“You only miss the sun when it starts to snow”
With just under two billion views, ‘Let Her Go’ by British singer-songwriter Passenger is one of the top 30 most watched videos on YouTube. It is impossible to say for sure, but there is a good chance those numbers were significantly boosted by despondent Proteas fans during the recent Test series in Sri Lanka.
A melodic voice and contagious hooks aside, the five-year absence of Jacques Kallis from the South African side would have served as reason enough to hit the replay button over and over again.
The sun shone brightly over the Proteas this past summer with series victories against India and Australia. Kallis’s runs and wickets will always be fondly remembered but as fans basked in the glow of on-field success they did not pine for the warmth they provided. But like a gammy knee that flares up with the onset of a cold snap, Sri Lanka’s spinners have made apparent a prevailing ailment in this South African side.
Kallis did not merely offer 13,289 runs and 292 wickets. He provided his captain and coach with the option of selecting a luxury player. Cricket teams are consigned to 11 a side but with Kallis there may as well have been 12 on the field. Without him, South Africa have had to be more canny in their selection policies and against Sri Lanka, Faf du Plessis and Ottis Gibson were scrambling for balance.
In the second Test in Colombo, the Proteas decided to leave two of their three spinners on the bench in order to play the extra batsman. While Keshav Maharaj’s 9 for 129 in the first innings made the decision look ridiculous, Theunis de Bruyn’s 101 in the second provided some belated vindication. If only South Africa had someone with the all-round capabilities of Kallis.
Following a string of handy but unspectacular bowling all-rounders such as Ryan McLaren, Wayne Parnell, Rory Kleinveldt, Chris Morris and most recently Andile Phehlukwayo, an uncapped 20-year-old looks primed to occupy the throne that has remained vacant since Kallis abdicated in 2013.
Wiaan Mulder, with just a handful of ODI caps as an international cricketer, is a fluent right-handed batsman who prefers to operate at either five or six. He possesses a powerful front foot game with a devastating cover drive. He picks up length very quickly, and once he gets going, he looks to utilise a naturally strong bottom hand by hitting over the infield through the on-side.
With the ball, Mulder’s still developing body already bowls at a decent pace with enough movement through the air, often making him the captain’s go-to guy when a breakthrough is needed. Pundits will say that he bowls a heavy ball, but his fluid action and clever wrist and finger adjustments means he is more than just a broad-shouldered workhorse.
In 13 matches over two seasons for the Lions in South Africa’s premier first-class competition, he has scored 695 runs at 49.6 with two hundreds and two fifties, to go along with 40 wickets at 22.67 apiece.
Throw in a safe pair of hands, natural athleticism, handsome good looks and a charming demeanour and Mulder has all the attributes to be a star. But what of the burden of comparisons with Kallis – not only the greatest cricketer this country has ever produced but his own boyhood hero? Are we loading the young man with too much, too soon?
“People have asked me about the comparison with Jacques Kallis plenty of times but I don’t mind them,” Mulder told Cricbuzz. “In fact, I like to be spoken about in the same breath as such a legend. It motivates me and doesn’t put pressure on me.”
This immediately sets Mulder apart from his predecessors who have viewed the comparison to Kallis as a kiss of death. In 2013, Ryan McLaren – one of a string of handy bowling all-rounders asked to fill the gargantuan shoes left by Kallis – told journalists, “You can’t compare me to Jacques Kallis. That’s like comparing a Citi Golf to a Rolls Royce.”
Late last year, McLaren told Cricbuzz that South Africa ought to stop drawing tentative links between Kallis and emerging all-rounders, stating that the now Kolkata Knight Riders coach is a “once in a generation player”.
Mulder has the potential to represent a new generation of cricketers alongside the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Aiden Markram. When he says, “I would love to be the next Jacques Kallis,” we should take him seriously.
As a barefooted kid growing up in the West Rand of Johannesburg, Mulder stood out from his peers even while competing in teams an age group up in both cricket and rugby.
An off-road motorbike accident at seven years old left him with a broken left arm but that did not stop him making an area team as a bowler. When the cast came off, he smashed a quick-fire half century. It was then that his father, Pieter, realised he may have a special talent on his hands.
“I always knew he had ability but watching him bat that day I decided to do everything in my power to provide him with whatever he needed,” Pieter says. “Both my wife Adrie and I made it a priority.”
Pieter laid a pitch in the back yard and built a net. A bowling machine was purchased and floodlights installed ensuring that Wiaan and his younger brother, Juan, could hit balls at all hours of the day.
Pieter completed a Level 1 coaching course from Cricket South Africa with the sole purpose of providing expert advice for his enthusiastic sons. “I had no aspirations to become a coach of a team,” Pieter says. “I just wanted to invest as much as I could to help my kids.”
As their parents hosted braais (barbeques), Wiaan and Juan were hitting balls in the nets or in the street. When it rained they were honing their soft hands in the passages of their home. When they put down their bats and picked up PlayStation remotes, it was Don Bradman Cricket beaming on the screen.
The Mulders lived for sport and in his final year at primary school, Wiaan was selected as the captain of both the rugby and cricket under-13 provincial teams he represented. Elite all-boys high schools soon took notice and several dangled scholarships in front of the working class family.
