How mass migration of players from South Africa made Namibia stronger, upset Sri Lanka in World T20 opener

SEVENTY-SIX miles from Melbourne, in the port city of Geelong, world cricket’s lesser-known nation Namibia spun the first big upset of the T20 World Cup — in the very first match of the tournament. They toppled Sri Lanka, the Asia Cup winners from last month and former world champions, by 55 runs in the qualifiers.

If the qualifying line-up lacked buzz — for some, the real deal begins on October 22 when Australia and New Zealand duel; for others, it starts on October 23 when Pakistan and India encounter each other — this match would go a long way in infusing interest and intrigue in the tournament.

Even if one considers Sri Lanka’s fluctuating fortunes in the last five years and Namibia’s penchant to script fairy tales, the result was unanticipated. Such prospects looked even more distant when Namibia stumbled to 93 for six in 14.2 overs before Jan Frylinck and J J Smits combined for 70 runs. The pair then shared three wickets as they bundled out Sri Lanka for 108 runs.

The celebrations were understandably spectacular — Frylinck, the man of the match for his 44 runs and two wickets, teed off wildly and ran aimlessly on the ground; captain Gerhard Erasmus scampered to grab souvenir stumps; within seconds, the support staff too joined the celebrations.

“It’s been an incredible journey, last year was exciting for us and we have now topped that with a great win. Though there’s still a lot of work to do for the rest of the tournament. But yeah, it’s been a historic day for us, and a proud moment,” Erasmus said, gasping between sentences.

What would make Namibia even prouder is that only last year were they blown away by Sri Lanka in the group stages of the T20 World Cup in UAE. On that evening, they were wound up for 96. But this time, they were better prepared. “Mentally, we can relate to that level. We can also now physically and skilfully relate to that level,” Erasmus said.

The Eagles, as the Namibians call themselves, do not possess a long and storied cricket history. Football was the more popular game as they were under German reign for most of the last century. After liberation, South Africa annexed them before they gained full independence in 1990, a year before South Africa’s reintegration into the cricket world.

For much of its history, cricket was a past-time and played at amateur levels. Even though the ICC accorded associate member status in 1992 and the country featured in the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, the level of the game was modest. There were few turf grounds — even now they have just nine in the whole country — and limited infrastructure.

The winds of change came in the form of coach Pierre de Bruyn, a vastly experienced all-rounder from South Africa, who was unfortunate to have not represented his country in an era of super all-rounders such as Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener.

Taking over the team in 2019, de Bruyn installed a professional set-up, hiring a full set of support staff including assistant coach Albie Morkel — sometimes, his brother Morne too would turn up — and making the players train round the year and building a strong team culture.

“He turned this whole ship around for us in 2019, he has instilled a culture in this team. One that’s truly a winning culture and one that sticks together. With the limited resources that we have, I guess you really have to run a tight ship and I don’t think there’s anyone else who could run such a tight ship like he has done over the last three years,” Erasmus said.

Soon, Namibia saw a mass migration of players from South Africa, just over the border, especially those struggling to get into their own domestic sides. It began with the inception of the domestic T20 league Richelieu T20 in 2019. Some of them were to form the nucleus of this side, such as Frylinck, Smit, Erasmus, Jan Nicol Loftie-Eaton, and Zane Green.

Then came along David Wiese, who had played international cricket for South Africa, besides experiencing T20 leagues world over. “His addition has made a massive difference and brought a lot of energy and experience into our side,” Erasmus said.

They now need to beat either the Netherlands or UAE in their next two matches to reach the Super 12. “The recovery periods between these games are so quick. It’s only the start of the tournament and we really need to have our eye on qualifying for the Super 12s, which is the main goal for me,” the captain said. But on Sunday at Geelong, the celebration could last till dawn.

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