Originally published on DV Mace’s Smorgasbord of Sport, 15-Oct-2014.
When one thinks of the greatest South African fast bowlers since readmission, it’s easy to think of those who performed shining feats on the international stage: Donald, Pollock, Ntini, Steyn, Morkel, even Philander.
However, I was lucky enough to interview one of the best South African pacers from the last couple of decades in the two-Test Charl Willoughby.
An undoubtedly brilliant cricketer, he never had a fully-fledged opportunity in international cricket.
When we debate the merits of cricketers, we always seem to begin with stats. As such, to back up my assertion of Willoughby’s quality, here are a few numbers: 848 First Class wickets, at an average under 26; 347 wickets for Somerset; 456 First Class wickets for various South African domestic sides; another 255 wickets in List A cricket; combined with another 71 in Twenty20 cricket, at an average of 24.
As the figures show, Willoughby’s class is undeniable.
But stats aren’t the be-all and end-all, and Willoughby offered up some fascinating insights into his cricketing career; from start to finish.
I started by discussing the early days of Willoughby’s cricketing life. While today’s youngsters have had the greats like Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn, Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher to look up to, Willoughby grew up at a time when South Africa was still banished from international cricket.
Nonetheless, one of Willoughby’s childhood heroes was the Pakistani great Wasim Akram. His other was Stephen Jefferies, a fantastic South African cricketer, who made over 3800 First Class runs and took 478 wickets, being one of the great South Africans of the ‘apartheid’ era.
Willoughby went to Wynberg Boy’s High School – which, as the name implies, was an all-boy school. There, Willoughby says, “cricket was always high on the agenda”.
At school, he played alongside Jacques Kallis. Even at that age, Willoughby told me, Kallis had an “awesome batting technique”. However, rather than hooping out-swing in the late-130s and early-140s, in those days Kallis bowled “very gentle mediums”.
Willoughby’s affiliation with the domestic scene started at the age of 19 in 1994, first with a couple of one dayers, followed very quickly by a First Class debut. It was not something he was expecting however: he was at University studying to be an accountant when he got the call-up.
He wasn’t intending on a career as a cricketer, so “[i]t was all a bit of a shock”.
And he hit the ground running – he soon played a game for Boland against the touring Englishmen. Did he learn much from bowling to the likes of Hick and Atherton? Willoughby sums it up – “didn’t learn much from it. Just tried to bowl as fast as I could back then. No skills haha.”
He openly admits that early on he wasn’t as smart a bowler as he ended up, and it wasn’t until he was taken on by two great South African cricketers that he started to develop.
“I wanted to be a tearaway fast bowler but Clive Rice and Hylton Ackerman snr suggested I should learn to swing it, Ricey taught me how and Hylton taught me to understand a batsman’s psyche at the academy in 1998 and things changed for me. Prior to that in the 4 seasons I played I had only taken 47 wickets.”
As far as mentors go, Clive Rice and the late Hylton Ackerman were certainly top notch. And in late 1998, he was selected for South Africa A against the West Indians. This is what he had to say on his representative selections that year: “Once I learnt to swing it with control things improved and because I still had decent pace then (24 years old) it was a natural progression. I started taking wickets regularly with in-swing and selectors started noticing.”
In March 2000, his career took its first real leap – making his ODI debut against Pakistan, playing in the UAE. While regular captain Hansie Cronje missed that game of the tournament, he was nonetheless impressed with what he saw.
Willoughby, who was “nervous to start, but settled quickly”, was told by Cronje that he would be part of the squad to play Australia when they got home. However, Cronje (for reasons we all know) never played for South Africa again, and the selectors opted for Roger Telemachus instead.
Because of Cronje’s words, and because he believed he’d performed decently, Willoughby was “shocked to be left out” after that tour.
Instead, he went on the tour to the West Indies with the A side. “I performed reasonably well on that tour and kept developing my game, Hylton was my mentor and guided me along the way. He was coach of the tour so it was good to have him close by. He felt I should tour there with the national team after that tour but it wasn’t to be.”
I only discussed international cricket once more with Willoughby, mentioning his brief Test career. Between 1998/99 and 2006/07, in the seasonal First Class wicket tallies in South Africa, Willoughby was not once outside of the top ten – his worst being ninth. And this while playing in County Cricket the rest of the year.
