A gaggle of journalists stands in a circle with their arms outstretched on the field of Headingley Cricket Ground in West Yorkshire. They appear as fishermen, dangling their phones and recording devices in anticipation of a big catch – a soundbite worthy of an attention-grabbing headline.
The man in the middle, a towering presence whose broad shoulders clear most of the heads around him, does not take the bait. He bats back probing questions with more surety than most of his opponents manage when he’s slinging down a cricket ball from 20m away.
“I’m just here to focus on my cricket and do my best for my new team,” said Duanne Olivier, the soft-spoken 26-year-old from the farming town of Groblersdal in Limpopo, who has found himself at the centre of a cricketing maelstrom.
In February, shortly after he ended the Mzanzi Super League as the highest wicket taker before bagging 31 Test scalps from five matches – including 11 against Pakistan in Centurion – the rangy fast bowler turned his back on the Proteas by signing a Kolpak deal with Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Then, in March, he poured lighter fluid on the fire by telling the Daily Mail about his ambitions to one day return to international cricket… in England colours.
It is against this backdrop that journalists hover, but it is only when Olivier is away from the pack and engaged in an exclusive interview with New Frame, his first intimate chat with a South African publication since his move to the United Kingdom, that he begins to open up a bit.
Dealing with the hate
“I’m not going to lie, some of the things that have been said have been pretty hurtful,” Olivier says with a sigh. “It’s never great being on the end of that sort of hate.”
Hate is an appropriate word. A quick dip in the quagmire that is Twitter gives a taste of the vitriol that has been hurled Olivier’s way. He’s been called a traitor, a snake and a sell-out. He has been painted as an opportunistic money-grubber who has used Cricket South Africa (CSA) as little more than a stepping stone. Dissenting voices echoed from both sides of the equator as the social media storm intensified.
“People see us [athletes] on TV and think they know us and feel they have a right to make a comment,” Olivier said. “I guess they do. Everyone has the right to have an opinion but the only opinions that matter are the ones held by my wife and myself.”
When asked about the influence of his agent Weber van Wyk (who helped orchestrate moves to the UK for multiple South Africans, including Kyle Abbott, Rilee Rossouw, Dane Vilas and Hardus Viljoen), Olivier denies that he was coerced into making his decision.
“People can think what they want,” he said. “At the end of the day, no matter what I say, there will be a lot of people back home who won’t understand why I did this.”
So why did he do this? With Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander in the autumn of their careers, the prospect of forming a union with Kagiso Rabada and Lungisani Ngidi as the most devastating bowling trio was at hand.
Money and the future
The money can’t be ignored. Olivier will earn around R8.1 million during his three years at Yorkshire, dwarfing CSA’s offer of R1.8 million for two years of work. Job security and an exchange rate of R19 to the pound are tangible, bankable attractions. Protea Fire, no matter how brightly it burns, does not have a monetary value. But there is more to this story than simple finances.
“My wife and I feel we can build a better life here,” Olivier said. “We wanted to relocate and through the work I do, I was able to secure a contract in England, where we see our future taking shape.”
Olivier does not speak about his politics, nor does he outline the carrots and sticks that have shaped his world views. He is a man of few words and, besides, a bustling media day is not the most conducive space in which to bear one’s soul.
But these subjects do not matter. Not for the purposes of telling this story, anyway. The fact is a South African with a trade made a decision to relocate to another country in search of what he considers a better life for his family.
According to figures from Stats SA’s Community Survey 2016 – the most recent comprehensive data available on the issue – almost 12 000 South Africans had emigrated to the UK in the previous 10 years. Unless they earn a living playing cricket or rugby, their change in residence went unnoticed by the mainstream.
Most fans (at least the level-headed ones) can accept that Olivier considered the lush hills of Yorkshire to be greener than the plains of Limpopo. What left a sour taste in the mouth were Olivier’s comments concerning his apparent switch in national allegiance. Comments, he said, that were taken out of context.
“Ja, that created a bit of controversy,” he said with a resigned chuckle. “It was an honour to play for South Africa and it was always my childhood dream to represent my country. I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity and all that CSA did for me. I never imagined that I’d ever be eligible to play for another country.”
As for his England ambitions: “I was asked a question about my international career and I tried to answer it in a way that said I’d obviously love to play at the highest level again. If that is for England, that would be amazing. But it’s not like I moved here to play for them.”
A lot of water still needs to pass under the bridge before that can happen. On 1 January, the England and Wales Cricket Board reduced the period required for players to switch countries from seven to three years. Olivier will be 29 years old by the time he qualifies. He may grow into one of the most destructive fast bowlers on the planet by then or his career may meander along as he toils away on wickets that don’t offer the same steepling bounce that provided so much assistance against Pakistan late last year.
If Olivier is daunted by his new surroundings, he doesn’t show it. He is remarkably composed for a young man who has become a lightning rod for so many narratives and opinions. His shy smile and awkward laugh do not convey discomfort. Instead, he presents himself as a humble kid who just wants to do what he loves doing most.
“I’m desperate to be out on the field,” he said. “Out there, with a ball in my hand, I’m able to turn the noise off. I can’t wait to play here. The last time I saw this many people [at a media day] was for an international game. This is where cricket began and I understand that people come out in big numbers to support domestic four-day cricket. That’s unthinkable back home. Roses games [between Yorkshire and Lancashire] are sold out. I’m so excited to experience that.”
This season he’ll face Wayne Parnell at Worcestershire, Heino Kuhn at Kent, Morne Morkel at Surrey and Simon Harmer at Essex. Just about every team Olivier will encounter over the next three years will have at least one South African in its ranks. After that, he may get the chance to take on an entire team of South Africans as he steams in with Three Lions on his chest.