JOHANNESBURG - Gavin Hunt is seldom lost for words. But he was at the weekend when he watched Buhle Mkhwanazi, his stand-in captain in the absence of Thulani Hlatshwayo, finish 90 minutes, unscathed, for the first time in a top flight fixture since a ligament injury that kept him out for seven months.
And it wasn’t against just any opposition. Bidvest Wits had weathered a second half storm to narrowly beat Kaizer Chiefs 1-0 in the semi-final of the Telkom Knockout, defender Mkhwanazi knocking down a header from a free kick to set up striker James Keene for the solitary goal.
“Great,” was all the Wits coach could say, before using a few expletives in his reaction to how happy he was with Mkhwanazi’s performance.
The player himself had admitted how tough it was to watch from the sidelines since early May.
“The healing period was tough,” said Mkhwanazi. “The fact that we were not doing well (Wits’ poor start to this campaign) was affecting me somehow. I am happy that I am back and will try and help the team.”
The Clever Boys host another tough opponent on Tuesday night with Mamelodi Sundowns visiting Bidvest Stadium.
Coincidentally, it was in the corresponding fixture last season where Mkhwanazi suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury and was told he would have to undergo surgery and be sidelined for at least nine months.
“I was actually told I would have to wait a bit longer before I could play,” explained the former AmaTuks skipper, whose first game back was as a substitute against Baroka FC with a minute left from their 1-0 victory in the quarter-finals of the Telkom Knockout three weeks ago.
“But after just five months I could feel that I can run, do training drills and a whole lot of other things. The date they had put down was November 9.”
What was it like to be back on the pitch after more than half a year?
“Obviously there’s excitement and then there’s a bit of panic because you don’t know whether you will get injured again or go through the same pain again,” Mkhwanazi said.
“But since then I have felt sharp. I was also able to get a few friendlies under my belt and finished the games. But I know they are not as competitive as playing against Chiefs and Sundowns.”
With his strength and power, as well as the ability to push into the opposition box to give Wits an advantage when they have a set-piece, Mkhwanazi will certainly boost the Clever Boys in their title defence and they are perhaps even favourites now in the build-up to the Telkom Knockout final against Bloemfontein Celtic on December 2.
The player, however, has missed out on an opportunity to fight his way into the Bafana Bafana team that has also now failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup.
“You know, to be honest I think these things happen for a reason,” he reasoned. “My injury was a bad one, yes. But I feel I did my best in the previous season until I got hurt. I played really well, scored goals for the team, hence the Bafana coach did mention that he would have loved to have me in the team.
"Somehow I have the confidence to keep on going. It was a bad feeling to miss out on a few chances. I thought Bafana played well, but obviously the missed chances cost them. They are a good side with a lot of experience.”
There’s no doubt Mkhwanazi will be back in national team coach Stuart Baxter’s radar again ahead of the next set of qualifiers for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, but for now his focus is to help Wits build on the two back-to-back cup wins and claw their way up the Premier League table to give their title defence a real go, starting with Sundowns.
“I am relieved to be back, and I can see the club is also happy. I built a relationship with Tyson (captain Hlatshwayo, who is a doubt for the Sundowns game),” Mkhwanazi said.
“You need to understand each other when you play at the back. My injury came at the wrong time. People think I am the missing link. But to play centreback without a regular partner is difficult. That’s what hit our team badly. Hopefully I can motivate everyone to pick up our socks. These games are very exciting.”