ICC Men’s U19 WC: South Africa’s Kwena Maphaka, the bowling prodigy destined for bigger things

All it took for South Africa’s Kwena Maphaka to stamp his presence at the ICC U19 Men’s Cricket World Cup 2024 was two balls. Off his second delivery in the tournament, he bowled a searing, in-swinging yorker that had West Indies opener Adrian Weir flummoxed.

All it took for South Africa’s Kwena Maphaka to stamp his presence at the ICC U19 Men’s Cricket World Cup 2024 was two balls. Off his second delivery in the tournament, he bowled a searing, in-swinging yorker that had West Indies opener Adrian Weir flummoxed.

What followed was an animated punch in the air and a big celebration -– quite in contrast to the very mellow one he had planned with his elder brother Tetelo. For a few seconds, Maphaka was drawn into the moment, the adrenaline rush getting the better of him. He would end the day with a five-wicket haul, a feat he would go on to achieve twice more in the next few weeks.

“That one [spell against West Indies] is probably closest to my heart,” Maphaka told ICC.

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“I just try to put out a good performance every game, but the West Indies one was the most memorable for me. It was the first game of the tournament, lots of nerves, a home World Cup, I thought my spell helped us get off to a really good start to the tournament…set the tone”

The tone was set the moment Maphaka’s sharp inswinger thudded into Weir’s boots. It was the culmination of what Maphaka considers the perfect plan –- getting the new ball to swing as much as he can, and surprise the batter.

Maphaka loves the inswinger. After his last Super Six game, the South African teenager, who’d cheekily said he hoped he was better than Jasprit Bumrah, watched the Indian quick’s unplayable yorker to Ollie Pope in the Test series in India.

“I think he had all three stumps uprooted. It’s amazing,” Maphaka said. The inswinger, he reveals, is his biggest weapon too. It is his staple delivery with a new ball, one he mastered alongside Shukri Conrad, the current South Africa Test team head coach.

Conrad’s first glimpse of Maphaka came at the Under-15 level when he was amazed by the left-arm pacer who swung the ball at lightning speed. When Conrad became the head coach of the South Africa U19 team ahead of the previous edition of the U19 Men’s CWC, Maphaka was called up into the setup. Under Conrad’s watchful eyes, the young tearaway honed his sharp inswinger.

Aged 16, Maphaka was taken to the West Indies event in 2022, more to help him gain experience in the environment and to shape him into the new-ball force that would spearhead the attack in the next edition.

However, he ended up playing and making quite an impression. In the current tournament, he has blossomed, his rapid development into one of the best fast bowlers in the competition a topic of conversation around the cricket world.

This isn’t new for Maphaka, though. He was always well ahead of his peer group in cricket. “My parents tell me I picked up a cricket ball when I was two years old, playing garden cricket with my brother,” he says.

“There were a lot of challenges in picking up cricket as a profession at such an early age. There’s the pressure of studies at school, the lure of other sports. I would also play hockey, rugby, tennis and athletics … but cricket is something I really enjoy and my passion for the sport has just driven me through all of the hurdles, distractions and other pitfalls.”

When he was young, it was all about pace for Maphaka. As he progressed, he picked up the finer skills of pace bowling, including his trademark inswinger and unplayable yorkers.

However, Maphaka maintains that his best quality is aggression – something characteristic of Kagiso Rabada too. Rabada and Maphaka came through the same school, St Stithians, and the duo possess very similar attributes.

“It [aggression] is something that comes very naturally for me,” says Maphaka. “I am a very competitive person at heart. I think it’s my biggest attribute. But to be compared with someone like KG [Rabada] is humbling.

“KG is an inspiration to a lot of people in South Africa and outside, just the way he’s gone about his cricket, the work he has done from such a young age. It’s something I am trying to take on board.”

As the young left-arm quick heads into the big semi-final against India, it’s hard not to draw parallels with the all-time great performance of Rabada in the 2014 edition of this tournament, at the very same stage a decade ago.

In the semi-finals of the 2014 edition in UAE, Rabada skittled out Australia for 150, taking a six-wicket haul that would put his team in the finals. It’s a match that Maphaka remembers vividly.

“His performance in the U19 World Cup, particularly the one against Australia in the semi-finals, where he took a six-wicket haul, has really inspired me to go on and put in a big performance for my team as well in the big games.”

Maphaka knows he is one of the top performers in the tournament. He stands atop the wickets table with 18 at an average of 9.55, including three five-wicket hauls, a feat not achieved by any other player in the history of the tournament.

“I know I am right up there with some of the best bowlers in the tournament,” he says. “Saumy Pandey from India, Callum Vidler from Australia, they have bowled really well. I wouldn’t say I am the best, but I’m up there.”

Maphaka is keen to point out that South Africa have had quite a few match-winners so far in the tournament.

From Steve Stolk to Dewan Marais, Tristan Luus, Riley Norton, and Maphaka himself, South Africa have had several individuals making a mark. “It’s good for us that we haven’t had just one [player] perform in the tournament,” Maphaka says. “We’ve had different guys putting in contributions. It means on any day, one can come in and put in a big performance. That’s what we really need in the semi-finals.”

WARNING FOR INDIA

India will know Maphaka is no easy bowler to face, not least when there are passionate fans egging him on from the stands. The crowd support for South Africa has been immense in the U19 MCWC. “They [fans] have come out in numbers to back us every single day, even on weekdays when the kids have school and the parents have work,” Maphaka says. “They have always turned up. And they will be there in huge numbers at the semi-finals in Benoni.”

The prospect of reaching the final is a big motivation for Maphaka as the semi-final looms. With fans supporting his every move, the belief is high. “Having the whole country come to back you would be truly insane,” he says. “The vibe is very different, you know [when the crowd’s behind you]. It’s something that pushes me.

“Playing away and being in a final might be special, but being at home, with the people that you know. They love you, they support you, they have helped you get to the position that you are in right now. There’s something different about that.”

India and South Africa are yet to face each other in the ongoing tournament, but the teams have history. They faced off in a couple of matches ahead of the tournament in the tri-series in South Africa where India beat them both times.

Will it make it any easier for the Indian batters to face Maphaka, having played him before recently? The fast bowler has a clear answer. “Usually, the more you face someone the more comfortable it gets, but I am going to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the Indian batters in the semi-finals,” Maphaka states emphatically.

It’s an ominous warning for the defending champions.

 (IANS)