firm, and he was always on hand to help the youngster over hurdles. Schultz thinks that Wessels' disciplinarian tendencies were appropriate to the time and place in which the South Africans found themselves, and looking back on it, has no quibbles.
"You just needed a solid, experienced guy there at the helm at the beginning," he says. "I always felt with Kepler that I was like one of those dogs with a choker around my neck. I was like any young tearaway fast bowler and if I was pulling too hard I'd get throttled. Maybe he felt that I was a few smarties short of a box but I was already fit ahead of the tour to Sri Lanka, and in the months leading up to the tour I got fitter, so I was really in the best shape of my career."
"Maybe it was just the circumstances and the time in which we played, the fact that we went balls-to-the-wall on everything because we were just so determined to prove ourselves and didn't have anyone to hold us back"
Wessels also had technical savvy. In the weeks preceding the Sri Lanka tour, Schultz was struggling with accuracy, feeling unbalanced. Kepler sought out Mike McAuley, himself a left-arm seamer, and he helped Schultz shorten his delivery stride substantially, encouraging him to jump upwards instead of simply throwing himself forwards through the crease. With the tweak, Schultz added a yard of pace and substantial swing.
"We camped in Durban ahead of the tour and experimented with reverse swing. The idea was that we were going to push them back and give them a hard time once we got there. Not so much in terms of the verbal stuff but in our demeanour. Everyone was on their case. I remember in one of the practice sessions that the two nets were back to back. I was instructed to bowl my bouncers into their net behind us. We always used to say: 'It's important to be 'Flat-out' Schultz and not 'Brakes' Bezuidenhout.'"
Fit and strong, Schultz woke each morning in Sri Lanka feeling that it was going to be "a bowling day". He and Allan Donald, with whom he sometimes roomed, shared 12 wickets between them in the first Test, in Moratuwa. South Africa gambled slightly in picking two spinners - Pat Symcox, on debut, and Clive Eksteen. Chasing 365 to win, they salvaged a fortunate draw, seven wickets down at the close, with Jonty Rhodes hanging on with an unbeaten 101. Eksteen, his partner, took to his bunker, batting just over an hour and a half for 4.
The second Test was at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo, Schultz helping to limit the hosts to 168 batting first, taking 5 for 48. South Africa replied with a watchful 495, Hansie Cronje scoring a century, while Wessels, Andrew Hudson, Daryll Cullinan and Symcox chipped in with fifties. In their second dig the Sri Lankans stumbled to 119. For Schultz, it was a moment of exquisite frustration: "I just couldn't get the ten. It's such a big number for us bowlers, like a double-hundred for batsmen. I got four in the second innings but I just didn't have it in me to take that last wicket."
Although Schultz took five wickets in the third Test, to make it 20 for the series, the Sri Lankans only batted once as the fifth day was lost to rain, and the match spluttered to a draw. He returned to an immediate operation on his right knee; cuts to his left duly followed.
"In the end I made more comebacks than George Foreman. Perhaps I could have done it differently and not come back so quickly, but those were different days and I was eager. I got lost in it and just wanted so desperately to do well and not disappoint Kepler after he'd shown such faith in me on that tour of Sri Lanka."
"I remember in one of the practice sessions [against Sri Lanka] I was instructed to bowl my bouncers into their net behind us. We always used to say: 'It's important to be 'Flat-out' Schultz and not 'Brakes' Bezuidenhout'"
Four Tests spread across four seasons followed. Schultz played his last Test against Pakistan in Rawalpindi in October 1997, when he took one wicket in the Pakistan first innings and didn't bowl in the second. The almost-mandatory period of hectic partying and wild living followed, before one final return, a Schultz tragicomedy with all the trimmings.
"It took me a couple of years and then I made a comeback, bowling off eight paces," he says. "I'd been playing a bit of social cricket and a Transvaal selector spotted me and invited me down to nets. I was picked and came back and decided to go off my full run. After a few balls I realised that was it - I just couldn't do it."
Looking back on it all, he is adamant that he was his action, the catapult gunslinger who wanted nothing more than to be the quickest kid in town. He might have lost some weight, he might have protected his numbers, but that wasn't Brett. You had to let him go, hoping to hell that he came back for more in the morning, having woken up feeling that it was going to be that most precious of things: a bowling day.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg