'There's no wicket that's flat for a bowler'
Until very recently, Malusi Siboto was a relative unknown outside of a hundred or so South Africa's franchise cricketers and the handful of zealous fans who follow the domestic game. Then he appeared in the domestic T20 final for Titans against Warriors before Christmas, giving an emotional performance that endeared him to a television audience running into the hundreds of thousands. He was suddenly - ephemerally - South African cricket's biggest star.
With Warriors poised to make a fist of chasing Titans' by no means impossible target, he dropped a dolly standing at short fine leg but, shortly afterwards, was offered a chance to make amends by stand-in captain David Wiese, who asked him to bowl the final over, with Warriors needing 12. This he did successfully, but not before bursting into tears mid-pitch after bowling the delivery that ensured Titans could not lose. He followed that delivery with the season's most memorable wide, before breathing deeply and somehow composing himself sufficiently to close out the game.
When at last he bowled the final ball in an interminably long 20th over, he sprinted into the stands to hug and kiss his mum and grandmother. He had flown them up from Cape Town for the final.
No one has been a more loyal and loving supporter of her son than Siboto's mother, Nandi. "It was very emotional at the end of the final because, in a way, it was what I've been working so long for. I got into a final with the Knights against the Cobras at Newlands two seasons ago, which we lost, so this game was very important to me."
It was not cricket but hockey that was Siboto's passport out of Langa in the Western Cape, the township in which he grew up. While he was always a decent cricketer, it was his hockey that earned him a bursary to study sports science at the University of the North-West in Potchefstroom in his first year out of school. For a few years, his prowess as a centre-link dominated as he flittered on the edge of South Africa's Under-21 World Cup hockey squad without making the final cut for the tournament in Egypt. After a year or three, cricket finally gained the upper hand. Some good performances for the university allowed him to be sucked into North-West's structures, alongside players like Chris Morris and Nicky van den Bergh.
"He was always very hard-working," remembers Monty Jacobs, one of his early coaches at North-West. "One of the guys in the sports complex where he was living heard suspicious noises coming from his room one night - we thought he had a girl in there. We found out later that he was doing sit-ups and push-ups!
"Malusi is one of those guys who is really ripped, with a six pack and the works. He also happens to be one of the fittest guys around. He needs to be if he's going to bowl you 15 or 16 overs a day in the Potch heat."
Siboto was never quite explosive or eye-catching enough a bowler to elbow his way into the Lions structures (North-West are their franchise partners, so the Wanderers was the local destination of choice). Sarel Cilliers, down at Knights, saw enough, however, to offer him a contract in Bloemfontein, and so Siboto headed to the middle of the country, swapping one batsman-friendly pitch in Potch for the arguably even more benign strip at Springbok Park.
"The thing with my studies when I arrived was that lectures were in Afrikaans and my Afrikaans is really terrible," he says. "I had to take notes in Afrikaans and talk in Afrikaans, so it was difficult. It taught me to be patient. I couldn't tell my mum about it - I didn't want her to find out anything and so worry - so I just hung in there for as long as I could. I could easily have given up. The first years at university weren't easy."
Despite his trial by Afrikaans, Siboto slowly became rounded as a cricketer. He found an ally in Vusumuzi Mazibuko, a fellow fast bowler at North-West, and the two set about strategising. "The two of us talked and with his help I changed my mindset," he says. "We decided that there's no wicket that's flat from a bowling point of view. I learned to be positive and think on my feet. I had always used the bouncer. I had always wanted to protect my length to keep the batsman honest. Now we were thinking about other things and being creative. It didn't matter where we were bowling. We had to keep clever and keep our body language good."
Under Cilliers and the players around him at Knights, Siboto began to fashion a full bag of tricks. For those who haven't seen it, he has a distinctive action, falling away from the stumps at the non-striker's end just before the point of release. While this collapse tends to signal that the ball is swinging towards middle and leg with the arm, Siboto cannily counteracts this with the full menu of slower balls, cutters and slower bouncers. Indeed, it was such capacity for reinvention that inspired Rob Walter, before he left Titans for Otago, to bring him up to SuperSport Park in Pretoria. At 29, Siboto is probably as complete a customer as he will ever be.
During his first couple of years out of Wynberg High School in the Cape, it was touch-and-go as to whether Siboto would manage to leopard-crawl his way through a punishing system. He did so, in part because of his fighting spirit but in part because he did not want to disappoint either his hardworking mother or grandmother, Nonkululenko. He has never known his father, and his mum, a personal assistant at the Cape Town Market, seldom managed to watch him play either cricket or hockey when he was growing up. Despite this, she has been a pillar of support, a fountain of pride. It is fair to say that Siboto's road would have been a significantly more tortuous one without her.
After the final, he spent a couple of days training with new coach, Mark Boucher, at Titans, before heading back to Langa for his Christmas holidays. When asked if he was likely to be asked for his autograph as he chilled with his township chommies (mates) over the New Year, he was adamant: "No, no, I don't think there will be any of that."
He might be right; then again, he might just find himself pleasantly surprised, a bright light from a pocket of the cricket universe from which stars don't very often come.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg