Head thrown ecstatically back, eyes wild with jubilant fire and his jaw agape like a territorial lion, celebrating yet another trophy. This has become cricketer Nono Pongolo's go-to pose this season as he soaks up success after success after success with his Gauteng teams.
His instinctive smile, in danger or in delight, belies a terrific tenacity deep within him. Pongolo has had to scrape by for a decade to get to where he is and he can be forgiven for pinching himself to check if it’s all really happening.
“I’ve always been a bit-part player, chipping in here and there. I have been working, hoping for that season or tournament where it all comes together and you contribute fully for the team,” he began.
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As he spoke, the Proteas and Pakistan were in the throes of the third Test, with the Bullring rocking to the sounds of AmaGwijo and the band. It was a Saturday, a super one at that, and Pongolo had a rare weekend off in the midst of summer.
A level below the media centre, his friends were waiting for him to rejoin the carnival atmosphere, celebrating what appeared to be a lot more than just the start of a new year. As he looked back, he was visibly excited about what is to come.
“It has been a long road to this point, and I have always felt the need to prove myself. I have seen my role evolve in the teams I have played for. All I have ever wanted to do was to just play,” he explained simply.
But it has not always been that simple for him. The definitive aspect of the game – the box that one ticks in the arrivals lounge of professional cricket – is one that Pongolo took time to decide on.
He bats, he bowls, he catches everything in sight and, crucially, he embraces the successes of those around him more than his own. Team player is not always a role for which one gets picked in cricket, but Pongolo has made it his own at The Wanderers.
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His teammates have compared him to Darren Sammy of the West Indies. It’s become a nickname, because they look quite similar.
“Eish, that one has stuck!,” he winced, reminded that the Sammy comparison has grown legs. But beyond the likeness in features, the name is freakishly apt. Like Sammy, Pongolo has a knack for being in the right place at crucial times.
He bats down the order, he bowls in short bursts and he spends a lot of his time on the field cajoling his teammates. Sammy was one of the most popular leaders in the game; he led by enthusiasm, surrounded by stars whose light he did not feel threatened in encouraging.
Pongolo, in his own way, shines by allowing others to be the star and embracing those successes as if they were his own. And, magically, he often finds himself in hero or zero moments. Just like Sammy.
So much seems to happen around him – and he revels in it. At the Lions, for hours on end, he stands in the slip cordon with Rassie van der Dussen, chewing the fat and then, instinctively, sticking out a mitt to influence a red-ball match decisively.
Then, Van der Dussen might chuck him the ball to get a crucial breakthrough and get his side back in the game. Failing that, he is sometimes required to go out to the middle, bat in hand, with a simple equation before him. Like, 12 runs to win off two balls, for example.
“That was a crazy game,” he smiled, reflecting back on a Mzansi Super League game against the Durban Heat.
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Marchant de Lange was the bowler and Pongolo's Jozi Stars needed a miracle from the last two balls of the match. A win would help them get closer to the play-off places, but that looked unlikely as he walked to the crease with just two balls to spare.
De Lange, incredibly, bowled a full toss on leg stump – a no-ball. Pongolo nevertheless deposited it over long leg for six and suddenly it was five runs required from two balls, although it was not done yet.
“He had bowled a bouncer the ball before I came in, so I felt he had shown his hand.”
Miracle man with bat and ball
This line of thinking is an illustration of the intricacies of the game. As much as a bouncer is violent in its execution and intent, its timing can be a gamble. Cricket, especially in the latter stages of an innings, morphs into a game of poker. By revealing his ace in the pack – the short ball – when he did, De Lange emboldened Pongolo to go all in.
“I knew he had to be thinking length, so I just told myself to make sure I made contact.”
Pongolo gambled, and won big, that night. The Stars ran on to the field as if they had already won the tournament, drowning their last-gasp hero in a sea of black and gold euphoria. Who knows, perhaps that ridiculous finish in Durban convinced them it could be their name on the trophy.
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“We always had a fines [punitive drinks] meeting after games and [Australian all-rounder] Dan Christian took charge of those. When we got back to the dressing room, he looked around and said no one was going early after a game like that!”
The Stars only made their way to the hotel in the early hours of the next morning, living fully in the moment. Pongolo said that fines meetings were terrific for camaraderie and that each player and manager was assigned a special song.
West Indies great Chris Gayle, whose influence has been lauded widely, took particular joy in dishing out fines to the team’s physio, Brett Edwards, who would put the team through their paces in between games.
“Brett was the designated pourer, so Chris loved picking on him and making sure that the ‘pourer’ was well lubricated.”
Gayle and Christian have gone all around the world, plying their T20 trade. They have more playing shirts than most players have years, but Pongolo was touched by their influence.
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“Chris is this superstar, who everyone has an image of. But, to hear him speak so positively about South Africa, and just watch him taking youngsters or anyone aside for a piece of advice was really special,” he noted.
He was just as impressed by Christian, who took on the old pro role. The one thing the Mzansi Super League has for impressionable youngsters is role models who are already respected around the world – it still holds true that it’s easier to admire those who come from far away.
“Dan was the guy who would punish players for being late for the team bus or for training. He was always pushing guys to be better, on and off the field,” Pongolo said.
Whether that is for a season or more, those standards do leave a mark on young players who think they have made it with their first contract. The Jozi Stars, then, may well have won the tournament off the field before they had done the business on it.
