SA’s blind cricket team is headed for a good year

Newly called-up ​​Wiseman Makondzo got some practice under his belt at the interprovincial tournament in October. Now he and his teammates are getting ready for their tour to Pakistan.

Wiseman Makondzo is gearing up for his matric year at Filadelfia high school in Pretoria. He is obsessed with cricket and was recently called up to represent his country for the first time. His coaches say he has made incredible strides in the past few years, and they anticipate a massive future for him in the game.

For Makondzo, 2021 was a year of considerable progress and joy, even in the midst of a pandemic. Being a blind cricketer – he was born blind – Makondzo learnt the game in a very different way.

“He is a very special kid and he has a great work ethic,” says Northerns Blind Cricket team coach Frikkie Schoeman. “They are all very special, but we have had to hold Wiseman back and ask him to be patient.” Makondzo had to wait until he was old enough to compete, but he took his place at Northerns for this year’s interprovincial tournament and made sure the experience was worth the wait. He was awarded Young Player of the Tournament as a B1 category player, which is a cricketer that is completely blind.

7 October 2021: Wiseman Makondzo bowls during the final.

Makondzo was selected to represent South Africa after helping Northerns reach the final. For the first time, that final was played at the headquarters of South African cricket: the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg.

“To see a blind cricket match being played on South Africa’s most important ground was very special,” says Schoeman, struggling to keep his emotions in check. 

It was a significant day for Blind Cricket South Africa, showing that the sport is gaining traction. “We are very grateful to Cricket South Africa for doing this for us,” said vice-president Ndu Nyawose with a smile. “These gestures mean so much to us and the players couldn’t believe it when they heard that the finals would be played at the Wanderers.”

The support of sponsors is crucial and Hollywoodbets providing R250 000 since New Zealand visited South Africa in 2020 has been significant. “Hollywoodbets has been incredible. [Brand manager] Devin Heffer and his team have been there for us and made so many things possible through their generosity,” said Nyawose.

7 October 2021: Central Gauteng Lions players on the sidelines as their batsmen take the field. The group is made up of B1, B2 and B3 players with different levels of visual impairment.

Mutual benefit

What is striking about blind cricket is the unfiltered zest for the game. The players anticipate sweep shots, throw their bodies on the line and celebrate wickets with gusto. 

A league umpire for years, Schoeman admits he felt he was being demoted when he was sent to umpire a blind cricket match. “I thought it was a joke. I didn’t even know much about blind cricket. But then I saw one match and I was humbled.” The past 10 years of his life have been the most rewarding, he says. 

When his health deteriorated and he was diagnosed with cancer, Schoeman switched to coaching. He says there used to be days when he came to practice in a mood and a bit down on himself. But without fail, he left each session inspired by the enthusiasm and work ethic of his squad.

“Their attitude doesn’t change,” he says. “I sometimes lose my temper and swear, and I pushed them [Northerns] really hard from a fitness perspective before the national tournament. There was never one complaint.”

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Schoeman is also an assistant coach at the national level. At 66, he has faced challenges in life and says his wife often asks him why he doesn’t retire and take it easy. Also, there is no monetary incentive to coach blind cricket. “They are like my children,” he says of his players.

The bond between them goes beyond the game. His players come to him with life issues and that level of trust is something he cherishes.

7 October 2021: Northerns player Asanda Masondo, 17, warms up before the final. Masondo is a B3 player who is partially sighted and can see a ‘blur’.

Feeling free

There is a strong competitive streak among South Africa’s blind cricketers and Schoeman was adamant that his side would make the final, despite opting for a youthful team for this year’s interprovincial tournament. “They were playing against teams that have been playing together for seven years, but they did themselves so proud,” he says.

There is a lot on the horizon for Makondzo and his new national teammates. There is a training camp from 21-23 January and a tour to Pakistan from 26 February to 9 March. 

Schoeman explains the significance of touring for some of the players. “The reality is that some of our players do not get three meals a day, sometimes. So being on tour means that things like that are covered, and they look forward greatly to the opportunity to experience life on the road with their teammates.”

Spending time at the tournament, one quickly realises that there is genuine concern and appreciation for each other among the players. And while there is most certainly needling between the teams on the pitch, there is a common purpose to being out there. 

7 October 2021: A Central Gauteng Lions batsman at the crease.

Every player interviewed described a sense of feeling free on the cricket field, of being able to move without fear and the joy of making mistakes around people who genuinely understand. Their enjoyment on the pitch was unbridled and they surprised many of their family members and the public with their purpose and passion. 

The Central Gauteng Lions ended up beating Northerns in the final on 7 October, in yet another compelling cricket game at The Wanderers. The Bullring and all the dreams it holds were theirs that day. 

For Makondzo, 2022 is shaping up. Matric, and playing against Pakistan – one of the game’s pioneers – in national colours. 

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