Sports

South Africa: A Long Walk to Cricket Stardom for Keegan Petersen

The Proteas batsman has ‘arrived’ and is rightly being hailed for his performance in the Test series against India. But to get there has been an arduous journey under the watchful eye of his dad.

On the day Proteas batsman Keegan Petersen made his debut for the Boland amateur team in 2010, the then schoolboy walked the 7km from his home in Paarl East to Boland Park.

Walking long distances is nothing new in South Africa’s forgotten landscapes. Children and the elderly walk for gruelling kilometres to schools, clinics and social grant pay points. In many instances, walking long distances is a hallmark of greatness in the making.

In the blistering Paarl heat, swirled by the winds that sweeten the vineyards to the north, the young Petersen’s roots were being nurtured by his father Dirk “Dirkie” Petersen, matching him step for step all the way on that long road.

It’s a journey Dirkie began with his son at an impressionable age and when he himself was the talk of the fertile sports fields of the Boland. They talk about Dirkie in the digital annals of Black sporting history – Facebook groups. They say he was a classy flyhalf and none other than former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers was Dirkie’s scrumhalf in the heyday of Boland rugby.

Petersen scored 44 runs on that day in 2010. It wasn’t until a few years later that the family bought a car and Dirkie was able to support his firstborn on an unfamiliar journey for a kid from Paarl East.

It’s Dirkie who is credited with developing a young Petersen as a batter right until the top-order specialist, now 28, made his Test debut against the West Indies in Gros Islet, Saint Lucia on 10 June 2021. Father and son still speak after every innings he plays and Dirkie is more than willing to offer an assessment of his offspring’s performance against India, without much of an invitation.

An honest assessment

“Look, I’m a critic. It was good. It was one of the best I’ve seen from him. But in the first Test he got out cheap and threw away his wicket. I was upset by that, so much so that I didn’t want to watch him bat in the second innings,” he said.

Dirkie’s guiding hand wasn’t always gentle. The high school social sciences teacher admits he is Petersen’s biggest critic and the one who would pick out every loose shot and highlight all his flaws. It didn’t always end well. The young man’s long walk to cricket was often filled with talks and arguments about his game, but Dirkie had his reason: it was meant to toughen him up and prepare him for much greater scrutiny to come.

“After every innings, it’s a fight. So much so that after one game where he threw away his wicket, my wife said to both of us, ‘Nee, julle sal nie nou baklei nie (No, you’re not going to fight now).’ It was always a fight but I’m very lenient now.”

Things are different now indeed. Dirkie is no longer involved in coaching his son. That’s now up to Proteas’ coaching staff, but the father can still critique his son’s performance.

“On the morning of the second Test there wasn’t much to do at home, so I said okay, I’m going to watch him. He’s soft on the eye. He’s everything you want to see in a batsman. Because I’m his dad and very close to his development, I’m very critical of him. I wouldn’t normally tell him ‘you played well’ or anything like that. I just look for points of development where he can improve.

“His defensive game was excellent. He was very compact because that is what he worked on his whole life: waiting for the ball to come to him. And that’s what he did. The intensity was good against the pace bowlers, but the first time he batted against [Indian spinner Ravichandran] Ashwin he was very nonchalant and Ashwin got his wicket,” Dirkie said, his voice raised for the first time.

“I told him he must play Ashwin with the same intensity as he played the pace bowlers and he did it very well at Newlands. We were waiting for the three figures, but that [two half-centuries] was also good.”

Dreams come true

Petersen’s unflappable batting for the Proteas steadied the top order and helped steer the team to a memorable win over the highly favoured Indians. Now he’s assured of the No. 3 spot for as long as he can stay fit and command the position. It’s been a patient wait to find a long-term replacement for the great Hashim Amla, and Petersen may just be the one.

“The odds were always against us,” Petersen said. “We were always the underdogs going into that Test series. Even more so after losing the first match. I think that motivated us to do better and win the series. We’re confident being a young team with a new leader. We know we can achieve everything we want.

“It was always a fight. You’re playing against the best team in the world. It’s a dream come true for a small-town kid like me, playing against Virat Kohli. I was star-struck in the first game, but that drove me to realise I can actually make a difference and I can win a series for my country.”

After posting a solid 72 in the first innings, Petersen’s 82 off 113 balls helped the Proteas clinch the series decider. They were knocks of patience and character, layered with sumptuous bursts of brilliance, from soft and elegant hands in attack to a hard, fighting spirit in defence.

“He wants to feel the ball on the bat and he wants to make runs,” Dirkie said. “But when he was small he used to block the whole day. They very rarely got him out. He would often be not out. That was an important thing for me. I always tell him, when you get to a 100, try to not get out. If you get out, the next man might get a duck. That’s how cricket works.”

Connected to home

Petersen may be the darling of South African cricket today, but his journey to the Proteas No. 3 berth has been every bit as arduous as one would expect for a player from a historically neglected community in the Winelands.

Even as tourism dollars pay homage to South Africa’s legendary winemakers in the region, the surrounding towns of the working class and unemployed make it one of the poorest regions in the country, where an inexorable chasm deepens between rich and poor. The result is gang and drug-ravaged communities, much like the one Petersen grew up in a Paarl East area called Chicago. Here, for the past decade or so, there has been no one grabbing the headlines other than gangsters and the ruined lives they inevitably leave behind.

“At the moment it’s not like when we grew up. It’s now the gangster types that are role models. So the kids want to be a ‘number’ when they grow up – a 26 or 27. It’s a different ball game. When we were kids there were always role models like Chester Williams, Tinus Linee and many others,” Petersen said.

His rise to the national team may afford him a life removed from his hometown as he joins the ranks of travelling cricketers, but he will forever be connected to home. He surprised his family in Paarl by arriving one day earlier than expected, thanks to South Africa winning the final Test in Cape Town with a day to spare. “He’s a jokey person, laid-back and very, very humble,” Dirkie said. “That’s what people say about him. He’s a very humble boy. He loves his family.”

Petersen agrees that there’s something special about people from the Boland when it comes to family bonds and sporting prowess. “Home will be home. I am from here, and fortunately I did play cricket. Whoever comes from here has a massive fighting spirit. We know what we can do and we always try to show the best of us. They’re strong characters that come from my community. I’m proud of home.”

If Petersen was in any doubt about his influence on his community, his latest home visit since his Newlands heroics would have convinced him once and for all.

“When Keegan bats there is no one in the streets. In the houses it’s ouma, oupa (grandmother, grandfather) and grandchildren watching him bat, big ladies watching. But when he’s out, there’s no one watching anymore. The community is silent when he bats. I told him, ‘Boeta, you don’t know what you did.’ He has an impact on this community,” Dirkie said proudly.

“With Keegan’s success now, something is happening in Chicago. It’s quiet. The laaities (young boys) want to play cricket. We went up to the shop earlier. The boys were playing on the road. When they saw Keegan, they ran like mad to him to sign autographs and to just shake hands with him. For a long time, we haven’t had role models in the community, and Keegan is now the first sportsman in almost 10 years to come from this area and make it to the national stage.”

From struggle to success

Postponed overseas tours and a Covid-19 infection meant that Petersen struggled to find form in the early days of wearing the national colours. Now, his patient and tenacious shifts at the Wanderers and Newlands may just be incorporated into the brand playbook of a rejuvenated Proteas Test team. Led by Dean Elgar upfront, they now also boast a growing lethal strike force in the bowling department.

Petersen’s rise and the consolidation of Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma at No. 4 and No. 5 respectively will now focus attention on the Aiden Markram conundrum at the top of the Test order.

Asked to describe how he feels about his performance in the Test series, Petersen said: “It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest. It’s difficult to believe. I’m just happy and grateful. I can’t give it to you in words.

“I do believe I was lucky a little bit in being able to do so well. I can’t pinpoint how this all happened. Everyone’s been to the house, coming to say congratulations. It’s been nice.”

Petersen’s role in the Proteas team is likely to be cemented when they embark on a tour of New Zealand in February.

“We have a tough year of cricket coming up. God willing, I get selected for the upcoming tours and we continue to play good cricket. We want to be the number one Test team in the world. That’s the end goal. We’re trying to work towards that every day, every hour,” he said.

“I’ve still got a lot of work to do. If they have trust in me and believe that I can, I will try to make that spot mine, or wherever they want me to bat.”

Devotion and hard work

Before the role of sport fathers became the topic du jour with the movie King Richard, based on Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena, and the United States media poring over golfer Tiger Woods and his precocious son Charlie, Dirkie was already devoting a substantial part of his life to his son’s success. But he wants no credit or accolades for being a good father, even as he reflects on his own sporting achievements and what could have been.