• The king of unlucky

    As attention starts to turn to the Cricket World Cup and the headline acts, spare a thought for someone who has never managed to grab the national selectors’ attention. LUKE ALFRED explains.

    Unlucky cricketers come in many forms, There are those who are are mildly unfortunate, and those who common decency suggests somehow deserve better. There are even those who have the bad habit of scoring runs at the wrong time or dropping important catches in front of people who matter. Finally, there are guys who are just plainly and dreadfully luckless. Quinton Friend, the Knights fast bowler, surely occupies this category. He’s so down on luck, in fact, that he might almost occupy the position all by himself.

    A Bellville boy, Friend was never one to take the fashionable road to the top. He played Western Province U19B in his final year at school and had it not been for a healthy club structure at Bellville CC and the intervention of Eric Simons, his career path might have turned out very differently. ‘I never really featured in those schools sides too much,’ says Friend, speaking at the Wanderers one Saturday afternoon earlier this summer.

    ‘Coming from Bellville made things a bit tougher; you always needed to work harder than those southern suburbs boys. I can’t say I ever  felt disadvantaged, though. Eric was great and gave me my 1st XI debut at Bellville as a 16-year-old. I only played three games for WP B, as it was then, with guys like Renier Munnik, Paul Harris, Mulligan George, Aubrey Martyn and Rashaad Magiet, and went straight into the Province side after that.’

    Some of us will never forget the visceral thrill of watching Friend bowl in his debut first-class season. He was all lip, mouthy and menacing and quite the man. He was prepared to take people on, bowl the bouncer and bowl it quickly, generally racking up speeds of 145km/h, sometimes even nudging the 150 mark.

    Allan Donald was his hero, and although Friend, with his low centre of gravity and slightly shambling approach to the crease, didn’t quite have the liquid grace of ‘White Lightning’, the echoes were there. ‘When I saw Donald while I was growing up, I thought:“This guy bowls with venom – I’d really like to be like that.”’

    The early years at Province were happy ones for the boy from Bellville. He rubbed shoulders with some truly great players – notably Jacques Kallis and Herschelle Gibbs – and the union was successful to boot. Ironically, Friend has never replicated the union’s success on his travels and it remains a niggle to this day that he hasn’t been in teams that have won more trophies.

    Then again, his current home, at the Knights in Bloemfontein, nearly brought slightly unlikely four-day success in the Sunfoil Series last season. They beat the eventual champions, the Cobras, twice in the competition and were in contention for the winner’s cheque with two games to go. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out quite the way they would have liked, a matter of some frustration for the competitive fast bowler.

    Friend’s halcyon days at Newlands were always likely to fade but he can’t have envisaged quite how abruptly things would sour. The beginning of the end coincided with Shukri Conrad’s arrival as coach – with Conrad making it clear Friend wasn’t part of his plans. ‘I was really irritated with Shukri,’ Friend admits. ‘I didn’t want to speak to him for years. Now, when we bump into each other when he’s commentating a game, we catch up and have a chat. You can’t hold grudges forever.’

    Not wanting to disappear into the twilight zone of semi-professional cricket, Friend pushed off to the Dolphins. He’s always liked bowling at Kingsmead and the move was as comfortable as any move away from home ever could be. Silverware remained elusive but there were compensations. Without much prompting or help from anyone else, aged 27 he experienced the fast-bowler’s equivalent of a eureka moment. ‘I realised I had to keep batters more busy – even if it meant taking off say three, four or five kms of pace. I was suddenly in a more experienced vibe. I realised I needed more than just pace. Batters had to play more.’

    Friend’s stock delivery is the away-ducker. His time at Kingsmead also allowed him to experiment with the in-swinger, an important delivery to go with his famed bouncer because it invariably keeps batsmen honest and prevents them from lining him up. He’s always taken regular wickets in big hauls but it’s probably fair to say that after the hell-or-glory days of bowling out-and-out quick, he matured at the Dolphins and so started a record that, in terms of wickets taken, runs conceded and strike rate, compares favourably with Vernon Philander, Rory Kleinveldt and Johann Louw.

    ‘What I found at that stage of my career is that my economy rate came down immensely,’ he says. ‘I matured as a bowler. I always felt I was good enough to play at Test level and it’s disappointing I haven’t. I wouldn’t say I’ve lost the hunger. I wake up in the morning wanting to train. Realistically, it’s probably got to be in the next year. Things happen in this sport, so we’ll see.’

    Friend became a loyal Dolphin but there were issues around his participation in one-day cricket where he says he was quietly frozen out. When Graham Ford left the union, Friend knew it was time to hit the road once again, and the logical choice was Bloem. He’s married to an Afrikaner woman and Sarel Cilliers had always been a fan, so the decision wasn’t difficult.

    With Friend in their midst, the Knights continue to be more competitive than they should be. Their player stocks are limited and their fan base marginal, but Friend puts it well when he says, ‘we find ways to win games’. It’s a priceless asset and says much about Cilliers and the team’s will to win; it says something about Friend, too. And who knows? Perhaps he won’t be king of the unlucky forever.

    This feature appears in the Jan-March 2015 issue of SACricket magazine, currently on sale.

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