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De Zorzi gets a chance to be the star he always wanted to be, a 'lot of dirty work' later

After falling short of expectations several times before, he knows he needs to step up and take the opportunity with both hands

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Tony de Zorzi brings up his first half-century in Test cricket  •  AFP/Getty Images

Tony de Zorzi brings up his first half-century in Test cricket  •  AFP/Getty Images

Eight years after he captained King Edwards VII, one of Johannesburg's most prestigious schools, and seven years after he led South Africa's Under-19 side at a World Cup they entered as defending champions and left in 11th place, Tony de Zorzi returned to the Wanderers and discovered mates he didn't know he had.
"There were a couple of my friends here - some people claimed to be my friends but I've never met them - and it's always nice to have my mom watching," de Zorzi said.
Raised by Natasha, a single parent, de Zorzi has always wanted to be the best he could be for his mother. These days, she doesn't watch him play much because he has taken the scenic route to international cricket, from the alma mater of Neil Mckenzie and Graeme Smith, through Pretoria and eventually to Cape Town, 1400 kilometres away from where he grew up. In a way, it's been cathartic for de Zorzi to make his Test debut on the Highveld, and to score his first Test half-century with Natasha watching on.
"She usually sits in the same place, so I knew where she was," he said. "I'm in Cape Town, so she hasn't been able to watch a lot of the games. Hopefully, next time she comes, I can get three figures."
De Zorzi has set himself high standards. In the last two years, only one of his team-mates has scored a century at home and only two others (Sarel Erwee and Kyle Verreynne - neither of whom are playing in this series) have brought up three figures. But after falling short of expectations several times before, he knows this is his chance to step up.
"From playing for SA under-19, a lot has changed in my life," de Zorzi said. "Although I was captain, I wasn't the star boy out of that side."
That's because Wiaan Mulder was. De Zorzi returned from the age-group World Cup and had to go back to playing club cricket and "start again." He played for the University of Pretoria's team, where current fielding coach Kruger van Wyk was in charge. Then he was contracted by Northerns, where he made steady progress and averaged nearly 80 for the second-tier provincial side in the 2016-17 summer. He moved to Western Province in the summer of 2020, where Ashwell Prince was the head coach, and has since been elevated to captain.
"It's been a long process, and I'm happy that it has eventually led to this. It's also a reminder of where I come from and not to get ahead of myself because I've had to do a lot of dirty work to get there."
Tony de Zorzi
This summer, he averages over 100, thanks largely to his unbeaten 304 against the Knights, with an attack that included Gerald Coetzee (though admittedly not many other big names).
"It's been a long process, and I'm happy that it has eventually led to this," de Zorzi said. "It's also a reminder of where I come from and not to get ahead of myself because I've had to do a lot of dirty work to get there. For some guys, it happens a bit earlier. Mine's starting to happen now."
After averaging above 48 in three of the last four seasons, de Zorzi was impossible to ignore in this Test squad but it took a changing of the guard for that to happen. He was picked by new red-ball coach Shukri Conrad, who also acts as a selector in the absence of a panel, to get his chance. "With the changes in coaching, we knew it would be a fresh start," de Zorzi said. "If everyone gave themselves an opportunity and did well, you knew it would be a fresh set of eyes and maybe, more opportunities. That was exciting. There was always a message from senior guys - Dean (Elgar) said it while he was captain, that the weight of runs would get you in the side. Guys knew that if they wanted to make the step up they had to have a good season. There was no other way."
But now that that has happened, players like de Zorzi need to own their space. In the first Test, he showed West Indies' attack what he was made of, and Kyle Mayers saw it. "This guy looks very organised," he said. "He is strong, square of the wicket."
De Zorzi is particularly adept at the cut shot and scored almost a third of his runs with that stroke in this innings but knew West Indies worked him out from the first Test. They tried to offer him less width at the SuperSport Park. "They stick to the basics a little bit longer," de Zorzi said. "You might get a few less bad balls but international cricketers that are going to do their homework. I could see from the way they bowled to me today compared to at SuperSport Park, they had different plans and they can limit your scoring options. And obviously, the intensity is a little bit higher, like I was really tired once I was out. It's challenging."
But so was de Zorzi. He played with authority during South Africa's free-flowing afternoon session. All the while, Natasha sat in the Memorial Stand, unmoved. De Zorzi gestured to her first when he drove off Alzarri Joseph through gully off the 82nd ball he faced. Undoubtedly, she would have been unbelievably proud. De Zorzi went on to face 73 more balls, and score 35 more runs, as the pitch quickened up and West Indies staged a comeback.
They took five for 64 after tea and now see the game as being in the balance. Restrict South Africa to under 350, and West Indies are in with a chance of fighting back. Concede over that, on a pitch that is already showing signs of turn, and it may be that the game is gone. Either way, it's set up to attract friends cricket didn't know it had, especially in a mid-week Test match where the crowd only fills a fraction of the stadium. But it matters. And no one knows that more than de Zorzi.

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