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Intriguing reports of a previously unknown fast bowler are coming out of Namibia in advance of the Six Nations Challenge to be played there next week. Namibia were the surprise qualifiers for the 2003 World Cup at the ICC Trophy in Toronto, and insiders within the national cricket team believe they have discovered a player who might just make them a force with which to be reckoned. Bowling at what some estimate to be close to 100 mph from a run of only three paces, and standing a shade over 5' tall, this small man with the unlikely and unpronounceable name of !Kabbo has the potential to surprise even the best of players.
!Kabbo (the ! symbol indicates a clicking sound difficult to reflect in English spelling) comes from a most unlikely background and his story is a fine example of how truth can be stranger than fiction. He is a member of the San tribe of Kalahari Bushmen - southern Africa's first residents who survive in the harsh environment of the Kalahari desert due to their traditional hunter-gather lifestyle. His family was part of a group of San who were forced off their traditional homeland by settlers in northern South Africa in the 1920s, and have been living in the remote Xai Xai region of Namibia, preserving their unique culture and language.
In their brief exposure to Europeans in the 1920s, evangelical missionaries tried to convert the San, and as part of their attempts to "civilise" them showed them the rudiments of cricket. Hunter-gatherer societies have been shown to be highly efficient leaving ample time for recreation, and the only trapping of western civilisation the San took with them into the wilderness was their primitive version of the game of cricket. Far removed from the game as we know it, it involved the bowling of small hard gourds at the body of the "batsman" who would defend himself with a stick. Perhaps the only vestige of "normal cricket" that remained in their version was the propulsion of the gourd with a nearly straight arm. The San are tremendous hunters and are able to throw short spears distances of 30 to 40 yards with great accuracy. Accordingly, the game became an important teaching tool for aspiring youths, and has remained popular to the present day.
Canadian anthropologist and socio-linguist Loof Lirpa came across the San three years ago, in his quest to document the !Kabe language. The language was thought to be extinct and he was astonished to find a small group of San living in southern Namibia who were still speaking it. He spent much time with the group and was intrigued by their strange games. Being North American he thought their ball game was closer to baseball, but recognised the exceptional pace and control developed by the San youths. 18 year-old !Kabbo was clearly the star of the group and a chance conversation in a bar in Windhoek led to interest from the Namibian Cricket Association, and the youngster being brought into town for a try-out in the nets in September of last year.
He cut an unlikely figure, standing only just over 5 foot tall, and looking uncomfortable in the western garb that had been loaned to him, but with in a ball in his hand it was immediately clear that he was something special. From a run-up of only three paces he launched the ball at a tremendous velocity in a whirlwind of arms and legs. Batsmen from the Namibian team refused to face him at first, as true to the game he knew, he bowled fast full tosses at the body. Once a more appropriate target was explained to him, he showed the ability to bowl extremely fast with incredible accuracy.
!Kabbo initially demonstrated little interest in staying in the capital and playing cricketoffers of money meant little to him, and he was set to walk the 200 miles back to Xai Xai. His traditional homelands however have been threatened by mineral exploration, and he was convinced to stay only after talks with officials from the Ministry of Mines and Energy assured him that no development would take place if only he would stay to represent the country through 2003.
Since then he has been training extensively, and playing regularly in local club matches, where his bowling has been devastating. No accurate timing devices exist in Namibia but the batsmen who have faced him include those who have faced some of the quickest bowlers in South Africa and they believe him to be faster than anyone they have previously seen. Lacking subtlety, with no swing or seam, and little variation, he takes wickets with sheer pace - average reaction times seem too slow to cope with his quickest deliveries. He is a phenomenal fielder, capable of direct hits from almost everywhere on the ground, and despite some early problems has adjusted well to the rules of the game. Surprisingly, he is not a great bat, but when he makes contact the ball can travel a long way.
Up to now, !Kabbo's abilities have been a closely guarded secret, but with the advent of the Six Nations Challenge, it has been learned that he is likely to be drafted into the Namibian squad as a last minute addition. Concerns had arisen about his ability to take wickets against top-class batsmen, and it was decided to give him the opportunity to show what he could do against Kenya, Canada, the Netherlands, and A teams from Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. It will also provide an opportunity to have his somewhat unusual action examined by top-class umpires before the World Cup.
The big question however is whether this polite, unassuming young man can be the first to break the 100 mph barrier. Brett Lee and Shoaib Akthar have been bowling in the high 90s but so far have failed to reach the magic mark. !Kabbo is clearly very fast indeed, but until he is timed in scientific conditions it is not clear how fast he really is. The absence of timing devices at the Six Nations Challenge means that we might have to wait until the World Cup before that question is answered. Indeed how effective his simple bowling method will be on true wickets against top-class batsmen is questionable. He has a year to learn his craft, and perhaps a fairy tale ending to this unlikely story will unfold in 2003 on the fields of southern Africa.