‘Ready for whatever’
For Pongolo, even being in the dressing room was an adventure. But despite helping the Gauteng side win the Africa T20 Cup, he didn’t make the player draft and faced several weeks of no cricketing action.
Previous stints at the SABC had seen his name go into the hat for a commentary gig. But given the extremely late finalisation of the production team, he wasn't assured that gig either until the week of the first game.
“It was a waiting game. I knew that there would be no provincial cricket for me for a month or so, and then I was waiting on a call from the SABC.”
Before that call, however, he received one from Lions and Jozi Stars coach Enoch Nkwe. Alfred Mothoa, the Titans bowler drafted by the Stars, had been in an accident and they weren’t sure of the severity. On top of that, the Proteas were in Australia, meaning marquee player Kagiso Rabada’s place in the Stars side was vacant for two weeks.
“Coach told me to stay ready. He didn’t know what was happening with Alfred and he just said that I must be ready for whatever,” Pongolo remembered.
At the time, the SABC was putting the final touches on a commentary contract for Pongolo. His opinions had been well received during cameos the previous season as he brought a player’s perspective into the living rooms of millions.
In an industry filled with familiar voices, his was a fresh one, and it was easy on the senses.
“It has been fun doing commentary. I was chucked into the deep end, when I had to do pitch reports live, but that is the pressure in that game,” he winces. “You try and learn as much as you can, but you are definitely aware that you are doing something that is being watched by millions.”
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That pressure, he adds, is very different to facing a charging De Lange, delivering bombs at over 140km/h.
The difference, he continued, is that he had been preparing for cricket all his life. His reactions are instinctive and he trusts the process. So, when Nkwe called back and told him he was in the Jozi Stars squad for the first two weeks, there was genuine delight.
Players play and that window eventually closes forever. Given the option, any sportsperson would rather be out in the middle, is the way he sees it.
“The initial arrangement was that I was replacing KG [Rabada] until he came back.”
Getting over self-doubt
He had a slow start with the Stars in Paarl – nervous, he admitted – as he came to terms with being on a new stage. “There were doubts, because I was asking myself if I could get the kind of performance I needed out of myself. I was playing on a new level, surrounded by superstars,” he said.
For Pongolo, like many other local cricketers, the Mzansi Super League was a shot at introducing himself and his skills all over South Africa.
As he sat in the winning dressing room in Paarl, he made the decision to emancipate himself from the shackles of self-doubt and live in the moment. “I decided at that point to just go out and really appreciate where I was, and to play with a smile on my face.”
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It worked, because that smile stuck – and then became contagious across a team that embraced everything that came their way. The ball followed him and stuck fast whenever he put his hand out in the field. It is easy to smile in a dressing room that is winning, but the Stars bucked the trend and did so early, even when they were losing.
“We knew what we were capable of, even if it wasn’t clicking,” he said of the Jozi Stars’ slow start.
They got to the stage where they had to start collecting bonus-point victories to muscle their way into the bottleneck for play-off positions. By then, the rampant Rabada was back, and Reeza Hendricks, Van der Dussen and Christian were turning on the afterburners. The Wanderers crowd, swelling with every victory, turned the Bullring into a fortress and the juggernaut became truly unstoppable.
“After we lost the early games, we spoke about the need to play the right brand of cricket. We were second-guessing ourselves, so we said we would rather lose matches playing a positive brand of cricket.”
That mentality started at the top, from coach to captain, and filtered down to the rest of the squad. Those early losses, they felt, poked the bear.
“Even when we lost, we would have a drink as a team and look at a few positives from the match. We tried to not take ourselves too seriously and that helped us hugely.”
Once it was backed into a corner, that Jozi bear responded brutally, tearing into the opposition. It was frightful stuff and Pongolo was at the heart of it, entrenching himself in the starting side, even with all the Proteas back in the team.
He was at the heart of the singing when the trophy was presented on 16 December in Cape Town. They were adamant that getting to the final wasn’t enough and mowed down a wilting Cape Town Blitz to complete an unforgettable few weeks together.
Terms of endearment
There were nicknames, too, for just about everyone in and around the squad. Nkwe, for his Midas touch, was “Jose Mourinho” and he has more than lived up to the name. Ironically, he is a huge Pep Guardiola fan, but cricket nicknames are notorious for their lack of sensitivity.
His assistant, Wandile Gwavu, was christened “Steve Komphela” for his speeches and his mannerisms. Batting coach Justin Sammons was dubbed “Ernst Middendorp”, after the Kaizer Chiefs’ coach.
As each back-room staff member and player lifted the trophy, the team belted out whichever song they had allocated that squad member.
Pongolo's song? No Limit by 2 Unlimited.
“No, no! No, no, no, no! No, no, no, no! No, no, there’s no limit!”
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It’s a play on his first name, but poetically he has lived by that chant all season. There was no limit to his dreams in the 2018-2019 season. “It was an amazing time and something that I will always cherish,” Pongolo smiled.
Ironically, he said this just weeks before he and the Lions snatched the Four-Day Franchise Series title out of the hands of the Cape Cobras in the last few minutes of the season.
In the pictures that came out of Potchefstroom, you can very clearly see a man who looks a lot like a certain West Indian captain, roaring his delight on the field with teammates. It has become a familiar sight in a season that has reaped three trophies, and seemingly no limits.