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'Got a lump in my throat' - South Africa Test centurion Sarel Erwee opens up on mental health battles

"As a man, it's kind of frowned upon to show mental weakness or a bit of softness," he says after a 'very special' knock in Christchurch

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Sarel Erwee was going to quit. It was the summer of 2019, he'd been playing cricket for a decade, was approaching his 30th birthday and thought his dreams of being an international cricketer were over. He had reason to. Erwee had gone almost two years and 30 innings without a first-class century and averaged 28.63. Even before that, his average across 75 matches hovered just above 35. He had just had enough.
"I was a phone call away from calling it quits," he said after becoming South Africa's newest Test centurion in Christchurch.
But then came an intervention. "I had huge support, when I sat down with my family, with my parents and they picked me up. I saw a sports psychologist and we worked through it daily. It was a hard slog to try and get motivated again, to give my best after wanting to give up," he said. "All the years of hard work felt pointless and worthless at one stage."
Until they didn't and the sessions Erwee went to worked.
He went on to score two hundreds in two matches in early 2020 and to double his average to 54.80 in the last two years. He was selected for the South African squad to play Sri Lanka at home, then to tour Pakistan, West Indies and against India at home and, despite Aiden Markram's waning form, didn't get a game. It was only when Keegan Petersen contracted Covid-19 and was forced out of the visit to New Zealand and Markram was granted the concession of moving to one-drop, that Erwee got his opportunity and two Tests in, he has made the most of it.
"As a man, it's kind of frowned upon to show mental weakness or a bit of softness. There's a lot of work still to be done. I am in that process every day, every week, every month, where I am trying to better my mental wellbeing."
He is the first South African opener to score a century in a year, since Markram in Pakistan. He shared the highest opening stand in 18 innings and helped the team score more runs on one day than they did in the entire first Test. His was an innings defined by the discerning leave - Erwee did not play at a third of the deliveries bowled to him - and the well-timed drive, and it was an innings that played out in front of his sister, Chantelle, who has not seen him for four years.
Erwee "got a lump in my throat," and wiped a tear from his eyes when he was asked what it was like to score a century alongside the batter he is likely to replace in the medium-term, Markram, and with a member of his family in the audience.
"It was extremely special. They (Dean Elgar and Markram) are two good guys. They've taken me under their wing and helped me through this journey. It was lovely to be there with them and lovely to celebrate and get that hundred in front of my family. My sister lives here in New Zealand," he said, as his voice cracked. "Sorry, I've got a lump in my throat here. She's been through a tough time here, so it's nice for her to have something to smile about."
Honest emotion, heightened by the global pandemic that has kept people away from each other for the last 24 months, is still rare in professional sport, especially among men. But Erwee has spent too long and worked too hard to hide his feelings. In the same week that a well-known South African rapper, Riky Rick, died by suicide, Erwee put mental health in front and at the center of the conversation and asked for it to be given more attention.
"It's a big thing and I don't think we focus on it enough in South Africa, not just in cricket but in all sports," Erwee said. "And in general life. As a man, it's kind of frowned upon to show mental weakness or a bit of softness. There's a lot of work still to be done. I am in that process every day, every week, every month, where I am trying to better my mental wellbeing. It's a big part of my life and probably will be for a long time."
For someone in their second Test match, who has just achieved a century, to demonstrate the composure to discuss a topic so serious spoke about Erwee's maturity, as a person and a player, and provides a reminder that Erwee is no overnight sensation. He is 32 and has done years in the often-overlooked-and-under-rated domestic game and maintained that it is a satisfactory training ground for the biggest stage.
"You've got to get on with it at domestic cricket. You've got to prepare yourself. Whether it's your first year or your sixth year, you've got to prepare yourself for international cricket if that's what you want to do," he said. "You've got to front up and show up every single day and make sure you get better. I am very fortunate that I had a year to settle into the squad and find my feet preparation-wise, and find out what it takes to do half decently or do well at this level. That's just the help from team-mates. Preparation and fronting up is key."
Elgar also used the words "front up," when he explained his decision to bat first - the only captain in 11 Tests to make that choice. On a pitch with less bounce than the first Test and strong winds making it difficult for the bowlers, his top three have so far proved him right but for Erwee, it's not so much conditions as it is mindset that fueled South Africa's performance. "We are here to win a Test match. We want to be one-all leaving the shores here. You've got to front up and that's what we did today. We've got a goal in mind. If that means you have to bat first on a greenish wicket or a wicket that does something, so be it. That's the nature of this game."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent