Johannesburg - Six months ago, Justin Ontong, at the ripe old age of 37, confessed that he still yearned to add to his two Proteas Test caps – the last of which was 13 years ago.
On Boxing Day, the first day of the one-off day/night Test against Zimbabwe, the former Cape Cobras captain begins life as part of Ottis Gibson’s support staff as fielding coach.
Quite how he went from feeling he still had a few years left in him as a player to having to retire to take up his new coaching post in the four-day Test against Zimbabwe, is one of those yarns that can only happen in sport.
Bolt from the blue
“It’s crazy, I still had dreams of representing South Africa as a player, but in sport you can’t plan too far ahead,” he tried to explain a few days ago.
“When this came along, I couldn’t turn it down – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. The good thing is that I’ll still be around the players. I’ll miss playing. I felt I still had a year or two to go, but coaching afterwards was always high on my priority list.
“So, when this came along, it made it easy for me to decide,” Ontong said.
Given that he was still playing when he got the call, the approach from Gibson was as much a bolt from the blue for him as it was for the rest of us.
“I spoke to Ottis before the Bangladesh series and he said he’d love for me to be involved, so he planted that seed while I was with the Cobras.
“I didn’t think too much of it, but after the series he called and asked me seriously if I could join his team – it was a no-brainer".
Ontong said Gibson may have crossed paths with him as a player in South Africa when he was starting out 20 years ago.
“He also told me he’s always followed my career, especially my fielding".
Ontong admitted to feeling the same excitement about joining the Proteas management team on Thursday as he did as a player all those years ago.
“It was still wonderful receiving all the clothing with the Protea badge,” he said.
However, he has a bigger motivation to do well as a coach.
When he made his debut against Australia in 2002, it was at the insistence of then United Cricket Board president Percy Sonn, who overruled the selectors’ choice of Jacques Rudolph on transformation grounds.
It was an incident blamed for scarring both players, something Ontong is keen to help avoid.
“Obviously, it was a big incident in my life and it had a big impact on my career,” said Ontong. “I’ve tried to put it in the past and look for positives out of it. I’ve always played cricket to be part of a team and make a contribution.
“I had to go through those growing pains for all of us to understand what we need to do as a country to make a difference".
Ontong addressed the fact that his lack of coaching experience would stick out like a sore thumb for most observers: “It’s obviously a challenge for me to start it at the top. My coaching experience is limited, but if you look around the world, sometimes the players want freshness and like to deal with people who have recently been there.
“I’ve always felt I could contribute when it comes to fielding. I’ve been around for 20 years and have always been recognised as a good fielder. I played with great fielders like Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs and I always picked up a few things".
With fielders such as AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and David Miller in the Proteas’ setup, Ontong doesn’t buy into the theory that South Africa’s fielding - formerly a strength – has become a weakness.
“We’ve had exceptional fielders in the past, but we’ve got some exceptional youngsters coming along. Aiden Markram is not only a good player with bat and ball, he’s also good in the field.
“AB is probably one of the top three fielders in the world and having guys like that in the team will be good because of the input they can make – we have to work hand in hand.
“We’ve got important series against India and Australia coming up and those could be decided in the field,” he said.