The Highveld Lions have been trying to sign Proteas fast bowler Lutho Sipamla since he was a pupil at Grey High School, playing for the SA Under-19 side in 2016, a visionary bit of scouting foiled by the Warriors moving quickly to contract the youngster.
Now that they finally have their man, they are going to have to wait a while longer because they announced that they had signed him the day before the nationwide lockdown began due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.
But when they do finally clap eyes on their latest fast bowling investment, they can do so safe in the knowledge they are guaranteed that rare thing in life, in the Port Elizabeth native’s arrival in Johannesburg – the real deal.
Ever since he shocked all and sundry by going from being the Tshwane Spartans’ surprise draft pick to ending up as the inaugural Mzansi Super League’s third-highest wicket taker (16 wickets from 10 matches) two years ago, Sipamla’s calling card has always been to look like he belongs.
From the day he was first invited to the Warriors’ nets as a schoolboy to his Proteas debuts for both the T20 and ODI formats, Sipamla hasn’t been overawed, a trait neatly encapsulated by Malibongwe Maketa’s initial impressions of him.
“Forget the good, strong and repeatable bowling action, his general attitude – he really, really wants to make it – is something you can’t buy,” says the former Proteas assistant coach, who was the Warriors’ head coach when Sipamla arrived on the first-class scene.
“Some cricketers come along and want to make it, but they don’t show you that they want to make it by doing the extra work.
“A player who combines talent with hard work is what coaches want, it’s the kind of talent you don’t discover – you just let it come through, and that’s what we did with him,” Maketa says.
Although he’s been an upcoming man in South African cricket since he was in school, the 21-year-old’s move up north still feels a little early on in the piece.
But ever upwardly mobile in thinking when it comes to his career, Sipamla’s reasoning for the decision is typically clear-eyed.
“The reason for the move is to try to exploit the conditions in the Highveld and bowl on faster and more bouncy tracks just to improve as a player,” he explains.
While Maketa can’t fault the logic, he still reckons there may have been value in Sipamla playing out of the Eastern Cape for a little longer.
“For the region, I’m really disappointed because it has lost two international quality bowlers [Sipamla signed for the Lions with Warriors team-mate Sisanda Magala] who will find that bowling at the Wanderers will assist them in many ways,” Maketa says.
“But, as a seam bowler, you don’t get a better education than bowling at St George’s Park or Buffalo Park in terms of learning to control your length and learning bowling discipline. What you get from those wickets is unparalleled when you get to international level because wickets are generally flatter at that level.”
Education also seems to be uppermost in Sipamla’s mind, especially after observing fellow prodigious fast-bowling talents Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi up close in the national team.
“The way they train, are driven and focused at practice, and carry themselves is an example for me – I’ve learnt a lot from rubbing shoulders with them, and I’m grateful for that,” says Sipamla.
He already has proof that constantly working at your game can turn one into a permanent fixture in the Proteas team, if recent Warriors team-mate Anrich Nortje’s example is anything to go by.
“He’s always working hard, always doing something to improve and his work ethic has rubbed off on me.”
What with all this hard work talk, there’s the temptation to look at Sipamla’s career as a giant to-do list and not recognising what he already brings to the fast-bowling table.
“He can swing the ball late, and if he can swing it anywhere near 140km/h, he’ll push for a constant spot in the Proteas side,” reckons Maketa.
“He’s got a great action, which has assisted him with not breaking down and, like Nortje, he can bowl long spells at a good pace because he’s very strong.”
That said, Sipamla’s age suggests he has work to do en route to becoming that complete article.
“He needs to up his pace [currently the youngster pushes the needle at about 135km/h], which I believe will happen as he goes on. And he needs to stay on his feet [avoid injury].
“He’s got another two years to get out of the red zone in terms of still being susceptible to injury. Once he gets through that, he’ll complete quite an exciting fast-bowling pool for South Africa.”
If this profile is a little too much about cricket, it is because Sipamla’s whole life has pretty much been about cricket.
From the day his father enrolled him at a cricket academy at the age of six, you got the sense he was always going to be a cricketer.
At a sturdy 1.86m and 88kg, there was always going to be a flirtation with other sports such as rugby, but the mucking around at loose forward for Grey High was just that, something he did socially.
Cricket, something he’s always done with good friend, former schoolmate and Warriors team-mate Matthew Breetzke since they first met at the age of nine, has always been his thing.
Having looked up to fellow South African pacemen Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and the usual battery of West Indian quicks growing up, Sipamla says he now closely watches team-mate Rabada and Aussies Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins for good habits to incorporate into his game.
“Cummins is a very good and very consistent bowler. He bowls at good speeds and can hold line and length – I enjoy the kind of cricket he’s playing at the moment.”
For all the obsessing about cricket, there is another side to Sipamla. He’s a second-year BCom marketing and business management student and travel nut (he spent his 21st birthday in New York) who counts his favourite travel destinations as South America and Turkey.
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