FOR cricketers, Australia, with its abusive and partisan supporters, is one of the toughest countries to tour. A player's reputation can be made or broken there.
Former Proteas captain Graeme Smith proved that Australia are not invincible when his side conquered the overly aggressive Baggy Greens in 2008. He immortalised his name in the annals of Test cricket when the Proteas crushed the home team and won the series.
Things worked out differently for Proteas star batsman Darryl Cullinan, who was relentlessly taunted and ridiculed by Shane Warne for being an easy target for the world's best spin bowler. A good example of an outstanding batsman who failed in an environment where sledging is the norm.
Australia also holds unpleasant memories for one of the most promising young cricketers of that era, Justin Ontong, who was born and raised in Paarl and was recently appointed Boland's new head coach. In his case, it was not so much about failure on the field in the only Test he played — at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2002; it was more about the way his career was steered off course by the intervention of Percy Sonn, former president of Cricket SA.
Ontong hails from New Orleans, a township on the east side of Paarl, where he and his four older sisters were raised by his widowed mother, Veronica. He was one of two new players selected to go on the 2002 tour of Australia. Jacques Rudolph was the other one. When the time came to select the team for the third Test, Sonn insisted transformation had to be factored in. More on that later.
Ontong tells the story over coffee at Schoon in the Paarl winelands of how his father, Jocelyn, was a star rugby player during the time when sport was still segregated, but died before he turned 10. Young Justin didn't excel academically at high school in New Orleans, but his outstanding talent on the sports field was quickly recognised. When the prestigious Paarl Gimnasium offered him a sports scholarship, his mother told him to take it; it would be his chance to get out of the township. And so it was.
Ontong represented South Africa in various formats of the game, and later became the fielding coach of the Proteas as a member of Otis Gibson's coaching team. When Mark Boucher became head coach, he retained Ontong as part of his staff.
Ontong clearly remembers the severe tension caused in the South African camp by his inclusion in the team in January 2002. Sonn, never much of a diplomat, wanted to show the coach and the team through his forceful intervention that it was no longer “business as usual". Change was no longer on the horizon; it had arrived. Ontong represented that change; he was the symbol of a new era in which the Proteas would no longer be exclusively white.
Usually back then, Ontong recalls, South African Test squads would be announced early on the eve of a Test. But not this time.
“There was a long delay. Just after eleven o'clock that night, I received a call from the captain, Shaun Pollock. He said, ‘Justin, we've decided to go with you. You probably won't sleep tonight, but you're playing tomorrow.'"
Ontong can't remember who he replaced, but he recalls that the final choice was between him and Rudolph. He suspects the coach and captain wanted to select Jacques, but Sonn used his veto power because he had decided it was time for transformation to be implemented.
With the maturity and wisdom of a seasoned player, but his face burdened with emotion, Ontong speaks candidly about that painful time. “It wasn't a pleasant period in my career. Looking back now, I realise that in terms of the bigger picture, it was necessary. I played a role in transformation. Our people needed to be given opportunities. But it doesn't feel like I ever got a genuine chance."
Ever since he received that Paarl Gimnasium scholarship, his ambition had been to play for South Africa. “All I wanted to do was play cricket for my country. But when that opportunity came, it was very tough. I remember sitting in a corner in the dressing room before the Test. All I needed at that moment was for one of the senior guys — like Pollock, Gary Kirsten or Allan Donald — to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘We are with you.' They made me feel like I might have been selected just because of my colour. Mentally, it hurt me deeply. It held me back a lot. My self-confidence took a big blow."
Still, he scored 32 runs in South Africa's first innings and had a good partnership with master batsman Kirsten. In the second innings he scored eight runs, and his excellent fielding resulted in the run-out of Australia's Ricky Ponting.
“So, I didn't have too bad a game. My career with the Proteas is not something I can be proud of. I was messed around a lot. I played my first Test in 2002 as a batsman. In 2005, I played another Test, but then they selected me as a bowler and I batted at number 10. After that, I was discarded."
Ontong says he was sensitive to and hurt by the lack of acceptance from the other Proteas, yet he wouldn't really discuss his intense disappointment and inner turmoil with anyone. In that era of “tough players", emotions were often best kept hidden. If the first so-called transformation player in the national team had talked about his pain, he might well have been branded as not strong enough; not up to the demands of international cricket. And there would also have been the double whammy of being coloured and mentally not strong enough. Remaining silent was part of his way of handling it.
“After the tour, I sought help. Professor Justus Potgieter from Stellenbosch University assisted me and provided me with psychological counselling. I needed it."
He did well at concealing his disappointment, and his leadership and brilliance as a versatile player soon came to the fore at local level, initially for the Lions and then for the Cape Cobras. Unlike the national selectors, Shukri Conrad — now coach of the Proteas and himself a cricket sensation as a schoolboy — had great faith in the young man whose mother cleaned houses in Paarl to put food on the table. Conrad recruited Ontong for the Lions. And after he became coach of the Cape Cobras in 2008, he approached Ontong to be his captain.
Conrad and Ontong formed a formidable partnership; the Cobras started winning trophies, and Ontong could finally begin rebuilding his career and show what he was capable of. After being denied the opportunity to prove himself at international level, he dedicated himself to making the Cobras a winning local team and giving his all to achieve that goal.
Ontong was the first victim among players of colour of the way Cricket SA handled transformation. While the way transformation affects white players is rightly discussed, it is often forgotten that players such as Ontong also paid a high price. Thanks to his fighting spirit and the professional help he received, he was able to salvage his career, albeit not at international level. In hindsight, he says his traumatic experience made him more sensitive in his management of players and his understanding of challenges they might be facing because of factors beyond their control.
Today, as Boland coach, Ontong understands what it takes for someone from a humble background to be thrust into the new and foreign world of top-class cricket. “I will manage players better and try to build a team where each player understands the background of the other. A team performs better when they are not strangers to each other, but become comrades."
♦ VWB ♦
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