Border’s overlooked black African batsmen

Jerry Nqolo opens up on why there aren’t many black African batsmen doing well in South African cricket and why he retired at the age of 27.

The Tyhume River that runs down from Hogsback and bisects the two hills visible from the University of Fort Hare’s main cricket field provides an invaluable water source, a spring that’s been tapped as an alternative water point for the area.

In landlocked Alice, water is scarce. In summer, temperatures can reach 40°C. The municipality is forever fixing old water piping systems that tend to “dry up”, even when water is available. At least twice a week, for a few hours, there will be “water shedding”.

Without that spring, which has been drilled and pumped to create a well that trickles water to the two cricket fields, the sport at this Cricket South Africa (CSA) Academy in the Eastern Cape would be played on bone-dry wickets.

Scarcer than water, however, are black African batsmen who have graduated and gone on to make their mark at the high end of the game in the way Temba Bavuma has for the Proteas. Bavuma’s historic maiden Test century in 2016 against England in Cape Town wasn’t the four-minute mile moment for black African batsmen everyone had hoped it would be.

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At just 27 years old, Jerry Nqolo, one of Alice’s most promising black African batsmen, retired prematurely from the game last year after his contract with the Warriors ended — for the second time in his career.

This came after scoring his maiden first-class century for the Port Elizabeth-based franchise the year before. Exactly how did this happen, just two years after the Bavuma Moment?

“When I was 19 years old, I had my first contract with the Warriors, back in 2010. It ended without me playing a single game,” Nqolo says. “It was hard to take but I soldiered on and played for Border for a few years. Two years ago, I signed with the Warriors again and the end came when I lost the contract for a second time.

“The Border contract wasn’t paying much and I had just turned 27. I weighed up the fact that I would have to drop back down to Border for another two years while trying to get myself back up to franchise level and I decided to call time.”

Transition to coaching

Nqolo took a job as the conditioning coach at the Fort Hare academy. He’d been volunteering his services part-time in the years when former Proteas fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam ran the show. Nqolo’s human movement sciences degree came in handy when the Warriors showed him the door.

Diminutive in stature, trim as a leaf and with a fine athletic posture, Nqolo has always been the kind of person who values his body. Perfect for a conditioning coach. He’s never touched the devil’s brew or smoked, maintaining high discipline in his playing days.

Born and raised in Alice, Kwa Ntselamanzi, Nqolo received a cricketing bursary from Dale College, where he took up rugby as well and flourished in both sports.

Although he got offers from the Sharks Academy after impressing as a schoolboy fly half, Nqolo’s love of batting saw him choosing cricket over rugby. He threw his lot in with the willow.

He must’ve been pleased with his choice when his career began with a List A debut at 18 in 2009 and he was part of the 2010 SA Under-19 World Cup team that included Colin Ackermann, Cody Chetty and Dominic Hendricks. In that tournament they beat an Australian team featuring Mitchell Marsh, Josh Hazlewood and Adam Zampa.

‘Without chances, you’ll never improve’

A black African batsman quitting in his prime should raise alarm bells, at least in the Eastern Cape, if not countrywide, where the search for a reservoir of black batsmen continues in earnest. But the silence is audible.

“The mere fact that I did not get a contract renewal after scoring a first-class century, that was a sign for me,” says Nqolo. “Batting is tough. Without enough chances in the middle, you’ll never improve. You can’t be given one or two chances and be dropped.

“Batting in the nets isn’t going to help if you’re not getting time in the middle. You have to acclimatise to the pressure and get used to the variations that the bowlers are going to throw at you. White batsmen get played despite the number of failures they accumulate. They get all the backing until everything starts clicking for them. For us black batsmen, you play once or twice and you’ll be dropped by the third time if you haven’t performed. You are expected to perform miracles once you get picked, which is not fair.

“You get rotated with another black player, who is likely to get two or three chances before he is out the door. You can never settle as a black batsman.”

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In all, Nqolo made 60 first-class appearances, the bulk of them for Border in the 3-Day competition, scoring two centuries and 13 half-centuries at an average of just under 25.

Before succumbing to ennui and despair about the game, Nqolo walked on to the St Georges pitch in Port Elizabeth at number six after the fall of Yaseen Valli’s wicket on 28 September 2017, during the then Sunfoil Series. It’s the best he’s ever felt on a cricket pitch.

After Edward Moore set the tone with his ton, Nqolo hit an unbeaten 105 that sent the Warriors to 452/6 declared against the Cape Cobras. It was supposed to be the start of better things for the batsman.

“The day I scored my maiden century was filled with such joy that I wished the day could be repeated,” Nqolo says, laughing at the absurdity of the thought and harried by the giddiness that accompanies the memory.

“I was batting in my natural position and I felt really good about my game that day. It’s not easy scoring a hundred, especially at that level. I thought that was going to be the start of a great season for me.”

