Enoch Nkwe’s coaching career was literally forged in pints of blood, excruciating pain and a light tap at death’s door.
When the new Highveld Lions coach was at what he called the crossroads of his occupation as a cricketer – thanks to niggling injuries and playing opportunities that were few and far between because his coaches couldn’t decide if he was a bowling or batting allrounder – fate intervened swiftly and painfully.
While attending a relative’s funeral in Limpopo, a “commotion” broke out and, in trying to beat a hasty retreat from the scuffle, the then 26-year-old tripped and fell, cutting his left wrist on broken glass. The gash was so deep he was lucky to not have lost too much blood by the time his uncle got him to hospital.
“I’d lost so much blood that when I got to the hospital, there was no time for anaesthetic because they needed to stitch up the wound to stop the bleeding,” he remembers. “It was way beyond pain and I think people that go through that eventually die.
It was such a difficult hour, I actually told the doctor to let it go and not bother because I just couldn’t deal with it any more. I could feel myself letting go. I couldn’t bear the pain any more and I reached that level where I thought ‘this is it’. It was close but they got me back.”
He may not have died, but his day job as a cricketer was on life support after completing a year in rehab for the injury. “Muscles and arteries were cut so this section (pointing to his ring and pinkie fingers) of my hand is paralysed,” Nkwe says. “I really struggled to get back into the game at franchise level and compete because with my nerves affected I just couldn’t hit the ball any more. My top [batting] hand couldn’t function properly. I tried to give it a go but it was just not working and I had to be honest with myself.”
The irony was that Nkwe, who returned to his old franchise as coach in May after being appointed as Geoffrey Toyana’s successor, had hit 148 not out in helping the Lions win a four-day final – his highest score in first-class cricket – just a week before his injury.
A year later, he called it a day after 42 first-class games, 38 List-A matches and a smattering of T20 outings for the Lions. Quitting was one thing, what to do next would turn out to be an agonising decision for a man who, given the chance, can be analytical to a fault.
“It’s something I’d always done as a professional, from time to time I would do coaching sessions and a few activities off the field working with kids,” he explains. “In a way, it was quite an easy option to take, but it required a lot of investment …”
Investing in the new job was difficult at first, what with the Soweto native still wrestling with letting go of his dreams at such a young age. “The year out of the game had created more clarity and a better perspective in terms of what I wanted, what I wanted to achieve and where I wanted to go. But there was a lot of emotional stuff I needed to come to terms with because I went straight into elite coaching with the Gauteng Under-19s. In my first year of coaching, just watching the players achieve milestones made me feel like I could still be out there playing. That was a process I needed to go through to let go; I needed to let go so I could connect emotionally to this new journey.”
A nudge in the right direction
If he was a little unsure about coaching, the Haarlem Shire Cricket Club in the Netherlands (just outside Amsterdam) – a team he played for as an overseas professional for five years and returned to as director of cricket after six years of coaching in South Africa – helped nudge him in the right direction.
“They were brilliant because when I got the injury it was in March and I’d signed a contract for the next season and they had to get another pro. They actually asked me to come over for two weeks anyway after my first stint of rehab.
“It was good to be in a different environment, and Holland has a special place in my heart and that’s where my wife [of seven years, Maaike] is from as well. So through the good and tough times it’s always been good to me.”
While there, Nkwe met former New Zealand first-class player Garry MacDonald, who on seeing his interaction with other players asked enough leading questions of the young South African to give him the idea that coaching was maybe for him.
Coming into the Lions job, which began in earnest on Monday with a four-day game against the Warriors in Port Elizabeth, Nkwe has coached the Gauteng Under-19s, the Lions’ amateur side the Strikers, the Haarlem Shire Club and has been assistant coach to the SA Under-19 side, the Dutch national team, South Africa A and the South African national women’s team.
Asked if he wasn’t under pressure being the youngest franchise coach at 35 and taking over a Lions team that has forgotten how to win in recent seasons, he drew his answer from football, the other sport that occupies his mind.
“In a high-performance environment, there’s always going to be pressure. That’s actually the fun part of this job, and personally I feel it’s something I’ve always wanted. I needed to get through the apprenticeship of getting here, which has prepared me mentally to deal with expectations.
“Being 35 and the youngest coach, I don’t look at it that way. I look at Pep Guardiola, who coached Barcelona – a huge institution – at the age of 36. I thought to myself if he can do it what’s stopping me? He even had less coaching experience than I do, he only had one year of coaching the B team and had to lead a group of serious players, massive egos, people that had achieved so much and probably won World Cups. I understand that it’s not going to be a smooth ride and I actually hope it’s not going to be so I can learn a great deal from it.”
Looking at the lengths to which Nkwe went to secure his cricket scholarship with St Stithians College after losing his father on Christmas Eve in 1990 – they found him lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen of the family home in Dobsonville after he’d been attacked – it’s easy to see why he responds so well to pressure.
Having had a chance introduction to cricket on the streets of Soweto and being lured by Baker’s biscuits like most kids back then, Nkwe quickly progressed into a serious under-13 allrounder who, when playing for a Gauteng Lions-picked Super Squad at a Saints private school festival, took a six-fer and was not out batting at three in a game in which St Stithians were shot out for 80.
Not much sleep
Once St Stithians decided they would take him on a scholarship, his life became difficult because he had to do as well at his schoolwork as he did at cricket to make it, which was tough for a kid playing Gauteng under-13 cricket (with current Cricket South Africa chief executive Thabang Moroe, incidentally).
According to Nkwe, they would finish playing at the Wanderers at 5pm, catch three taxis home and only arrive at 9pm with time only to eat and wash, which meant he’d have to wake up at 3am to do his homework.
Having become used to getting by on four-hour’s sleep, he then had to get used to St Stithians. “It was quite scary thinking the next year I was going to Saints, I’d visited and it was intimidating,” Nkwe says. “In the first three months I hated it: I was out of my comfort zone at a boarding house, didn’t understand the IEB system and my English wasn’t too great. I actually thought I was going to fail. But because I knew exactly what I wanted I couldn’t afford to let slip the opportunity I’d been given. Also my cricket actually carried me through because I would perform on the field and become a popular guy.”
Surprisingly, Nkwe hasn’t got a massive overhaul planned for the Lions. “I’m a fan of working with systems and helping the system become better. I strongly believe that if you get that right, the results will take care of themselves.
“That’s why I’m such a big fan of Barcelona [FC] systems, it’s a total commitment system over a long period of time and that’s why they’ve been so successful, especially the past 10 years. The reality is we need to get the team back to winning ways, what we’re going to be looking into is how to improve the system in small, different areas.”
Ever mindful of the cut-throat nature of coaching at elite level, Nkwe hasn’t brought his young family (he has a daughter, Lenna Refilwe, 6) over from the Netherlands. “Everything happened so quickly that it didn’t make sense to destabilise what we’d started in Holland, and this being a coaching job it could be over in a year.”