One such institution was King Edward School (KES), alma mater of Graeme Smith, Neil McKenzie, Stephen Cook and Quinton de Kock. But at the behest of his father, Mulder agreed to meet with representatives at St Stithians High School.
“We drove through the top gate and I immediately knew I wanted to go there,” Mulder recounts. “It looked like the school stretched to the horizon. I felt like Harry Potter seeing Hogwarts for the first time.”
The Mulders met with the school’s director of cricket, Wim Jansen, a former coach of various amateur and age-group teams in the Gauteng province who has, in the space of 10 years, turned the school from a competitive outfit into one of the most dominant sides in the country.
Saints, as the school is colloquially known, is the ninth most expensive school in South Africa with fees reaching around USD 18,500 a year. Its grounds stretch across 100 hectares of manicured lawns that are littered with stone buildings and state of the art facilities.
It is from this base that Jansen and his boys have won two of the last three Coca-Cola Schools T20 Challenges as well as four of the last seven Johnny Waite tournaments. Rabada, the world’s premier fast bowler, graduated here in 2013. He has been followed by Marques Ackerman and Ryan Rickelton who have both represented the Lions at franchise level as well as Wandile Makwetu, the most recent captain of the South African under-19 side.
Mulder’s first steps at his new school were challenging. “He came here as a proper boertjie (slang for a young Afrikaans boy),” Jansen says. “We were worried how he’d fit in.” Indeed, Mulder admits that he was initially bullied because of his accent by affluent English speaking peers, but things never escalated on account of his large frame.
Jansen had appointed Peter Stringer, the former Yorkshire seamer who has become one of the most renowned youth coaches in Johannesburg, on a full-time basis; not to coach a particular team but to provide any boy at the school with free private coaching whenever they wanted. Mulder took full advantage of this unique opportunity.
“He would hit balls every day,” Jansen says. “He had, and still has, an insatiable appetite for the game. To this day, he leaves practice with the Lions and drives over here for more practice with Peter Stringer. He has that inner drive that you need to be a success.”
Jansen also identified leadership potential in Mulder (he captained South Africa’s u19 side on a tour to Sri Lanka in 2016) and would talk with him about the nuances of the game. He would encourage Mulder to make mistakes as a captain and provided him with the autobiographies of famous cricketers.
The personal accounts of Geoffrey Boycott, Steve Waugh, Ian Botham and Allan Border would fill Mulder’s head and challenge him to engage with his sport in a way that few teenagers could ever contemplate.
When he wasn’t playing or practising, his father explains how he would study the movements of batsmen on TV while clutching his Slazenger VE bat (the model used by Kallis at the time). When he would get his chance in the middle, he would attempt to replicate what he had seen.
When Mulder made his international debut in an ODI against Bangladesh last year, prompting his father to openly cry at the sight of his son representing his country, his then Lions coach Geoffrey Toyana shared a picture on Twitter. In the photo, Mulder is beaming at the camera, still wearing his school uniform in the home team dressing room. “Last year came to training in a school uniform this year protea (sic), proud of you young Wiaan Mulder”, Toyana wrote below the image.
Last year came to training in a school uniform this year protea ,proud of you young a Wiaan Mulder @HighveldLions ???????????? pic.twitter.com/zyfngTYAbo
— Geoffrey Toyana (@geoffreytoyana) October 22, 2017
It perhaps gave the impression that Mulder’s meteoric rise has been a bolt from the blue. That this prodigy was destined for greatness by virtue of an innate talent that is only bestowed on a fortunate few.
There is some truth to that; Mulder plays the game as if he was born for it. But it would be remiss to ignore the unique variables and tireless hours that have led to this 20-year-old becoming the heir apparent to a crown last worn by King Kallis. Mulder is yet to make his Test debut but got a taste of what he calls “the pinnacle of cricket” during last summer’s battle with Australia. Minutes into his introduction as a substitute fielder in the first Test in Durban, he held onto a sharp catch at mid-on to remove David Warner in the second innings. As a member of the squad, the young man rubbed shoulders with some of his heroes but was never once awestruck by his illustrious teammates.
“I felt at home in the hotel, on the team bus and during training,” Mulder says. “My skills and my personality made me part of the team and I didn’t have any stage fright. You can’t doubt yourself in that environment.”
From this self-assured base, Mulder sought to gain as much information as he could grasp. He would studiously watch how AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla prepared for net sessions. He paid close attention to Vernon Philander who, as he says, “knows his game so well and knows exactly what he needs to do to get ready for a match”. He would talk at length with Morne Morkel, who offered invaluable advice on wrist positions and the kinetic flow of his body after his follow through.
Above all, Mulder came to realise that these household names are flesh and blood human beings. “Vern will bowl magic spells, Faf is an incredible leader and Dean [Elgar] is one of the most awesome competitors you can imagine but they’re just normal guys away from the middle. That made me extremely hungry. It made me realise that there is nothing extraordinary stopping me from achieving my dreams. I just have to put in the work.”
In the warm-up match ahead of South Africa’s ODI series against Sri Lanka, when he scored a run-a-ball 56 before taking 3 for 12 with the ball, Mulder once again sounded a call to fans of a side that has felt unbalanced since the retirement of Kallis. In the subsequent years, selectors have been forced to compensate with either bat or ball. Now, with the emergence of a true batting all-rounder, the sun looks a little brighter over the horizon.
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