At his lowest ebb, South African batsman Sarel Erwee considered walking away from the game that has brought him so much joy and purpose. “Mentally, I was in a really bad place. I was taking my work home and my relationships with the people around me, people who cared so much for me, were not good at all,” said the opening Dolphins batsman.
Mental health is still regarded as taboo among South African sportsmen. Admitting an issue is seen as a weakness, to be poked at by teammates and the opposition. “I think we still have a long way to go in terms of our attitude towards mental health,” said Erwee.
“We are all fighting our own demons, regardless of being sportsmen or people in the spotlight. Not being able to talk things out with the people around you only adds to the issues.”
By all accounts, Erwee is happy-go-lucky. His teammates speak highly of his camaraderie, while his coaches rave about his work ethic. He’s a good egg. But beneath the fragile shell lie personal challenges and mental blocks. Coupled with the unique attention that comes with opening the batting at a high level of the game, Erwee said he spent the latter stages of the 2019-2020 season in a sort of freefall.
“I wasn’t okay. And I had already committed to going overseas to play club cricket, probably to bat away the issues with another summer, somewhere else, surrounded by different smiles.”
His club in England is the Weybridge Cricket Club, in Surrey, where they speak highly of Erwee and his abilities. The clubhouse and bar are jolly places where everyone knows your name. It would have been a terrific distraction for Erwee, but ultimately the extended Covid-19 lockdown was good for him.
“It gave me time to confront my issues. I looked for help and started working with a performance psychologist, Kirsten van Heerden. Just being able to talk through what I felt were massive walls was a huge burden off my shoulders.”
The upshot was a hungry cricketer at the crease when cricket resumed in South Africa. Erwee lashed 199 against the Lions in the opening four-day fixture of the season, against an attack that included Beuran Hendricks, Sisanda Magala, Dwaine Pretorius, Bjorn Fortuin and Aaron Phangiso.
Igniting a fading Protea fire
The dream of playing for one’s country might fade over time without encouragement, but it never completely evaporates. Erwee had made a lot of noise with his white-ball exploits in seasons past, so he was pleasantly gruntled that his initial call-up to the Proteas was in Test cricket.
“I was with my dad, taking him for rehabilitation after his shoulder surgery. While he was being treated, I was scrolling through Twitter and noticed that the squad had been announced,” he said with a smile.
He flicked to the names at the bottom of the press release to see which of his teammates had made the cut to host Sri Lanka over the festive season. “I had to do a double-take when I saw my name there. I had this stupid grin on my face, even through a mask, and my dad asked what had happened.”
Given the road they had travelled to this point, there were a few proud and happy tears. Erwee is known as “SJ” by most, Sareltjie by those particularly familiar. The J is for Junior, because he shares a name with his father, a formidable Natal rugby player in his day.
Erwee Sr said he almost did his shoulder in again when he heard the news. “You want the very best for your children. You teach them that hard work and perseverance will take them further than talent, and to never complain. I was proud. I am proud.”
He admitted that he pushed his son hard as a youngster, instilling old-school traits of physical endeavour and personal pride in performance. “I did what any father would do. I encouraged, and just wanted the best for him. He showed promise in cricket from a young age, though he liked rugby, too. I think he made the right choice,” Erwee Sr said with a grin.
He tried to get a flight to watch the Proteas playing in Pakistan, even with his son not playing despite being in the squad.
“I know how hard he has worked to get there. There are times when it might have been easier to quit and play for fun. But he is a professional sportsman and he can be proud of what he has achieved. The Test cap might not have come yet, but good things come to people who wait.”
To have watched Erwee’s development through the Maritzburg club structures was to see his father on the sidelines every Sunday, often with a gas Skottel Braai to complement his moustache. Beyond the Premier League club matches for Zingari Cricket Club, father and son would often head for the nets to work on small technical details before heading home for supper.
“You know, the first time he made runs for the first XI, he was still a schoolboy at St Charles. I allowed him to join the infamous Zingari fines meeting afterwards, shy as he was,” Erwee Sr chuckled. He even allowed his son to accept a “fine” to welcome him into the team. “It was a bit naughty, but that was how we had grown up in club sport. You had a drink with the team after. His mother wasn’t happy when we got home, let me tell you.”
As he progressed through the ranks, Erwee formed a formidable alliance with Morne van Wyk at the Dolphins. He gleaned much knowledge off the veteran and still goes to him for the odd technical session, he and Van Wyk having spent large chunks of time together at the crease.
Ending the season on a high
Nowadays, Erwee has struck up another friendship with an import from Bloemfontein. Keegan Petersen arrived with a big billing, but Erwee said his attitude may yet be his greatest gift. “He is a proper, proper cricketer. I can see him making that number three position in the Test side his own for years.”
They quickly grew close, with Petersen slotting into life in Durban seamlessly. One of the most endearing images from the 4-Day Franchise Series final between the Dolphins and the Titans was after the Dolphins had taken a wicket. What looked like a serious team huddle ended in roars of laughter as Petersen delivered the pep talk, one he had to revisit in the extensive fines meeting that followed the Dolphins’ innings victory.
“Flip, he is funny. He talks a lot of kak, but he is a genuinely funny guy. You need characters like that in a team, and he’s done that straight away,” said Erwee.
Soon after Petersen joined the team, he and Erwee set down a run-scoring challenge for the red-ball campaign. “It was actually really tight going into the last game of the season. There was one run in it,” said Erwee.
He then streaked away with a telling century in the five-day final against the Titans to bookend his final season of franchise cricket with significant contributions. “I was relieved to get runs again, because I had a frustrating T20 Challenge. To contribute in a big match was really fulfilling, and it was just awesome for us to finish the season on such a high.”
Erwee lauded domestic four-day matches being televised as a wonderful development, because it allows more casual observers to see players coming through the system. “A lot of context is lost when you just see a scorecard in a newspaper. To be able to see how someone actually played is better for everyone, and it makes us more accountable as players.”
SA’s spin challenges
The T20 Challenge bio-bubble being in Durban brought about a new challenge, with the games being played on slower, turning wickets. It exposed a persistent weakness against spin in South African cricket and Erwee said the nature of the Kingsmead wicket has encouraged the rest of the team to adapt.
“It’s hard to play on the coast. You can’t just hit through the line and the conditions are somewhat similar to what you face in the sub-continent. Facing Kesh [Maharaj] or Nige [Prenelan Subrayen] is not fun, but they are ideal practice for spinners who just don’t go away.”
At 31, Erwee has time on his side. He knows his game better than ever and is now in a mental space that allows him to see the bigger picture. “Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar are both great players and even better humans. They are ahead of me in terms of playing in the Test side, and I’ve had the conversation with management about what I have to do now that I’m in the squad but not in the team,” he said.
“I don’t wish anyone injury or bad luck, but I also believe that with the amount of cricket we play, doors do eventually open. And if and when the international cricket door does open, my only responsibility is to make sure that I make the most of the opportunity.”
While his phone and Twitter notifications will be turned on for any winter squad announcements, Erwee plans to spend his off season exploring possible careers for life after cricket.
“We are very lucky as professional cricketers, because there are periods of time to reflect and restart. Last winter was great for personal growth, and I look forward to this time away from the game for different reasons now.”
There is also the odd round of terrible golf to be played, as well as regular doses of that unique Petersen humour.