So, you’ve got talent, skill and confidence – it’s not enough
Two men sat talking quietly in a corner of SA’s team room in Potchefstroom in the days before the start of the Test series against Bangladesh in September 2017.
Actually, only one of them was talking – earnestly, eyes wide, using his hands, making points solidly. His name was Linda Zondi.
The other man listened intently, his chin tucked, his brow prominent, his eyes soft, keeping himself open to what he was hearing. His name was Wiaan Mulder.
Probably Zondi was explaining to Mulder what he had to do to be a significant part of the conversation at selection meetings.
Mulder was in Potch as cover but Wayne Parnell passed a fitness test and stayed in the squad. Not that that mattered much in those heady times.
Aiden Markram and Andile Phehlukwayo made their debuts in that match, which marked the start of Ottis Gibson’s tenure as SA’s coach and, on the first day, the end of Haroon Lorgat’s time as Cricket South Africa’s chief executive.
Dean Elgar was dismissed a solitary run short of a double century. At least he was afforded the dignity of being caught at midwicket – Markram was run out three shy of a century. Hashim Amla’s 137 was his first 100 in 14 completed innings.
There was a lot going on but none of it involved Mulder. Not at that level anyway. He had gone to Potch having taken 4/70 and scored 79 for the Lions against the Warriors at the Wanderers days before, and he went back to Joburg to make an undefeated 127 and claim a wicket in each innings against the Titans.
In 10 first-class matches that season he would score 531 runs in 14 innings at an average of 53.10, and take 23 wickets at 29.04.
He would play his first game in an SA shirt the next month in the one-day series against the Bangladeshis. After eight ODIs he has yet to score 20, though he has been not out three times. He has conceded less than a run a ball four times and blooped to double figures once, and only once taken more than one wicket.
Those numbers might have been more impressive, or at least more representative of Mulder’s shimmering potential, had he not been taken down by an ankle injury just more than a year after his chat with Zondi.
He was part of the squad for the Test series against Australia in March 2018 but didn’t crack the nod. He’s been back in action in January, and has scored 194 runs – 146 of them in one innings – in four first-class innings for the Lions and taken 10 wickets at 22.70.
Mulder returned to the international scene in the fifth and deciding ODI in SA’s series against Pakistan at Newlands last month.
But here’s the number that sticks more than all the others: Mulder won’t be 21 until February 19.
How many cricket matches had you played two weeks before you reached your majority, never mind for SA?
Mulder has packed plenty of cricket into his young life; 148 games of the stuff since he opened the batting for Gauteng against North West in an under-13 showdown in East London in December 2011.
That he was on Thursday picked in the squad for the two Test against Sri Lanka is just another point on his journey through cricket, a path that could yet go any and every which way.
Theunis de Bruyn, who is six years older than Mulder and has played 73 more games since his provincial under-13 days, could tell the younger man a cautionary tale.
After struggling through the Test series against Pakistan De Bruyn has retained his place for the Lankan rubber. But he must know, having gone six innings without reaching 50, all of them played on SA’s unreasonable surfaces, that the axe glints above his neck.
Lungi Ngidi, not quite 23 and on his way back from a knee injury, is not in the mix this time – not least to give him more time to return to full fitness for the World Cup. So his tally of games is stuck on 164.
But Faf du Plessis has been returned to active duty after his overrate ban for the third Test against Pakistan and being rested for the last two T20s.
When he puts on his blazer and walks to the middle for the toss at Kingsmead on Wednesday he will be ready to play in his 753rd cricket match.
Making a career in cricket as a player is about so much more than talent, skill and confidence. It’s also about commitment, tenacity and fight. And about the privilege of being able to pursue that career when the real world would prefer that you grow up and get a proper job.
It’s easy to sneer at those who are paid obscene amounts and deluged with undeserved admiration merely for playing a game well. But there’s a lot we don’t know.
Like what exactly you hear when you sit, listening intently, your chin tucked, your brow prominent, your eyes soft, keeping yourself open for a signal that maybe, if you tick all the boxes, you will be given an opportunity to show what you’ve got.
Good luck, Mr Mulder. And happy birthday for February 19...