• Missing in action

    Proteas spinner Aaron Phangiso didn’t play a game at the World Cup, but now he has been given an opportunity to put the disappointment behind him, writes GARY LEMKE.

    Aaron Phangiso will never forget the day he bowled the great Sachin Tendulkar for 16. It came during a Champions League T20 match in October 2012 at the Wanderers and the celebration that followed is one for the highlights reel.

    ‘There is no way you can’t be aware when you’re bowling to a guy like Sachin, but I remember two seasons ago when I was asked about Sachin and then he did hit me far. This time, I had nothing to lose. If he hits me again, a lot of people are expecting it,’ he said in the hours after the Highveld Lions had beaten the vaunted Mumbai Indians.

    ‘My friends actually said to me: “Ag, no, this guy is going to hit you again.” When I got him out, in my celebration, I pointed to a group of my friends [in the stands] and in my head I was saying: “I showed you guys. No, second time around I was going to get him.” I was very happy.’

    The left-arm spin bowler’s performances in that tournament launched his international career. Or, rather, it was supposed to. He made his T20 debut for South Africa two months later, in a two-game series against New Zealand. He went for 42 wicketless runs in East London before claiming 3-35 in Port Elizabeth. In total Phangiso has played five T20 games for his country, taking six wickets at an average of 26.00 and at an economy rate of 8.66.

    Phangiso’s selection for T20 also thrust him into the spotlight for ODI cricket. After making his debut in January 2013 (0-43 against New Zealand in Potchefstroom), his ODI career now spans 14 matches, in which he’s taken 15 wickets at an average of 38.20 and an economy rate of 4.55 runs per over. The latter is not a bad figure in the modern age of the swashbuckling batsman, but eight of Phangiso’s wickets have come against second-tier Zimbabwe.

    He had first come to the attention of selectors in 2003, when he was part of a South Africa Under-19 team which toured England unbeaten alongside other future Proteas Imraan Khan, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, AB de Villiers and Vernon Philander. Now, 12 years have passed.

    We’ve been waiting for him to arrive as a limited-overs bowler of international stature, and those hopes were heightened when Cricket SA rewarded him with a one-year national contract and included him in the 15-man squad for the World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.

    Yet, now that the dust has settled, there are many who are justified by asking ‘why’? That question is especially significant in light of the fact that South Africa took 15 players to the World Cup and used 14 of them across the eight matches that they played in reaching the semi-finals. The selectors have been accused – and now, with the benefit of hindsight there is some justifiable criticism of them – of taking a squad to win a World Cup that didn’t have a natural No7, and had problems around the fifth bowler.

    South Africa, being the unique country that it is and with its political baggage, presumably had to pick players in the squad of 15 that would be representative of the country. Phangiso, however, was the only ethnic black African in the squad. And, he was the only member who didn’t get any game time. In fact, the more one looks at things, the more it appears to have been a case of trotting him out for convenient #ProteaFire campaign marketing slots, and handing him the role of carrying the drinks. It appeared to be a case of cricket’s equivalent of Springbok rugby, where black Africans have been routinely selected for end-of-year tours but have seen no game time. Their roles have been restricted to carrying the tackle bags while getting the experience of being in the squad.

    Which again forces the questions about Phangiso. Ostensibly, he was picked on merit as a second spinner in the squad of 15, and as understudy to Imran Tahir. Which in itself is a sugar-coated truth. Given that the matches were played in New Zealand and Australia, two full-time spinners was always going to be a luxury in a World Cup where the seamers flew the flag for the bowlers and Mitchell Starc and Trent Boult led the list of wicket-takers. And, in any case, the Proteas had been using JP Duminy as a spinning all rounder in the lead- up to the tournament.

    Phangiso could well have been back-up to Tahir, but he could also have stayed at home and replaced the wrist-spinner had there been injury, because the ICC regulations say an injured player can be flown back and someone else can slot into the squad.

    South Africa played Zimbabwe, West Indies, India, Ireland, Pakistan, UAE, Sri Lanka and New Zealand at the World Cup and 14 of its 15 players were used for those games. The Proteas were by no means unique in this regard in not using the entire 15, but you have to think that there were opportunities to give Phangiso a taste of World Cup action. After all, he’s got that national contract and had 14 ODI games behind him.

    However, the clincher in all this is Phangiso’s age. He is 31.

    If South Africa weren’t going to play him at the World Cup, what was the point in taking him to the tournament? Rather invest in Kagiso Rabada, the 19-year-old firebrand who also has a national contract and was a star at the last U19 World Cup, which South Africa won. He too has already had a taste of senior international competition, with three T20s under his belt. In February 2014 he took 6-25 against Australia at the U19 World Cup and he was the country’s leading wicket-taker at the event.

    Rabada need not have played a match at the World Cup, but the selectors would at least have allowed themselves some room to wriggle off the hook. At 19, Rabada is the future – he will be at the 2019 competition, but Phangiso won’t, surely, at the age of 35. Taking him to Australasia and giving him drinks-carrying duties might not have been ideal for the young man, but at least the excuse could have been that he was there for the experience, in a team environment that houses players like AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, David Miller and other big names.

    Phangiso himself is said to be one of the nicest guys in the game. And the glimpses of him in television footage and in newspaper images suggests that he is fun to be around. Yet, for all the generous nature of the man, surely there have been quiet moments when he has wondered why he was selected for the World Cup? Picking him and then not playing him did him a disservice and it opened up that hot debate as to whether or not there was a genuine plan to use him or because he fitted a political brief.

    Phangiso earned a scholarship at CBC in Pretoria at the age of 12 and gave up his first love, soccer, to pursue cricket. And, after those joyous celebrations in having clean bowled Tendulkar two-and-a-half years ago, he said: ‘I’ve played for SA “A” and the next step is to represent the green and gold. It would be nice to get that recognition, to get that chance, you never know what might happen. You might do well or not, but at least you can gauge where you are with your cricket against the best.’

    At the 2015 World Cup he got that initial recognition, but never did get the chance.

    This feature appears in the latest issue of SACricket magazine, currently on sale.

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    Tom Sizeland