Brett Schultz, Mfuneko Ngam: Strike bowling's too-fleeting fireballs

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - 28 October 2004, Mfuneko
Mfuneko Ngam (Gallo Images)
  • Just 12 SA Tests … but still an eye-catching combined tally of 48 wickets for Messrs Schultz and Ngam.
  • Schultz was never subtle, but his pure relish and full-bloodedness made him lethal.
  • Ngam’s humility and amazing dedication to his trade made it especially cruel that it all ended so early for him.

They were born only some 90 kilometres apart in the Eastern Cape … so you could run the distance if you were a Comrades-standard marathoner.

Brett Schultz came into the world in the better-known metropolis of East London, whereas Mfuneko Ngam did so in the sleepier “dorpie” of Middledrift, formerly part of the Ciskei, to the north-west of it.

Between them, and a few years apart, they all too fleetingly enriched the Test cricket scene as pace terrorisers for South Africa.

Enriched? Perhaps that word that can be employed a little too extravagantly at times … but it is entirely fitting in the case of each pace bowler.

For if you place their statistics in the coveted five-day arena together, those numbers jump out at you, all right.

With nine to Schultz and an even more economical three to Ngam, they accounted for a simultaneously thrilling but also seriously deflating mere dozen Test appearances on the country’s post-isolation tapestry.

Yet those 12 matches saw them post a combined 48 scalps at an average of 18.71: it is unquestionably premier-league stuff.

Call it a hugely engrossing, two-part short film … when what we really all yearned for was an epic.

Just imagine if the pair had NOT been cruelly afflicted - near-constantly dogged, more accurately - by injuries?

The irony is that their builds and bowling actions were light years apart, while it is stating the obvious that their baby steps on the planet, each in deep apartheid times, came with widely varying degrees of privilege/impediments.

Schultz was first on the scene.

Stories gradually filtered nationwide from the Eastern Cape that, in his advanced schoolboy years – rugby was an initially bigger passion - at Kingswood College in Grahamstown and then at UPE, an unusually heftily-built left-arm speedster with an intimidatingly high, slingshot action was causing life-preservation consternation to batsmen even of sound technique and usually plucky survival instincts.

It was almost inevitable that the 100kg phenomenon (a combination of his largely natural tonnage, the lofty action and his innate desire to bowl as swiftly as possible most of the time was always going to spell trouble for his knees) would find a place in the plans of Kepler Wessels and his increasingly competitive Eastern Province team.

While St George’s Park was a renowned featherbed, it often enough had up-and-down tendencies as first-class matches developed, not to mention a habit (like Newlands further down the coast) of “juicing up” under floodlights in the halcyon days of the wildly popular Benson & Hedges night series.

A personal, indelible image - as a WP-tracking domestic cricket writer of the late 1980s and early ‘90s - was of night series derbies at the venue, and especially if EP were in the field after the dinner break.

With truculent Australian Rod McCurdy steaming in from the Park Drive End and Schultz from the Duckpond one to begin the barrage, it was truly like watching a small but earnest herd of bison on the stampede ... and you needed some balls as a WP (or any other visiting) opener.

Subtlety? For those first 10 overs or so, you got none of that from the bowling side; it was all Jeff Thomson-like testosterone in the lingering braai smoke.

Every now and then, given the essential nastiness he was comfortably able to muster, a Schultz bouncer might fly well above the head of gloveman Dave Richardson and thud noisily into the boundary board immediately beneath the press box.

While he made his debut for the national cause against India at Kingsmead in November 1992, the one - and only - series involving more than one Test the “Bear” played, against Sri Lanka on their own supposedly benign surfaces in 1993, would also prove easily his finest.

As if to confirm that pace through the air could be a major counter to the challenges of a sluggish pitch, Schultz put an enormous stamp on South Africa’s historic first visit to the Spice Island, just some two years since their acceptance back from isolation.

Combining lethally with the more experience, right-arm “White Lightning”, Allan Donald, the southpaw earned player of the series in a 1-0 triumph - two draws - for the visitors against the Arjuna Ranatunga-led hosts.

In short, Schultz got among the wickets in all three Tests, and almost every innings, as he boasted a 20-strong harvest: 4/75 and 2/82 at Moratuwa, 5/48 and 4/58 at Colombo SSC (the SA win, by an innings) and 5/63 at Colombo PSS.

A tribute to his effectiveness and enduring hostility in conditions far from tailormade for his trade was that in the pivotal middle Test, main South African spinner Pat Symcox was only required to bowl three overs across the two ‘Lankan innings – whereas Muttiah Muralitharan sent down a marathon 54 of them, for a hard-earned five-wicket haul, in the lone required SA innings of 495.

