From an orphanage to Lord's

Published : Aug 30, 2003 00:00 IST

Murder, domestic violence, police brutality. South African Dewald Pretorius tells NEIL MANTHORP how he turned a living nightmare into a dream come true.

IN 119 years of Test cricket at Lord's, few men will have travelled a bumpier road to the home of the game than South African fast bowler Dewald Pretorius. Englishmen rightly marvelled at Makhaya Ntini's passage from cattle herder to honours board on the first day of this Test, but they probably had no idea that Ntini's journey was lined with velvet compared to that of the Afrikaans boy from the dusty Free State town of Kroonstad.

He emerged from an orphanage to fight and claw his way to the top, but it is all too easy to categorise his story in the `romantic novel' section of our brains. Perhaps, now that he is successful and an inspiration, that is where the story could be best kept, but the stark details are too astonishing to ignore.

Pretorius' mother, Alba, came from a successful family but became pregnant with Dewald by a man who immediately abandoned her. "He worked on the railways and already had a girlfriend in a different town. He was gone," Pretorius says passively.

Mother and son returned to the family home but her poor choice in men resulted in marriage, forced by a second pregnancy, to a man called Markus Killian. The next 12 years were filled with misery for Dewald and his younger brother, Sakkie. "He never wanted to marry my mother and he hated us. When I say he beat us, I mean he really, really beat us. We kept running away but there was nowhere to go. I'll never, ever forget that feeling of sickness and terror we had in the bottom of our stomachs when we saw him coming home. We were naughty boys, no doubt, but we didn't deserve what he did to us. Nobody deserved that."

A promotion for Killian resulted in the family being transferred to the Natal town of Pietermaritzburg, just 50 miles from the city of Durban. It was the downside of city life that gave Dewald his first taste of freedom. "He was murdered by four muggers in Durban, they stabbed him to death for a hundred bucks." Pretorius speaks slowly, aware of how his next comment might look in print. "It was the happiest day of my life. I hated him with a passion. I'm sorry, but I was so happy."

But the nightmare was not at an end. Alba returned with her two sons and two daughters to her parents in Kroonstad but a couple of months later the children's grandfather died and the boys' lack of discipline deteriorated further. "Sakkie was sent to a Boys' Town detention centre and my grandmother put me in a hostel because my mother wasn't coping. But soon after that a welfare doctor arrived to examine me and I was terrified — I didn't know who she was so I ran away, again."

It must be remembered what kind of society South Africa was in the Eighties. Apartheid's legacy is one thing, but in many instances the regime dehumanised its enforcers more than its victims. Nonetheless, what happened next to Pretorius almost defies belief.

"Two policemen came into the classroom and grabbed me, one on each arm," he recalled. "They told me they had guns and would kill me if I tried to run away. They took me outside and put me in the back of a police van and drove out of town. As we were driving away we passed my mother in the street. She hadn't been told I was being taken away. I was crying out for her through the bars, trying to call for her. Then she just sat down and cried." That was the last he saw of her for five months. He was just 13.

"They took me to a place they called `Place of Safety' in Bloemfontein. They shouldn't call it that. There were druggies, murderers, prostitutes. Everything. Terrible things happened there. You don't want to know," he says with still eyes. And he's right.

After seven months Pretorius could have returned home but Alba felt a transfer to an orphanage would be in her son's best interests. She simply could not cope. Alone, afraid and feeling abandoned, the young Dewald discovered cricket. Or rather, it discovered him.

"One day the teacher, Hannetjie Hendricks, and some other kids were playing cricket. They said `come and play — have a bowl.' I wasn't interested. I didn't know the game. But I bowled a ball and suddenly there was a look on her face I had never seen before. I just bowled quicker than anyone else, it was natural."

But it wasn't the game itself that kept him interested, it was a little simpler than that: "I was able to stay outside, under the blue sky. I did anything to keep out of the orphanage." His skill with a ball, however, brought him into contact with emotions he had never previously experienced: affection, respect, self-belief and even just plain friendship.

Through his teenage years he developed a desire to succeed. Ambition was something new to him but he embraced it. One day Dewald and some of his colleagues from the orphanage were taken to watch a Free State match at Springbok Park. "I told them I would play for Free State one day, that I would have a shirt with my name on the back. They just laughed at me. They all thought I was mad."

Undeterred by the prospect of rejection, Pretorius gave up his first job after leaving the orphanage and walked into the Free State offices: "I told them I would do anything, and I meant anything. So they let me stay in a room and I helped the groundstaff. But what I really loved was being allowed to bowl at the Free State guys during net practice. They smashed me everywhere, no sympathy. But I kept coming back for more."

Corrie van Zyl, currently South Africa's assistant coach, was player-coach at the union when Pretorius arrived. "I asked him if I could have a ball and he gave me one. I went to the nets at a local school and bowled for two hours a day, every day. Just me and the stumps — I was going to get better, I was determined.

"Ten days later I went back to Corrie and asked for another ball. He asked what had happened to the first one and I told him it had fallen to pieces. He gave me another one, and another one after that."

His achievements on the way to a Test cap were all marked by a debilitating attack of nerves but quickly repaired with success. "I was belted on my Second XI debut but took five wickets in the next match. On my first-class debut againt the touring Pakistanis in 1997, I started with a wide and a no ball and then trapped Aamir Sohail lbw with the eighth ball of the over. I couldn't stop shaking and smiling at the same time."

On his Test debut against Australia two years ago the nerves once again overwhelmed him, as did Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. But he found himself gradually relaxing during his second Test, at Edgbaston against England and now believes he can become as well adjusted to his career as he has to his life.

"Of course, you can want something too much, and maybe that was the case with me. I wanted it so much I couldn't quite handle it when I got it. But there are no more days left that will be too big for me. I have played a Test match at Lord's. There are many things that I want to achieve in cricket but my dream has come true. I can stop dreaming now."

Everyone does not live happily ever after in this dream, however. Despite his greatest efforts to help his mother and brother into his new world, he has now cut all ties with both of them.

"There is only so much you can do, only so much money you can keep giving. My mother is living with another waster and my brother is basically a hobo, a drifter. When they show me they want to be helped, I'll be there. But for now we have made our choices."

Pretorius returns to the orphanage as often as possible with one simple message to the children: "I tell them it doesn't matter where they come form, it matters only where they are going. I tell them never, ever to use the orphanage as an excuse for failure because you can be whatever you want if you are determined enough."

Dewald Pretorius is proof of that.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003

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