Is he disappointed he was not afforded further Test berths?
“I performed consistently in domestic cricket for 6 consecutive seasons in SA and was always top wicket taker in the 4 day comp but never got more chances. It was circumstances out of my control but glad I ran the race.”
It seems to be a recurring theme with Willoughby – he’s proud of his achievements, but never boastful. He’s respectful of the game, and doesn’t blow his own trumpet like so many other cricketers have a tendency to do. “Glad I ran the race” seems a fitting quote from the man.
Indeed, when I asked him about whether he remembers his cricket in South Africa or England more fondly, he responded “Both really, every moment I walked onto a cricket field was like a dream come true.”
It was in England, however, where he made a name for himself. First playing club and Minor Counties (for Berkshire) in the British Isles in the early 1990s, he represented the MCC in the early 2000s, and finally made it into the County scene with Leicestershire in 2005. How did that come about?
“HD Ackerman was captain of Leicester and he was my captain at Western Province. He knew me as a person and a bowler. He felt I would do well in County cricket and got me the job at Leics. I didn’t do that well with the red ball that season but had a really good one day season. I bowled Somerset out by taking 6/16 against them and this led to their interest in me. County cricket was awesome. Tough physically and tough mentally but it was a new challenge and I loved it.”
So how did that move to Somerset come about?
“Brian Rose signed me after a recommendation from Graeme Smith, we played and lived together when at Western Province. He felt I would perform on the flat Taunton wickets because of my swing and ability to bowl loads of overs.”
He ended up taking 347 First Class wickets for Somerset, in a glorious career. His success was made all the more remarkable in the face of some of the horrendously batsman-friendly Taunton wickets he bowled on. Even he concedes that he did well for the club.
“Ja I did well in the 4 day stuff for them and broke Garner’s record for the club, something that became my goal when I used to see his record every day on a board at the ground.”
With Somerset, however, he never won a first-division trophy. When I asked what he considered his greatest successes with the side, he didn’t think about personal feats, but instead mentioned the 2007 Division Two County Championship title, the 2009 County Championship season (when Somerset came equal first on points, but lost the title to Notts due to them having one more victory), and the team going to India for the Champions League T20 in the same year.
Is he proud of all that he achieved in the great game?
“Definitely, especially as I had no intention of being a cricketer and to open the bowling for 21 seasons takes some going. I am proud of what I achieved but never took it for granted.”
Outside of his career, I asked Willoughby if he believed Kolpak players were good for the English game. He was one himself, and with the flak they’ve received over the years, I figured it would be good to get the opinion of one of the players themselves.
“It was only a good thing if the players performed and did not keep a local player out of the team that was performing. If there weren’t any locals that were up to scratch then a good thing, but too many in a team wasn’t a good thing. I was scathed when I first arrived as a Kolpak but performed and become accepted.”
The other slightly controversial topic I touched on was that of South Africa’s reputation for violence. I asked whether he felt the country was dangerous for both players and tourists (but mainly the latter) to visit. His views are particularly worthwhile, given that he was one of those at the end of the infamous Nandos robbery at gunpoint back in 2007. So is South Africa dangerous to tour?
“Not really, they should adhere to team protocols and not venture off without letting anyone know. You can get into trouble in SA but if those touring are sensible then they are fine.”
Finally, to finish off, I asked Willoughby a handful of quickfire questions on a variety of different matters.
Best South African fast bowler since readmission? “Steyn.”
It’s a common debate at the moment: Steyn vs Anderson? “Steyn.”
Captain Cook – should he stay or be sacked? “Stay.”
Either way, who should open with him? Robson, Carberry, your Somerset teammate Compton, or someone else? “Compton or Carberry.”
KP; in or out? “In.”
Willoughby’s five international games accrued exactly zero runs, so I had to ask: Could you have batted better than the Indians this last Test series? “No.”
Would he have had Hashim Amla as South African Test captain? “No.”
Who was the best batsman you ever bowled to? “Ramprakash, Kallis, Ponting, Lara, Tendulkar and on one particular day David Sales.”
And finally, South African biltong or an English curry? “Curry extra hot please!”