Finally on the big stage, Baartman soaks up the pressure and shines

He had to wait his turn a long time, almost gave up on cricket, then came the SA20... Now, at the T20 World Cup, he's holding his nerve to keep South Africa winning

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Ottneil Baartman thought he had Mamudullah's wicket only to be denied by DRS, Bangladesh vs South Africa, T20 World Cup 2024, New York, June 10, 2024

A tricky finish on the cards? Ottneil Baartman has had some quite experience of those this World Cup  •  Getty Images

In the early hours of a cold, dark morning in the Klein Karoo valley where the town of Oudtshoorn is situated, one family stayed up on Saturday night while everyone else hunkered down for the winter: the Baartmans.
They were awake from 1.30am, to watch South Africa's match against Nepal, and did not drop their gazes until just after 4.30, when one of their own, Ottneil, defended seven runs off the last over to seal a tense win. And then, they immediately reached out to him, to let him know they had seen every ball, even at the expense of sleep, and wanted to celebrate with him.
"When we arrived back at the hotel there were quite a few messages from them, saying they're so proud of me and happy for me. I asked them, 'Don't you people sleep? It's 3am (sic) where you are," Baartman said from Antigua, where South Africa will play their first Super Eight fixture against USA. "They said, 'No. It's lekker (great) to support you.' And you need that support system, especially when things don't go according to plan."
Leaving it to the last ball to beat Nepal, for example, was definitely not in South Africa's plan, even though they were already through to the next round by then. Neither was doing the same thing the game before, against Bangladesh, who have tripped them up in World Cups before. It was also not their plan to stumble through a chase of 104 against Netherlands, and almost go down to them for a third successive tournament. On all three occasions, Baartman played a key role in getting them back on track.
It was his 4 for 11 that kept the Dutch to 103 for 9 and included wickets with the new and old ball. It was the seven runs he gave away in the 19th over of Bangladesh's innings - when they needed 18 off the last two overs - that left Keshav Maharaj with enough for the last over. And it was his use of the wide yorker and the short ball in the last over against Nepal that proved too difficult for Gulsan Jha to get away and ensured South Africa swept the group and remain unbeaten.
And all that from someone on his first international assignment and his first overseas trip. Just how does he do it?
"I spoke to my coaches way back, when I was in the academy and still in high school and, for me, it's just to stay calm and know I have been in this situation before. That's the most important thing," Baartman said. "Obviously, there's the pressure from the crowd. But if you execute, there is nothing more you can do. Just don't show fear. Don't show that the [other] man is on top of you. That's the small margins in the game."
"If you execute, there is nothing more you can do. Just don't show fear. Don't show that the [other] man is on top of you."
Baartman on how he handles the pressure situation
If that sounds like Baartman is holding his tactical cards close to his chest, it's not. His skill and variations have been on display for all to see and it's clear that his mindset has been honed for tough situations, on and off the field. Speak to those close to Baartman and they will tell a story of struggle; of having played cricket in a place - South Western Districts - he has previously said "nobody really looks at" because all the big sport in the Western Cape happens in Cape Town and Paarl; of considering a career in the South African National Defence Force because cricket did not seem like a viable option. They will tell the sacrifice of commuting to play professionally in Durban, on the opposite side of the country, rather than uproot his young family from their home, and of waiting until after he had turned 30 - when sportspeople are generally considered to be closer to the end of their careers than the beginning - to finally get noticed.
Baartman is now going to be remembered as the SA20's first international success story. If not for that competition, where he was the leading wicket-taker until the final where he was overtaken by team-mate Marco Jansen, Baartman would not have had a high-profile opportunity to show what he could do, and it was during that competition that his bowling coach Dale Steyn told him a call-up could come. "He told me doors are opening for you now, things are happening," Baartman remembered. "So just stay the person you are. Don't change for anything in the world."
Steyn is part of the commentary team at the T20 World Cup, has shared a few private moments of camaraderie with Baartman, and is the closest thing to a relative Baartman has on the trip. Unlike many (but not all) of his team-mates, none of Baartman's parents, his wife, or children - he has a seven-year-old and a three-month-old - have travelled to the World Cup. Instead, they're cheering him on from over 10,000 kilometres away and living the journey through watching his success. Has it been everything he dreamt of?
That and more. "It's quite amazing. If you represent your country in any given format, it's amazing. But in a World Cup, it's just magnificent," Baartman said. "I've been enjoying this journey so far and I can't wait to do it more often."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket