Gerald Coetzee has always wanted to meet Dale Steyn but he never expected it to happen with the two at either end of the cricket pitch. On Coetzee's Mzansi Super League debut, with his team in trouble at 103 for 6 in the 14th over chasing 184, he found himself facing none other than his hero.
"It was, um… scary. Ja, scary," Coetzee said five days later. By then, life had moved on. He had already played another MSL match, and suffered an injury that could prove decisive in what is shaping up to be a breakthrough summer for him.
Coetzee turned 19 on October 2 and the following week made his first-class debut, at franchise level, bypassing the second-tier provincial system entirely. By the end of the month he had bowled more overs than anyone else in the franchise four-day cup and was third on the wicket-takers' list. He had also, through a chance encounter, managed to secure an MSL deal, which he thought he had no chance of getting when he wasn't considered in the draft in September.
"I had no expectations because I knew I hadn't been picked up," Coetzee said. "But then I was playing a four-day game against the Lions in Kimberley, and after the match their batting coach Justin [Sammons] and Rassie [van der Dussen] asked me if they could speak to me. They told me they thought I bowled really well and that Eathan Bosch was injured and asked if I would like to join them for the MSL."
It was a no-brainer, of course, but Coetzee thought he would be used in the nets, at best. Following Jozi Stars' losses in their first two matches, where they conceded over 160 both times, head coach Donovan Miller summoned Coetzee after breakfast last Thursday. "He told me I was going to play against the Blitz. I couldn't believe it. It was one of the most exciting things to have happened in my cricket career."
On his tournament debut, which was also only the fifth T20 match Coetzee had played in, he announced himself at first change with quick, aggressive bowling. He bounced out the opposition openers, one of whom happened to be Quinton de Kock. And of course, he has faced Steyn.
After being beaten by that first, "scary" delivery that shaped away outside off, Coetzee top-edged a pull and managed a single. His four runs in the match came in vain and the Jozi Stars were beaten, but he shone brightly. Although he is already being spoken about by those in the know, his performance in a televised match at a time when South Africa is looking for talent like his allowed him to enter the mainstream cricket conversation. Not that the man himself knows it yet. "If people are talking about me, then I guess it's cool," he said.
Yes, people are talking about the kid who became the first in four decades from his school, St Andrews in Bloemfontein, to earn national colours. Coetzee represented the South African Under-19 side in mid-2017. He was just 16 at the time, played in five matches against West Indies, then three against England in a triangular series also involving Namibia, and four games in the 2018 U-19 World Cup. In the last of those, his 5 for 32 against New Zealand caught the eye but his progress was somewhat stymied when he suffered an ankle injury that required surgery. He only made his comeback almost 18 months later, when South Africa's U-19 team played Pakistan in a home series this June.
South Africa lost that series 0-7, raising alarms about the quality of their player pipeline. Coetzee played down those worries, calling it "just one of those series". He also promised that he and everyone else involved have been working on their skills ahead of next year's U-19 World Cup, which will be played at home. South Africa will aim to make amends for their recent form in that tournament.
Coetzee for his part has made tweaks to his action that modify his release point and will hopefully reduce the risk of injury to his back. "There was a problem with my loading arm in that it was behind my head when I was releasing the ball," he said. "I thought it's better to fix that now than in a few years' time, when it becomes a problem. It involved a lot of repetition and drills and spending every day in the nets but I did it."
Former first-class bowler Dillon du Preez, who works with the Free State Academy, helped Coetzee with the technical side of the game, and Coetzee also spent time with Allan Donald, who joined the Knights for a month of pre-season build-up and gave advice on how to analyse batsmen. "He has such a good cricket brain and shared things like how to figure a batsman out from his stance," Coetzee said. "He is just a legend."
Others in that superstar category for Coetzee are Pat Cummins and Steyn, who he admires for their speed - which he too possesses. Coetzee bowled deliveries above 145kph in the MSL. He said pace is one thing he has never had a problem generating. "It's a god-given talent, I can't take much credit for that. Ever since I was young, I have always been quicker than the other kids my age. I have studied my action and people point things out and say, 'That's why you are quick,' but I don't see that."
Bowling that fast comes with its risks, though, mostly injury, and Coetzee has already had to deal with a few. Apart from the ankle injury, which came early in his career, he is currently nursing the hamstring niggle that came five balls into his second MSL match. At the time of this interview, he was not sure how serious the strain was or how long he might be sidelined for, but he was eager to get back into action for the Jozi Stars. "The team allowed me to play with freedom and no pressure. I didn't even feel like I needed to make a point," he said.
As South African cricket comes to grips with a spate of recent departures, including those of Kyle Abbott and Morne Morkel, who have gone Kolpak, and the Test retirement of Steyn, the hunt is on for someone to step up. Coetzee has all the ingredients to be that person. He even said so himself. "My goal is to be the best in the world. So whether it's this year, next year or in five years' time, I want to represent my country."