This Smiling Assassin is Cricket's New Star

This Smiling Assassin is Cricket's New Star

South African bowler Lungi Ngidi (left) celebrates the dismissal of batsman Dinesh Chandimal (not pictured) during a T20 match against Sri Lanka on Jan. 22, 2017.

SourceGIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because the game of colonial empire is reincarnating.

The game is on a knife edge. Sri Lanka requires 40 runs from only 18 balls. From the South African side comes Lungi Ngidi, a 20-year-old bowling his second over of international cricket. Tall, lithe, athletic, at 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds, Ngidi powers into the crease and has Seekkuge Prasanna caught behind for 12. Three balls later, he snares another wicket: the prodigious Kusal Mendis, beaten for pace and caught on the boundary. Sri Lanka is done, and Ngidi is named Man of the Match in his very first outing. After every wicket, he flashes a Colgate-ready grin to the cameras.

Ngidi, recently returned from a minor injury that put his international career on hold, is one of South Africa’s next cricket greats. In him and competitor turned teammate Kagiso Rabada (21 years old and the world’s seventh-best Test bowler), South Africa has two smiling assassins on its hands. Over the course of the next few seasons, the South African team hopes to regain and cement its place at the top of the Test rankings — the most prestigious of cricket’s three formats.

Ngidi will likely have to wait till next season to resume his full international career, but he is on a South African team headed to England this month in what will be his first visit to the country. “I’m excited to bowl on English pitches,” he says. “And I’m also excited about the cold weather. I love the cold.”

What I saw from him was so convincing that I’ve had to reassess completely.

Firdose Moonda, cricket correspondent

The son of two domestic workers and the youngest of four brothers, Ngidi attended primary school on the generosity of an anonymous donor. (His parents never divulged; he never asked.) At 12, he moved to a prestigious boarding school, Highbury Preparatory, on a sporting scholarship. Back then he was primarily a track and field athlete, specializing in hurdles and javelin. By the time Ngidi had shifted to Hilton College for grades eight through 12 on another scholarship, he had earned provincial colors for cricket, rugby, swimming and athletics. (It could have been more: A cricketing commitment prevented him from attending provincial water polo trials.)

Shane Gaffney, his coach at the time, recalls him as a once-in-a-generation talent. “I don’t think he understood the extent of his potential,” recalls Gaffney, who, looking at the earning opportunities of the various sports, was the first to suggest a career in professional cricket to Ngidi — South African provincial players don’t earn very much, but the best national players get upwards of $8,000 a month, or the chance of big wins in the Indian Premier League (IPL). “At the time I thought of myself as a better rugby player,” Ngidi remembers. But he’s glad he took Gaffney’s advice: Cricketers have longer careers than rugby stars. Also on Gaffney’s advice, Ngidi kept up with academics, and is today juggling cricket with a degree in industrial sociology from the University of Pretoria (most players go professional after high school).

The rise of Ngidi and a few others, including Andile Phehlukwayo and Sisanda Magala, is much-needed good news for South African cricket, which has been struggling to keep the focus on the field amid social controversy. Last year the country’s sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, forbade Cricket South Africa from bidding to host international events for not fielding enough players of color in the national team. (The ban was lifted in April, as the racial balance looks better this year.) Against this backdrop, several white players, including bowler Kyle Abbott, have quit South Africa in favor of more secure but less glamorous careers on the county circuit in England, where salaries are on par with international rates and there’s no talk of quotas.

Firdose Moonda, a leading correspondent on South African cricket, admits to being surprised at the speed of Ngidi’s call-up from the provincial circuit. “In my mind he was quite far down the queue,” she says. But then she saw his chops. “What I saw from him was so convincing that I’ve had to reassess completely.” Moonda was especially impressed by his ability to bowl both the opening and closing overs.

Ngidi admits he has much to learn, “especially in the longer formats of the game where fitness and patience come into play.” But his raw speed can’t be taught. He regularly bowls over 86 miles per hour. The fastest bowler in the world, Mitchell Starc, has touched 100 mph. Mandla Mashimbyi, assistant coach at Ngidi’s Titans franchise, believes Ngidi will “pick up a yard or two” in coming seasons. This, coupled with his ability to extract bounce from even the most benign surface and his knack for getting the ball to move both ways, makes him every batsman’s nightmare, and a rare player who could excel in all three formats of cricket.

It almost turned out so differently. At 17, while touring India with the SA under-19s, he picked up a stress fracture that sidelined him for nine months. “It could have been career-ending,” recalls Gaffney. “But the way he responded to the injury convinced me of his mental strength.” Mashimbyi and Ngidi himself talk of his “puppy fat” and the gym hours needed to trim it away.

Ngidi knows what his career could do for his family — after his first T20 trophy, he bought his parents a house. “It’s nothing special, but it’s the first place they’ve ever been able to call their own,” he says. “I always promised myself my first proper paycheck would go to them.” Even if he hits the big time with an IPL contract, he won’t be throwing cash at Ferraris and Rolexes. “If you haven’t grown up with much and you’re offered something, then you grab it with both hands,” he says — even when the pressure is on.

Correction: The original version of this feature overstated Moonda’s response to the speed of Ngidi’s ascent. This has been adjusted.

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