Crashing down from dizzying heights

Nqolo in no way expected to be garlanded with flowers for his efforts, but he did expect more sustained game time. It never came, not in the proper sense.

“[After scoring the hundred] I went to Hong Kong [to play in the Hong Kong Sixes for South Africa] feeling good and playing well, but I crashed back down to earth when I got back and the chances dried up again,” he says. “It affected me so badly that I didn’t even want to be there anymore and I fell out of love with the game. But I stayed so I could honour my contract.

“I was put at number eight in the batting order during the T20 competition shortly afterwards … basically playing without a role in the team. Because of my hunger for game time, I ended up playing in unnatural positions, chipping in with my fielding and doing anything I could to stay in the team.

“And once the Momentum One Day Cup rolled around, I was again given the cold shoulder. I played just one game and that’s when I saw the writing on the wall.”

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Admittedly, Nqolo was not a T20 quick-scoring batsman and his part-time medium pacers were only good for the odd over when the frontliners needed to change ends.

He itched to show off his batting, but the backing never came. He was a butterfly caught in between the fingers of a mischievous six-year-old boy that plucked his wings, slowly and painfully.

“The second half of the Four Day competition came back and nothing had changed. I was still starved of playing time despite my hundred. I played a few more times after that but that was it, soon after I was told my contract had come to an end.”

Unless a prodigious talent like Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Aiden Markram or AB de Villiers, a batsman takes time to develop skills. It could take even more time in cases where players did not benefit from private coaching at an early age.

Limited opportunities

“In the franchises, where the guys have been given the right amount of game time, they have returned the investment by scoring runs. Guys such as Grant Mokoena and Luthando Mnyanda [Knights] get good game time and have come up with the runs, and the same goes for Omphile Ramela.

“Here in the Eastern Cape, we’ve been rotated among ourselves so much that it’s difficult to see progress sometimes. And it’s the Border guys that have suffered the most. Take for instance Vuyisa Makhaphela, who I think quit the game prematurely [at the age of 28] because of the limited opportunities he got at franchise level.

“You can say the same about Somila Seyibokwe [31], whose game began to click at 28 but he lost his contract as well. It’s tough for us. I don’t know if coaches don’t show an understanding or patience when it comes to black batsmen or what. We all need a fair run.

“The coloured guys get the better end of the deal, too. For a long time, Gihahn Cloete was failing at the Warriors but was kept in the team. As soon as he started scoring, the runs kept flowing. We deserve that kind of chance as well.”

Grant Mokoena makes for an interesting example. The 31-year-old former Queenian scored his maiden first-class century in 2017 and ended 2018 with a total of eight tons to his name, an incredible run.

The former SA Under-19 international always had it in him. In all the years he’s played for the Titans and Highveld Lions, his time at the VKB Knights has certainly marked his best spell in terms of match time and the results speak for themselves.

Divisions at the Warriors

The scary thing is that Nqolo is not alone. He says players from the Border region are not made to feel part of the forced marriage between the Border Bears and Eastern Province that makes up the Warriors.

When CSA introduced the franchise system in 2004, the two merged to form the Warriors. When the franchise moved its base from East London to Port Elizabeth, according to Nqolo, it opened the door for divisions.

He says: “There are a lot of Border-born and bred cricketers who feel the same way I did. The guys from our region feel slightly isolated. With the new coaching staff, head coach Rivash Gobind and his assistant Mfuneko Ngam, hopefully things will be different.

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“Most of the Warriors guys are from Port Elizabeth, if not from other provinces, and the Border alumni aren’t made to feel like they are really part of the team.

“In the whole Warriors setup, only three Border guys are in: Sinethemba Qeshile, Aya Gqamane and Sithembile Langa. I could say Qeshile is the only real regular.”

CSA president Chris Nenzani dropped huge hints of a seventh and eighth franchise to be added to the domestic roster at last year’s CSA Awards.

Nqolo says that if it comes true, he’d be prepared to give the game one last shot. He was certain that the black players from the Eastern Cape that have taken flight could offer the required depth for such a venture.

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“I can count off the top of my head talented guys that come from the Border regions such as [Luthando] Mnyanda, Cebo Tshiki [Cobras], Loyiso Mdashe, who has just left for the Free State, Thandolwethu Mnyaka and Mbulelo Budaza [Knights], as well as Yamkela Oliphant [South Western Districts], among many others who play at other provinces.”

The possibilities for a Border franchise are there. With Lawrence Mahatlane (South Africa Under-19 head coach) and Makhaya Ntini (former Zimbabwe head coach) based in East London, coaching options are abundant.

What lacks abundance, however, is the list of top black African batsmen. And if players like Nqolo are allowed to drop out of the system, it could be a while yet before another Bavuma lifts his bat.

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