Andile Phehlukwayo is impressing with the national team in a World Cup year. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix
Back in 2017, Andile Phehlukwayo was but a travelling spectator in the Proteas squad for the ICC Champions Trophy. By most measures, he was still a scholar, learning the crafts and skills required for the highest level of the game.

Sure, he could bunt a ball to all parts, as he had done alongside David Miller in a memorable chase against Australia in 2016 . He had done a similar job playing with the then-captain AB de Villiers against New Zealand, as they built up the Champions Trophy.

But, he was young, and the comfort of consistent runs was not yet his. He was still prone to errors of judgment, and his range of scoring shots was not as extensive as he might have hoped. On that premise, then, he was more a bowling all-rounder, than he was a batting one.

That meant he had slipped into a densely populated pool, including Dwaine Pretorius and Chris Morris, to name but a few. They were all looking for a bit more assurance with the bat, and the carrot dangled in front of them was a place in seventh heaven; they would be the conduit between the middle-order and the tail.

A key component of the job was the ability to soak up pressure, and see the side home from a position of, say, needing 100 to win off 20 overs.

Modern one-day cricket has seen an increase in the urgency of top-orders. There is a craving for massive totals, as chasing teams are no longer fearful of targets that stretch out beyond 350. The 438 effect, perhaps.

Accordingly, then, the man playing in seventh heaven has to be able to adapt to many circumstances.

Phehlukwayo, for all his raw power, had to add subtlety to his game, showing the nous to confront and repel spinners in the middle overs.

He was challenged by his coaching team at national level, along with others in that selection pool, to get better. Get more consistent.

Get more dependable.

He went back to the Dolphins, and produced a fine half-century against the Lions, as his skipper Khaya Zondo made a century.

He worked extensively with Proteas batting coach Dale Benkenstein, who has been very hands on with his protégé. Match scenarios are set within bet sessions, designed to as closely replicate what he is likely to go through out in the middle.

A lot of patience has been invested into Phehlukwayo, because the 22- year-old Glenwood product has always shown an ability to handle pressure.

In South African cricket, that ability is rare. It is one especially craved in must-win matches, and one whose lack of has cost the national team dearly. Lines have been fluffed, trophies left a begging.

In his corner, he has two references whose own ice-cool credentials are lauded around the world.

Kevin Pietersen, of England and Natal game and infamy, took one look at Phehlukwayo during a stint at the Dolphins. Immediately, he concluded that this gifted youngster was the stuff of true potential.

They would often share boundary-clearing exercises in the middle of Kingsmead, trying to locate the deepest stands for fun. “He is not scared. Bat or ball, he wants to be the guy in the big moments. I like that,” Pietersen opined.

In a similar vein, Dwayne Bravo saluted the youngster’s knack of hitting the spot with a variety of slower balls, regardless of who was 22 yards away.

His former minder Lance Klusener is yet another. The man known as ‘Zulu’ put an arm around his young charge, and dared him to be more.

All three of those names have seen something on him, and so too has Ottis Gibson. The batting, though, has been erratic.

Not enough to sleep easy on the eve of a World Cup semi-final, say.

Phehlukwayo has admonished himself, cursing his poor returns. He knew he had to get better, because it takes something truly special to be an out and out bowler on the Proteas list these days.

Messrs Rabada, Steyn, Ngidi and Tahir have those spots sewn up. Faster, fiercer, and fantastically gifted, it is a pack that already has a waiting list.

So, given his inclination for 130km/* offerings, the batting is a non-negotiable for Phehlukwayo.

The knock against Pakistan, then, when he won the second ODI with Rassie van der Dussen, was pivotal in its own way.

It was that typical situation, with around 100 needed, and half the batting card gone. At that point, the game could have gone either way.

Phehlukwayo beamed his way into the press box, ecstatic that his maiden half-century in SA colours had contributed handsomely.

But, there is a need for more. A lot more.

He knows that runs have to come on a regular basis, whether he is flashing a quick 30 with David Miller at the death, or nursing the tail home under pressure.

It is an essential part of the job.

More than all that, however, Phehlukwayo knows what he did in 2017. He knows he went and watched his mates play game after game, and he had to content himself that time was on his side. He had to work hard at practice, then watch others get ready for the actual game.

He had the bright lights of London all around him, but no stage.

Now, just two years later, the lights of the ultimate stage will burn down on him, demanding that he do what he has been preparing to do for the last few years.

He will have to win matches for his country, and do it more than once. He will have to be their slice of seventh heaven, and do so under the harshest pressure.

School, then, is officially out. Come May and the World Cup, Andile Phehlukwayo will have to step put of the shadows, and into the light.

Those who know him reckon he will be ready.

@whamzam17


Independent on Saturday

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