Proteas: Lungi's leap back to forefront

Lungi Ngidi (Getty Images)
Lungi Ngidi (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Courage under fire … add Lungi Ngidi unreservedly to the list of those who’ve shown they possess it.

Almost certainly flirting with omission from South Africa’s white-ball team as they entered Wednesday’s first Twenty20 international against England at a vibrant Buffalo Park, the big fast bowler with the most authentic, infectious of smiles instead served notice that any thoughts of “slippery slope” for him should instead be dramatically converted into “healthy climb back upward”.

While still some way short of firing on all known cylinders again, Ngidi produced a second performance on the trot for the Proteas in the space of three days where his back-end bowling massively eclipsed his upfront stints ... usually a very good sign of someone with the necessary mettle when things turn toughest and most mentally demanding.

The 23-year-old, nursing his way back to best rhythm and conditioning after another challenging period of injury-enforced inactivity, was an entirely fitting recipient of the player-of-the-match award in East London for his memorable last two overs - including the all-important 20th - as the pretty inexperienced national team pluckily edged out a more proven England line-up on paper by one run to take a 1-0 lead in the three-game series.

As had happened in the Pink Day ODI at the Wanderers over the weekend, where the tourists emerged victorious, Ngidi received some heavy punishment in his initial involvement in the attack, looking a little more like a Boeing 747 being towed inelegantly from the hangar than one summoning thrust for the majesty of take-off.

The Bullring had been especially humiliating in his first two overs, Jonny Bairstow the main assailant as the Durban-born player disappeared for 29 runs; in the latest, more abbreviated white-ball contest his first pair yielded a nearly as ominous 20.

Yet in each case, his later “bounce-back” spells offered almost complete reversals of fortune.

Even if turning around the Johannesburg match (which saw the ODI series split 1-1) was always going to be too tall an order, Ngidi had already won back some doubters then by ensuring that his last four overs – from an unflattering situation of 5-0-52-0 – had conceded only 11 runs and seen him snare three consolation scalps.

A final analysis of 9-2-63-3 had once threatened to be an awful lot worse.

In East London, the scenario was incredibly similar, as the former Hilton schoolboy, again struggling to really hit the bat-handle hard initially, this time turned in a match-swaying closing brace of overs, going for only five runs in each and barely dishing out a bad delivery as he picked up the wickets in the process of Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Tom Curran.

He used cutters to great effect on a surface that made variation an absolute must, and particularly impressive was how few times he served up balls that batsmen would genuinely be able to get underneath in the tense English chase.

The tourists were probably still slight favourites at the advent of Ngidi’s pivotal final over of the match, remember, requiring seven runs for victory with four wickets available to them and a few decent hitters by reputation still in the bank for good measure.

But he displayed masterful control, not giving England a single boundary as the local public went into raptures about the sometimes unlikely-looking Proteas triumph.

As much as the player himself warranted kudos for his coolness in “death” bowling circumstances – something that will have ticked boxes very firmly in his favour ahead of the ICC T20 World Cup in Australia in a few months’ time – the team’s brains trust deserve praise for keeping faith in him: they picked a debatably bowler-heavy XI on Wednesday, and had they opted to instead trim the tally by one, Ngidi would have been a seriously at-risk customer for the chop, you’d think.

This showing of 3/30 was his second-best haul in his career tally of eight T20 internationals, beaten only by the 4/19 he picked up against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers in his second appearance in January 2017.

Further work is required to ensure that he hits the ground more noticeably running in his next few white-ball matches for the Proteas, but at least Quinton de Kock is increasingly aware of who to confidently call on for bowling duties at the frenzied finish …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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