The convincing nature of the Proteas 2-0 home series victory over Sri Lanka, might translate to it not living long in the memories of cricket lovers, however, those sentiments will definitely not be shared by one Lutho Sipamla, as the 22-year-old Port Elizabeth- born fast bowler had a memorable Test debut for the Proteas.
His Test bow completed his full development cycle in the South African cricket system, a cycle that saw him form part of various South African junior sides including U/17’s and U/19’s before graduating to South Africa A for several years that proved pivotal in his evolution of becoming a Protea at T20 and ODI level, before ultimately earning the step up to the “bread and butter” of the game, Test cricket.
Sipamla recently made the move to the Imperial Lions from the Warriors, and in the same vein, swapping sentiment with strategy, as he left his beloved Eastern Cape purely with the intentions of providing himself with the best possible opportunity and resources to take his game to the next level, the Test level. As sure as he was with this roll of the dice, while discussing what making his debut felt like, he admits that the timing of it surprised him as much as it did, many Proteas supporters. “ I was filled with joy and pride, to be able to go live out one of my longest dreams that I’ve dreamt of. Honestly, no I didn’t expect it to have come so soon” he confessed to Grit Sports.
A confession that makes sense since Sipamla was initially roped into the squad as late injury cover for fellow pacemen Kagiso Rabada and Glenton Stuurman. When Stuurman was officially ruled out, the doors became wide open for Sipamla, who then details how he found out that his dream was about to become a reality. “We had just come back from practice and I was in my room at the hotel in the bubble, my phone rang and to my surprise it was the coach” he said. “He was letting me know that I would be making my Test debut for South Africa the following day and asked me to go and see him for a chat”. He also admits that made it a little harder to sleep that night, “The emotions of joy and excitement filled me as I realized that the following day I’d be making my test debut for my country” he continued.
No matter which circumstance an opportunity comes through, the most important thing is always how one makes use of it, and as the day he would’ve envisioned since he was a little kid picking up a cricket ball, had finally arrived, Sipamla was presented with his very own prestigious Proteas green test cap, earning his own unique accolade of going down in history as Proteas Test cap number 111, a feat many live to try and achieve, but die without fulfilling. Sipamla’s first involvement at that level, would’ve been enough to show him just how different a ball game he had just entered, as after an expensive first spell, it would’ve been fair to say he was experiencing a baptism of fire. But the only fire that would prove to matter was the Protea fire that he returned with, a fire that helped him claim his maiden Test cricket scalp. Although he claims, it was not necessarily a nailed down prerequisite to judge his first day of Test cricket on, however, he does acknowledge its significance moral-wise. “Going into the game there wasn’t that much of an emphasis of it from my teammate’s to be honest, but internally you know how big of a deal it is and how much it means to get yourself on the board and rolling”.
In the end he would’ve been a relieved man to make that breakthrough on day one regardless, as he admits to the pressure mounting the longer it continued to prove elusive, he also reveals how he managed to keep his head in the game. “It increases [pressure]quite a bit, you just have to find a way to calm yourself down and stay focused on the work at hand by being present at all times” said Sipamla. In the end it would prove to be to his benefit, as it aided in him having a better night’s rest, however, he doesn’t believe it would’ve caused him to panic and start doing things out of the ordinary the next day, regardless. “[Sleeping without taking a wicket on day one] I would’ve most probably been a bit more anxious but would’ve most likely been the same as I knew I had to be more determined and had to fight back hard the next morning”.
