‘I was very good at soccer. I think I could have played for Kaizer Chiefs if I didn’t stop,” says Aaron Phangiso. It is a line delivered in jest but, even so, knowing his toughness and competitive nature, you’re inclined to believe him.
Football was Phangiso’s first love. He played it as a kid on the streets and in the parks of Soshanguve. “I was playing centre-back for a team called Blizzards, one of the top teams in ‘Sosh’,” Phangiso recalls before relaying how his focus and love switched to a smaller and harder ball.
“They built a [cricket] stadium in ‘Sosh’ and the late Hansie [Cronjé], [Mark] Boucher, the whole South African side, came to the opening ceremony of the stadium and because of that the whole community was there. That’s when I actually started playing – I remember batting in the nets.
“From there it started growing, I was 11 or 12 and the next year I got a scholarship at CBC [Pretoria] and stopped playing soccer and concentrated on cricket.”
There may have been some inspirational words from Cronjé and Boucher, but the prospect of an education at a top school persuaded Phangiso’s father that the path for his son lay in bowling and batting, not kicking a ball.
“I loved soccer, but because there was a scholarship [attached to playing cricket]… soccer in the townships doesn’t offer such stuff.
“With a scholarship, you get to go to a private school and stuff, so my dad almost forced me, said I had to play the sport. But even if he didn’t force me, I think I would have still played, but maybe I wouldn’t have taken it as seriously as I did.
“A lot of guys that come from the townships love their soccer, on the weekend guys play street soccer.
“For me all of that had to change; from boarding school when I went home it was either books or I go to the nets. So soccer had to take a backseat.
“After a while I started to enjoy [cricket], the thing is when I got the scholarship I played cricket for one year, it wasn’t in the system as much as soccer which I’d been playing from when I was four or five years old, kicking a ball around. But from the second year on, it was just cricket, cricket, cricket.”
The Highveld Lions franchise are probably the most grateful for Phangiso’s decision to put football aside.
He has been their steadiest bowler in recent seasons and last summer was their star performer as they qualified for the final of the domestic MiWayT20, a match they eventually lost.
Still the Lions qualified for the Champions League – the second time in three years – providing Phangiso and his teammates with a global stage on which they could show off their skills.
There was lots of money involved, but also the opportunity to face the likes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Shane Watson, Virender Sehwag, Kevin Pietersen and the biggest star in cricket, Sachin Tendulkar.
“If you do well in the Champions League, it’s the next best thing after the World Cup.
“If you do well there, people are bound to notice because people watch more of the Champions League than our domestic league.”
Phangiso finished this year’s Champions League with 10 wickets – tied for the second-most wickets in the tournament at an excellent economy rate of 5.36.
But among all the fine spells and key wickets he took, it’s the first of those 10 that still stands out – his clean bowling of Tendulkar at the Wanderers in the Lions’ opening match against Mumbai Indians.
“I’ve just seen the highlights. It was alright,” he laughs about Tendulkar’s dismissal before explaining how his friends teased him in the days leading up to the match.
“There is no way you can’t be aware when you’re bowling to a guy like Sachin, but I remember two seasons ago when I was asked about Sachin and then he did hit me far. This time, I had nothing to lose. If he hits me again, a lot of people are expecting it.
“My friends actually said to me: ‘Ag, no, this guy is going to hit you again.’ When I got him out, in my celebration, I pointed to a group of my friends [in the stands] and in my head I was saying: ‘I showed you guys. No, second time around I was going to get him.’ I was very happy.”
That dismissal set the tone for the tournament for Phangiso, who until the final, as had been the case for the last three seasons, was the most dependable bowler.
“I try and control the middle period, not do anything special, I just did what I normally do.
“I know when I go and sleep that’s what I’ll be doing. It’s not that the captain will come to me the next day and toss me the ball and say ‘you’re opening the bowling’, because that will require a mindset change. I know where I stand in the team set-up.”
Despite the Lions’ heavy defeat in the final to Australia’s Sydney Sixers, Phangiso’s outstanding performances in the Champions League have put him squarely in the frame for a national call-up later this season.
“People tell you about IPL, or this or that but I don’t want to look too far ahead.
“I’ve played for SA ‘A’ and the next step is to represent the green and gold. It would be nice to get that recognition, to get that chance, you never know what might happen. You might do well or not, but at least you can gauge where you are with your cricket against the best.”
For now, he is growing accustomed to being recognised when he ventures to the shops and with trying to win the Lions franchise their first trophy in five years.
“Ja, it’s different now, you walk in the mall and there’ll be someone going ‘hey, look, there’s Phangiso’.
“I try to stay humble, but now it’s mixed feelings for me.
“When people acknowledge what you’re doing, you’re happy, but you don’t want to get a big head.”