Alpha Ngidi down but not out
The rounds come thick and fast and this power puncher is not on the canvas yet. The bell rings again on Sunday where a less resilient opponent awaits, writes Daniel Gallan.
LONDON - Lungi Ngidi lumbers into the mixed zone in the bowels of the Oval and the gathered journalists have to crane their necks to make eye contact with him. On the way up to his smiling face our gaze passes over the badge on his chest, just making sure that it indeed says ‘Cricket’ and not ‘Rugby’ underneath the Proteas crest on his broad chest.
His deep voice and imposing frame belie his soft nature. He is quick to smile and does not shy away from probing questions following his side’s 104 run defeat to England in the opening game of the Cricket World Cup.
It is only when he’s questioned on Jofra Archer - the menacing fast bowler who knocked Hashim Amla on the helmet and dismissed three South African top order batsmen with searing pace - that Ngidi’s tone shifts.
“He bowled well,” was the 23-year-old’s brief summation of his rival fast bowler’s 3/27, delivered with a wry smile and a slight cock of the head. “He was quick. He was accurate. It was his day. We all have our days, and I’m just waiting for mine.”
Fast bowlers are the apex predators of the cricket world. They’re the rock stars, the mavericks, the showstoppers. A deluge of sixes exploding from the bat ignites the senses and the guile of a spinner working magic from dexterous wrists is an intriguing sight, but nothing compares to the thrill of a fast bowler who has caught the scent of blood. Sending a ball down at 150km/h is animalistic. It is cricket at its most primal and adds the extra variable of fear into an otherwise sedate sport.
When Amla was conked on the head there were concerns over his safety. People have died from being hit by a cricket ball. Limbs and fingers have been broken. Stumps and bats have been shattered. Even the bravest of batsmen can be made to look like cowering rabbits when forced to stand up to a rolling barrage of bouncers.
The elite club of international fast bowlers is less populated than any other in cricket. Not many have the physical gifts required and not all those who do know how to wield their innate power. This is why, when they do cross paths, they eye each up like rival warriors, salivating at the thought of the battle to come.
“We’re competitive by nature,” Ngidi said of those who share his rare ability to do what he does.
“Credit to [Archer]. He got wickets with the new ball, which is the job of the fast bowler. I was very disappointed with my bowling performance up front. I was happy to take the three sticks (Ngidi was his team’s most productive bowler with 3/66 from his ten overs) but would have preferred to pick up two in the power play.”
Those scalps were secured between the 41st and 49th overs. His first was a slow cutter which cramped the usually destructive Jos Buttler and forced an inside edge that uprooted the leg stump. It proved that Ngidi is not just a towering bruiser who can only throw haymakers. By adding a more delicate side to his game, he is on track to become one of the world’s most complete strike bowlers.
“I don’t think I’ve bowled that many slower balls in a match before,” he said. “But they didn’t get me away even though they came after me, and I thought, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. I was doubting it but it’s great having a captain like Faf (du Plessis) who encouraged me to stick with it and it came off with that Buttler wicket.”
Ngidi is still young and learning his craft. He confessed to overthinking when he had the new ball in his hand. That is understandable. Thursday’s clash was the biggest of his career so far.
“It was talked up like it was a World Cup final,” he said. “All the talk was how they were scoring totals of 350 so it was in the back of my mind. But they hit the ball in the air and nicked through the slips and I realised that they’re human just like me. So, I listened to my own game and decided to stick with it.”
The rounds come thick and fast and this power puncher is not on the canvas yet. The bell rings again on Sunday where a less resilient opponent awaits. Bangladesh will not fancy the short stuff. They may wear tigers on their shirts but could be reduced to kittens if Ngidi the alpha comes to the fore.