Retro Sport with Roger Mann: Hard work conquers everything!

Torquay Cricket Club 1992 - Fanie is third from the left seated

Torquay Cricket Club 1992 - Fanie is third from the left seated - Credit: Submitted

Last week I wrote about how deflating sport can be. But that is just one side of the coin... here is a tale that warms my heart every time I tell it.

Being a senior cricket coach, and having two spare flats in our house, my wife and I hosted 46 young overseas cricketers, each summer, over a 20-year period from 1984.

They would work each morning, and then build on their cricket skills in the afternoons.

In 1992, we had invited Mike Gerits, a 17-year-old Australian, and an 18-year-old Pakistani, to spend a summer of cricket with us. When the Pakistani cancelled, we were looking around for a late replacement.

By pure chance, I happened to read about a 27-year-old South African professional who was recovering from back surgery, a knee problem, and a broken toe.

Fanie de Villiers’s provincial contract had not been renewed and his doctors had told him that his career was, almost certainly, over.

“Hard work conquers everything,” he told the magazine, and he was now looking for the chance to prove it.

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To this day, I have no idea why I invited him to England, but, perhaps fate had willed it to be!

Mike arrived first, and turned out to be a very shy, tall, fair-haired lad.

When Fanie arrived, with his wife and one-month-old child, Mike was visibly trembling as they shook hands!

“I hear you’re a batsman, Mike!” said Fanie, wrapping him in a bear hug.

“Well! I’m a bowler and, this summer, I want you to teach me to bat... is that a deal?”

The ice was broken, Mike grinned, and they became instant pals!

That summer was a joy, and at 6am every day, the two lads would run up and down the hills near our house, before starting work.

We installed an exercise bike, and they both committed to a punishing fitness programme.

Each day, Fanie grew stronger, and began to take wickets again, at Torquay Cricket Club, while Mike’s batting was improving beyond recognition.

When September came, there were tears as we all said our goodbyes, promising to meet again, but knowing that we probably never would!

Just as he had promised, Fanie healed his body, and, amazingly, within a year, had achieved his ambition of playing for South Africa.

Fast forward now to a freezing cold midnight on January 6, 1994.

I am putting on my dressing gown, turning on the television, and settling down to watch the last day of the 2nd Test between Australia and South Africa, at Sydney. Fanie’s rehab is now complete, and this is his second Test match.

He has taken four wickets in the first innings, but, now in their second innings, Australia need just a paltry 117 to win. It is considered such a formality that entrance into the ground is offered free of charge.

The innings begins and Fanie takes an early wicket, and then another! The score mounts to 63 for 5... surely the impossible can’t happen?

Amazingly, it does! Australia are dismissed for 112 and Fanie has taken 6 for 43!

He is ‘Man of the Match’, and I watch as his team lift him on to their shoulders and wave to the huge crowd. I can only guess how he was feeling at that moment.

As the team reach the gate to leave the field, Fanie dismounts and everyone files into the pavilion. Everyone that is, except Fanie!

The television camera follows him as he walks around the boundary fence, staring into the crowd.

“What is de Villiers doing now? Surely he’s going to celebrate with the others!” the commentator remarks.

At that moment Fanie stops, pulls off his shirt, and hurls it into the crowd. The camera follows it, and I watch as it lands into the arms of a grinning Mike Gerits!

For a few months, in the 1990s, Fanie was rated the world’s number one bowler, and our families have holidayed together, almost annually, since.

Mike Gerits achieved his ambition to play first class cricket, and earlier this year, his teenaged daughter, Jessie, left her Australian University with an honours degree.

He phoned us to say that she had landed a plum job, teaching at an English public school, near London, and asked if we could be her’“English anchors’ just as we were for him, 28 years ago.

So the world goes round, and, as we drive to London to meet her, next week, I will be thinking to myself: “Isn’t sport just so bloody marvellous?!”