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'The more overs Lungi Ngidi bowls, the less niggles he gets'

South Africa fast bowler Lungi Ngidi and his bowling coach Charl Langeveldt look ahead to the home series against India

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Lungi Ngidi is ready to start again. Again.
At 25, Ngidi has already come back from several potentially career-ending injuries and now enters a home summer with no competitive game time under his belt after five months on the sidelines. He opted out of South Africa's tour to Sri Lanka for personal reasons, did not feature in any IPL and T20 World Cup matches, and most recently, got Covid just as the 2021-22 season began.
"I was looking forward to the Netherlands [ODI] series and was really excited to get some cricket, but then I got Covid," Ngidi says. "Day four and five was probably when I had the worst of it, but other than that, it wasn't that bad for me and it hasn't set me back in any way. It was basically just taking another week of rest."
Ngidi didn't miss much, since the first match of the series against Netherlands was washed out and the other two postponed after concerns over a new coronavirus variant, Omicron.
He last played internationals for South Africa on their tour of Ireland in July, and though he has played four Tests this year, he has not featured in any domestic first-class cricket, and only ten red-ball matches in the last two years (including six Tests).
Considering Ngidi made his Test debut almost four years ago, it may seem surprising that he has only played ten Tests in all. That's not entirely unusual in South Africa, though. Most of the modern greats are eased in - in the time Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn played ten each, South Africa had played 32 and 25 Tests respectively. The team has played 26 since Ngidi's debut.
But Ngidi probably would have played more had injury not ruled him out of five Tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 2018-19 and four against England in 2019-20.
Since maintaining full fitness, he has played in all South Africa's Tests, two against Sri Lanka and two against West Indies, and he was just starting to get his bowling loads up when he was kept warming the bench by Chennai Super Kings in the IPL and by South Africa at the T20 World Cup.
Ngidi says he understood his exclusion. "With teams using different combinations, someone has to miss out and it happened to be me, but if that's what it takes for the team to win, then so be it.
"With CSK, I think Josh [Hazlewood] was doing really well for the team, so you don't want to mess with a winning formula. At the World Cup, we started off a bit shaky against Australia, but after that we were on fire, so you wouldn't have messed with something like that."
He says he works in the nets "even more when we are not playing because the trainer actually gets his hands on us and we have more than enough time to spend with him".
"As a sportsman you are always under pressure, for performances, for selection, and being stuck in a hotel room can really affect that, especially if it's not going well"
Ngidi on the mental-health challenges of playing in bubbles
South Africa's bowling coach, Charl Langeveldt, wants Ngidi to bowl even more.
"The big thing with Lungi is making sure he bowls a lot more than he used to, because he started playing international cricket a bit later than a guy like KG [Rabada]," Langeveldt says. "He went straight from school into first-class cricket, having played just 50-over cricket, and then suddenly having to play for four days, having to bowl a lot more overs and just being in the field, on his feet. The big thing is getting bowling-fit. That's the key for Lungi. The more overs he bowls, the less niggles he gets."
In an age where bowling loads are monitored by the ball, Langeveldt's push for Ngidi to bowl more may seem counterintuitive, but it works alongside a conditioning programme.
"To have bowling, you need strength training, a good cardio base and to be bowling-fit, meaning he has to bowl overs," Langeveldt says. "When he was at school, he used to play water polo and you can see he has got a big upper body, so we focus on the lower part of his body - legs, core, that's key for him. Also, with Lungi being a lot taller [than other fast bowlers], the impact on his joints when he plays a Test match, especially, means he needs a lot more recovery. It's about managing that."
Reading between the lines, it seems Ngidi may not be an automatic pick to start the summer as he works to get overs in his legs. Though he is among the incumbents, South Africa have eight fast bowlers to choose from.
"We've got very good competition and I am really looking forward to it," Ngidi says. "It pushes players. "I don't think anyone can be comfortable in their spot at the moment."
While that type of discomfort is healthy, it adds to the difficulties professional sportspeople are already facing, limited to biosecure environments for weeks or months on end. Like so many others who have spoken about the mental-health challenges, Ngidi confirms he has also found some part of it tough.
"You try to find things you enjoy. Usually if you are having a tough tour, you can just get out of the hotel, have a nice dinner somewhere or just take a walk. Now all those things are taken away from us. You are pretty much around the guys 24/7," he says.
For Ngidi the best team-mate to live in a bubble with is Andile Phehlukwayo. "We get along really well. We've been playing cricket together since we were 13. I understand him as a person; he gets me."
And the worst? "[Tabraiz] Shamsi," Ngidi says, laughing. "He is always up for a chat and he is really into his gaming at the moment, so sometimes I can hear him from his room just walking down the corridors and that will probably get on my nerves a bit."
Neither Phehlukwayo nor Shamsi is part of the Test squad, so Ngidi will have to find other company for the series against India, and he doesn't expect it to be entirely easy.
"The main thing is to find something that helps you kind of forget or release the pressure a bit. It is difficult, as much as people may not understand, as a sportsman you are always under pressure, for performances, for selection, and being stuck in a hotel room can really affect that, especially if it's not going well. Those four walls start to really close in on you.
"I have full respect for anybody who pulls out of a tour because mentally they feel like they cannot handle it. I probably have felt that at some stage but it didn't get to the point where I was ready to go home. It does affect you a bit. We find different ways to release the pressure."
And pressure there will be plenty of. This is the first series South Africa will play in the 2021-23 cycle of the World Test Championship, and it is already being talked up as a defining one for this generation of players. There is no one remaining from the team that won the Test mace in 2012, leaving this group with a completely clean slate to work from.
"A tour like this can really get the ball rolling in the right direction," Ngidi says. "The processes we are following now are putting us in a good position to compete in this Test Championship [cycle]. We've been speaking about a rebuilding phase, but I think it's coming together.
"We've got a good crop of players now and we are experimenting a bit with different combinations for different conditions, so I think those brave decisions are putting us in a better position and we are actually getting the results. I don't think we can ever stop saying we are rebuilding, but I think we are past that stage now. We've got the momentum going and we kind of know which direction we want to take South African cricket."
In the direction where they can start again.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent