Lungi Ngidi – The humble boy meant for greater heights

Pierre de Bruyn does not have to think very long about why his experience of Lungi Ngidi will stay with him long after his other cricket memories fade. It is now more than five years since the pair found an unlikely connection, with the coach taking a “massive financial risk” by offering a young fast bowler from a poor background a bursary, and Ngidi placing his trust in a stranger to move north to an Afrikaans university.“The first thing I think when it comes to Lungi is the humbleness,” says De Bruyn. “You have to pinch yourself to think how his life has changed, but it hasn’t changed him. That for me is why Lungi is already so successful. He has phenomenal values as a human being, forget about as a cricketer, and he will have a very long career purely because of those aspects.”It is this humanity – rather than anything related to cricket – that shines through as De Bruyn recalls his time with Ngidi. In a country with the greatest inequality in the world, where the quality of opportunity is so often differentiated along racial lines, the 23-year-old’s story is one to celebrate. Over the past decade, the son of two domestic workers has shown that the best talent in South Africa can rise to the top regardless of background, aided by mentors and institutions that are rich and poor, white and black. Especially when that talent has a value set like Ngidi’s.The first clear example of this came in his early teens, after his size and raw pace had drawn scholarship offers from a number of high schools. Ngidi opted for Hilton College, the most expensive private school in South Africa, and in the process entered another world. Such a radical change in environment could easily have overwhelmed him were his feet not so firmly on the ground.“At Hilton you’re in the same class not only with the haves, but with the elites. There’s a difference between driving a Mercedes and driving a Lamborghini, or guys rocking up there in helicopters. It’s a different lifestyle,” says Linda Zondi, South Africa’s convenor of selectors who tracked Ngidi’s progress closely during his time picking different age-group sides in the Kwazulu-Natal region. “He went through that phase, but his background and humble beginnings helped. He was brought up very well. He’s not a guy who likes the bling bling. He’s focused and he knows what he wants.”Zondi knew what it was like to come from a poor background. As a promising young player he had earned a scholarship to one of Durban’s better schools, but it was not enough to secure a playing career – he ended up with just three first-class caps for Kwazulu-Natal in the late 1990s. When he came across two standout cricketers as an Under-13 selector – Ngidi and Andile Phehlukwayo – he saw an opportunity to mentor the next generation to greater heights.