It seemed the take-off of a lucrative career for Schultz beneath an SA cap: instead, visits to operating theatres were more common than further appearances as he managed no more than two further Tests in the 1995 calendar year and another brace in 1997 before admitting bodily defeat after umpteen surgeries.

He would get just one crack at arch-southern foes Australia, albeit showing his clout in thin-air Highveld conditions with a match return of 6/91 at Centurion in late summer of 1996/97 in a consolation, dead-rubber SA triumph as they succumbed to Mark Taylor’s Baggy Greens by a 2-1 margin (Schultz side-lined for the crucial earlier part of bilateral hostilities).

“I never really had a career ... I feel I missed out because of the injuries ... perhaps I was just too busy being Brett,” the player told in an honest, mildly self-berating 2017 interview (big-personality Schultz, who turns 50 in August, always liked the gregarious, after-hours side of sport).

Three years onward from Schultz’s final match for the country, a notable new case of “what might have been” - though we didn’t know it at the time of his introduction, of course - would come to the fore in South Africa.

The wittily nicknamed “Chew” Ngam was the stark antithesis of Schultz in run-up and action.

If you were a bowler’s end umpire, for example, you would almost certainly have heard and “felt” Schultz thumping his way energetically toward the crease.

With the leaner, light-on-his feet Ngam it was more profoundly a case of being SA’s version of Michael “Whispering Death” Holding: all gracefulness and the very smoothest, most rhythmical of hallmarks in his delivery.

It was appallingly ironic, then, that an action seemingly so conducive to longevity in the game wasn’t to prove nearly enough to seal that scenario for a likeable, by all accounts intensely humble young man.

Instead the Proteas would only see a trio of Test caps go the way of the then 21-year-old - and all in the space of around a month from early December 2000, before the scourge of repeated leg or back stress fractures came home to roost so lamentably.

But what an uplifting few weeks, seemingly so stacked with potential, it was.

That was despite, too, the considerable intrusion of rain (a harbinger of the heavy weather to come for Ngam personally, maybe?) in each of his first two appearances for the national team.

Three full days were lost to the elements on his debut against New Zealand at the Wanderers, ensuring a tame draw after the host nation had already wrapped up the series 2-0.

But there was still room enough for the fresh-faced Ngam to show his mettle in the Black Caps’ lone innings of 200.

Aren’t rookie speedsters usually as loose as they endeavour to be fast? The first-timer bucked that hallmark with exemplary figures of 19-8-34-2, including the scalps of Mark Richardson and Daryl Tuffey.

In another weather-affected stalemate, against Sri Lanka at Kingsmead in the Boxing Day Test, Ngam’s growth continued as he registered 2/59 and 2/34.

But what would inexplicably prove his last Test match was also his most glowing: anyone who was at Newlands for the blue-chip New Year fixture with the same foes could vouch for that, as Ngam oozed hostility and penetrative qualities almost unerringly.

The game (South Africa prevailed by an innings and plenty) was striking for the visitors quickly being skittled for 95, and that after them winning the toss.

Shaun Pollock was the assassin-in-chief that day (6/30) but he had a barely less predatory sidekick in Ngam, who grabbed 3/26 and then a follow-up 3/36 in Sri Lanka’s only barely more respectable second turn at the crease.

The EP man accounted for the prize wicket of Kumar Sangakkara each time, into the bargain.

Ngam (currently 41) would soldier on whenever possible in first-class cricket until February 2007, but constant injury interruptions - some sports scientists believe dietary deficiencies in his early life played a part in the brittleness of his bones - meant he never graced the loftiest stage again.

He so clearly deserved better: in a major Ngam feature on my watch as editor of SA Sports Illustrated in that 2000/01 summer, his then franchise coach and isiXhosa-fluent Adrian Birrell had enthused about Ngam’s deep-rooted devotion to cricketing improvement.

“Gummy’s one of the most self-made, self-taught cricketers I know,” he told Neil Manthorp for the publication. “He used to bowl for hours and hours at a single stump at Motherwell Cricket Club … hours and hours into the night, when everyone had gone home.

“We offered to give him a cell-phone six months before he got one and he refused, saying he was not ready for one. It’s the same with a car -- he still relies on the local taxi system to come to practice despite the fact that we have said he can have a vehicle as soon as he gets a licence. He’s just in no hurry.

“There is absolutely no ugliness in the man at all; he’s one of the gentlest, most sincere, humble guys I’ve ever worked with ... a treasure.”

What sort of statistics might Schultz and Ngam have posted if they’d earned roughly as many Test caps as, for instance, more fortunate Proteas head-hunting icons Dale Steyn (93) and Makhaya Ntini (101)?

All you can do, regrettably, is speculate …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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