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Feature

Kwena Maphaka is making things happen, and things are happening for him

He has 18 wickets at the World Cup already, is juggling cricket, hockey and higher education, and everything suggests he is a star in the making

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
05-Feb-2024
Kwena Maphaka has 25 wickets across two editions of the Under-19 World Cup already  •  ICC/Getty Images

Kwena Maphaka has 25 wickets across two editions of the Under-19 World Cup already  •  ICC/Getty Images

Kwena Maphaka was 15 years old when he played his first Under-19 international, just six when he played for his school's Under-9 team, and three when he first picked up a cricket ball and realised he might know what to do with it.
"I've been told I started playing because my brother needed someone to play backyard cricket with," he told ESPNcricinfo from Johannesburg, as South Africa prepare to play India in the U-19 World Cup semi-final in Benoni on Tuesday. "The first memory that I have is from about four years old, and it was of typical garden cricket with an older brother. He would get me out early and then I'd bowl at him the whole day and he'd hit me out of the garden. Well, I wouldn't call it bowling. I was just throwing the ball at him."
Whatever it was, it worked.
A little more than a decade after being made to chase leather by his brother, Maphaka is hunting down records instead. Already, he has more wickets than any South African at U-19 World Cups - 25 over two editions - and the joint-most by a South African in a single edition of the tournament: 18. He is five away from the most wickets by any bowler at an U-19 World Cup - Bangladesh's Enamul Haque had 22 in 2004 - and the way he has been going so far suggests that he could get there. Maphaka's haul from five matches includes three five-fors, the most by any player at U-19 World Cups, but the wickets aren't the only clues that he is a future star.
Maphaka is quick - "the guys in the team say around 140" - and gets late inswing, and has a hostile bouncer and an accurate yorker. Most importantly, he also has the learnings and experience after playing in 17 youth ODIs across three years - the most by a South African in that time period - including two World Cups.
In the 2022 World Cup, Maphaka (15 at the time) played three of South Africa's six matches and took seven wickets at an average of 18.28 with an economy rate of 5.56. This year, he has led the attack in all five of South Africa's games. His 18 wickets have come at an average of 9.55 and his economy rate is 3.95, which speaks to the biggest improvement he believes he has made between tournaments: "I've got quicker but the main thing I've worked on is to have control with pace. If you are just fast, you are going to get hit everywhere, but if you've got control, there's something special."
"I've always wanted to make as high a team as I can in every sport I play. If everything goes well with cricket, this will probably be my last year of hockey so I just want to make it as memorable as possible"
Kwena Maphaka
In West Indies at the last World Cup, Maphaka benefitted from being coached by veteran domestic (and now national men's Test) coach Shukri Conrad and experienced professional Rory Kleinveldt. They told him to "continue working on my stock ball and try to get a little more variation into my game and also to work on my batting quite a bit".
He took that advice back with him St Stithians, an elite Johannesburg institution where he is currently in his final year of high school and where he competes in multiple disciplines. Maphaka has dabbled in gymnastics and athletics and done a 100-metre sprint "in 11 seconds flat" and still plays tennis and hockey, the latter at provincial level. "A big aspiration of mine is to make the Southern Gauteng Under-18 A team this year," he said. "I've always wanted to make as high a team as I can in every sport I play. If everything goes well with cricket, this will probably be my last year of hockey so I just want to make it as memorable as possible."
You may also have heard of St Stithians because it is the alma mater of one of the country's finest cricketers of all-time: Kagiso Rabada, who has become a "mentor" to Maphaka and "sent me a good-luck message before the World Cup". Maphaka will know it only took Rabada eight months to make his senior international debut after he won the U-19 World Cup with South Africa in March 2014.
"I just try to take it one day at a time," Maphaka said. "My main focus is the Under-19 World Cup. I try to focus on things that are happening now rather than focus on things that may or may not happen later."
But things have already happened. Maphaka has an SA20 deal with Paarl Royals - though he could not play this season because of the World Cup - and has played for the South Africa A side and has started to play some domestic cricket at the Lions. He hopes that next year, with schooling over, he will be contracted, but has also left space for further study. "I am really into sports management and psychology. I would either go into sports management and clinical psychology and sports psychology," he said. "But cricket is a sport of discipline and patience and that's something that I really like about it. My dream would be to represent South Africa in all three formats."
That's for the future. For now, Maphaka is laser-focused on the World Cup. After bowling South Africa to victories over West Indies and Sri Lanka - the former in a game where West Indies were 190 for 5 chasing 286 and he had to dismiss the tail - he is looking to the India game and the good vibes his team has created. "I always like a challenge. Going up against the best is the best way to prove yourself. It's a great way to test yourself and India are definitely one of the best teams," he said. "And we expect the Benoni crowd is probably going to be the biggest. It's going to be special to see how much people care about this team."
Among them will be Maphaka's parents, who have been to every game so far, and his older brother Tetelo, a left-arm spinner who is also on the fringes of provincial selection. And this time, Maphaka won't have to bowl all day to him.

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