Every revolution has its casualties. It is simply the nature of things.
For a long time Justin Ontong was South African cricket’s major victim of its transformation war - a struggle that continues until this very day.
It was Ontong who had to endure the first shots fired. It came from all areas when still two days shy of his 22nd birthday the young Bolander was selected to make his Test debut against the mighty Australians at the SCG in the 2002 New Year’s Test.
It certainly was a daunting task for the fresh-faced former Paarl Gym prodigy to face up to legends such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Steve Waugh in their own backyard after the Proteas had already been humiliated in the first two Tests, but even more so after it became public knowledge that Board president Percy Sonn had insisted on including Ontong ahead of his roommate Jacques Rudolph in the quest to advance transformation.
Sonn had made the right decision morally, but unfortunately Ontong at that fledgling stage of his career was not mentally equipped to deal with particularly the media fall-out, and ultimately his international career stalled.
Fifteen years have passed since that fateful decision and unfortunately for the now 37-year-old he never quite managed to forge a successful Proteas career despite consistently producing stellar seasons in both first-class and domestic limited-overs cricket.
“I won’t lie, it was quite hard to deal with as a young player. All you want to do is play for your country and do your best, so the situation was not ideal. And these things tend to stick with you throughout your career,” Ontong told Independent Media.
“But I definitely don’t have any regrets. Obviously I would have liked to play 50 Tests for South Africa, but I have this new opportunity and all I can do is give my best for my country.” It always seemed that Ontong just wanted someone to believe in him again. Someone to place their trust in him without any reservations - that one lucky break, almost like a second coming, for him to show off his undoubted ability.
With all the T20 franchise leagues popping up around the world, Ontong, who has always been the complete limited-overs package due to his positive batting style, off-spin bowling and electrifying fielding, even hoped that if it was not to be in the green and gold of his country on the internationals stage, then the colours of any global franchise would do.
But even those lights were never turned on; it was a great disappointment when he was forced to withdraw from the Caribbean Premier League two years ago with a knee injury after being picked up by the Barbados Tridents.
After all these setbacks, there was almost a sense of justice prevailing - Mother Cricket’s way of giving back to those who had served her with unflinching loyalty - when Ontong was recently appointed to Ottis Gibson’s coaching staff as the Proteas new fielding coach.
The now-husband and father, who has a far more rounded understanding of where cricket actually fits into his life, cannot hide his excitement though. “This is a chance of a lifetime, an early Christmas present, and I had to grab it with both hands,” Ontong said. “It is an enormous blessing to be back in the Proteas fold, although it is in a coaching capacity.”
A much-debated topic in SA cricket is that the national team coaches are not in touch in with the domestic franchise game. With Gibson being only the second foreign Proteas coach, it was important that his support staff had knowledge of what was happening “on the ground”.
There are few that know the circuit better than Ontong. Twenty years as a professional cricketer, which only drew to a close this month upon his Proteas appointment, Ontong certainly fits the mould. He even struck his final first-class century just a couple of months ago in the Sunfoil Series.
“I had another year or two of cricket left in me, but coaching is a fantastic opportunity. I would have been stupid not to take it as I was always looking to move into coaching.
“I have been working at the Cobras over the last couple of weeks in a coaching capacity and it is quite weird giving instructions instead of taking them on board. It is still all new me to but I have been given this opportunity now and I want to take full advantage. Hopefully I can be part of a management group that works all the way through to a successful 2019 World Cup campaign.”
Tests: 2 Runs: 57 HS: 32 Ave: 19.00
ODIs: 28 Runs: 184 HS: 32 Ave: 13.14
T20Is: 14 Runs: 158 HS: 48 Ave: 15.80
First-Class: 194 matches Runs: 11 933 HS: 225 Ave: 41.87 100s: 26 50s: 68