Like could be expected for a young debutant, in the already very daunting Test arena, the butterflies would’ve been having a field day in Sipamla’s stomach, but he reveals the advice and guidance from the senior players who asked him to “slow things down a little, go back to my basics and keep things as simple as possible” proved to be of great assistance en-route to his initial breakthrough. For a player who was already under unnecessary pressure as well as unfair and baseless labels by certain sections of the South African cricketing fraternity, one cannot help but wonder just how much access he is allowed to have to such potentially damaging opinions, and luckily for Sipamla, it is almost a foreign space. “Not much really, I don’t have Twitter, I hardly spend time on Facebook and on most social media platforms” he revealed, as well as the fact that, his game plan for the next day had remained the same regardless of any external pressures, which was “to keep things simple and go out there with a competing mindset”
In a Test match that could’ve easily been overshadowed by CSA’s choice of gesture to show solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement, Sipamla woke up on day two, in a very selfish mood. The former Grey High School pupil ripped right through the Sri Lankan tail, proving his doubters wrong through producing a quality that South African bowlers have been struggling with of late, and with first innings figures of four wickets for 76 runs in his 16 overs, coupled with his two further 2nd innings scalps, Sipamla walked away with the best bowling figures of the game, a combined 6/100 which ensured his debut was all about him. He admits that claiming a victory on his debut made the occasion even sweeter for him. “It was an unbelievable feeling, it’s always a great moment winning games for your country and it’s just awesome winning your first game in any format for your country”
The Test arena was not the only new experience for Sipamla during this period, as while most of the country was afforded the luxury of spending Christmas and New Years with family, he was having his first experience away from his, as a professional cricketer. He was not complaining though, in fact he went on further to reveal the significance the moment held for him, with his new “family”. “In many ways it’s special, as a child it’s always a dream to go out and play a Boxing Day Test match for your country” he said. Sipamla, additionally revealed the atmosphere within the Proteas camp, in what sounds pleasantly contrary to outside speculation, quashing murmurs that the camp is divided and pulling in different directions. “Also, the way it is, being in the camp with the team, it really does feel like being in a family on its own, with your teammates, coaches and all staff members, and building that bond and relationship with them, so it’s kind of special in that way”. He continues by explaining what life is like in the Proteas bio-bubble. “It’s not that you forget about the outside world, but you so focused on what’s in front of you, that you kind of just soaked up by it all and your focus is on performing and doing well, so you kind of don’t dwell too much into the outside world a lot”
Proteas coach Mark Boucher, who interestingly also attended Selborne Primary like Sipamla, before his move to Port Elizabeth, named an unchanged side for the second Test, showing a welcome bout of faith in Sipamla, who appreciated the opportunity for continuity at Test level. “It gives you confidence having the backing of the coaches and selectors” he said. Despite another tough start in the second Test, which he attributes to the jitters, Sipamla remains adamant, that won’t always be the case, and will at some point be able to hit the ground running in innings, just like he is able to do so, at franchise level.
He didn’t get as many wickets in the second Test, but there were plenty of other positives pertaining to his overall game regardless. He became consistent with his line and length, displayed great speed and control, which all culminated in him consistently placing the ball in very uncomfortable areas for batsmen, who struggled to score many off his bowling this time around. He explains that, this upturn was not a coincidence but rather a result of hard work and strategy with bowling coach, former Proteas quick Charl Langeveldt. “Coach Langes and I worked really hard at nets in making sure I execute my skills more consistently and for longer and it was a great feeling to have executed and stuck to plans”
Sipamla finished his maiden Test series with 10 wickets, and a current, very impressive strike rate of a wicket every 23.9 balls, a tally and statistic he admits to be pleased with, but isn’t getting carried away. “I felt really proud and happy about it but still knowing that there’s a lot of work that still needs to be put in moving forward”. Said the very grounded and level headed seamer. Although the Proteas were hardly tested bar a few scares against their sub-continent opponents, Sipamla admits the team was not taking any chances, “They’re an international team and any international side poses a threat so you’ve got to always be prepared as a side for anything”. He said.
Despite an impressive Test introduction, Sipamla refuses to believe he has now arrived at that level, and acknowledges that it’s just more hard work from here. “ No, there’s no room for complacency and I believe that at all times as an individual you need to keep working hard on your craft and always look for ways to improve at all times, so I don’t think you can ever feel like you’ve arrived”.
Sipamla was just announced as part of the Proteas Test squad for their tour to Pakistan in what could prove to be his first on foreign soil, and he is chomping at the bit. “I’m looking forward to the tour to Pakistan and looking forward to challenges of the different conditions and finding ways to learn how to be successful on those conditions and grow my game further”. He maintains very straightforward objectives for his time in the Protea whites “ I just want to make sure that I put in the required performances for the team and help the team win as many test matches as possible” he said.
Sipamla concluded with a word of gratitude for all of his supporters and those of the Proteas, “I really would like to thank them for the support and would like to say I really appreciate all of it, and like I said, I have to keep working hard at all times and making sure that I put in the hours and keep working towards and onto mastering my skill”