Cricket news - Craig Govender and the art of damage control

As Archer's bouncer smashed into the grille, Govender bustled on as a first responder to find out whether Amla's head was as firmly fixed to his shoulders

As Archer's bouncer smashed into the grille, Govender bustled on as a first responder to find out whether Amla's head was as firmly fixed to his shoulders

You probably don't know Craig Govender. But, if you've watched international cricket since December 2017, there's a decent chance you've seen him. He was out there at the Oval in the heart-stopping moments after Jofra Archer shattered the notion that South Africa might not have that bad a 2019 World Cup.

With the cordite of Archer's vicious bouncer in the fourth over of the innings still hanging in the air, Govender bustled onto the field as the first responder to find out whether Hashim Amla's head was as firmly fixed to his shoulders as it had been before Archer tried to take it off.

If you haven't seen Govender - thirty-something, in good shape, bearded, of Asian heritage - you've probably seen his work, even if you didn't know it at the time. Faf du Plessis' 120 in the second innings against Australia at the Wanderers in March 2018 was thanks at least in part to the bespoke finger guards Govender fashioned for South Africa's players. He did so after seeing how the ball behaved on a delinquent pitch against India in Johannesburg that January - which was payback for the shocking surfaces that greeted the South Africans in India in November 2015.

Du Plessis completed his century 60 days after he fractured a finger during an ODI against India at Kingsmead, which ruled him out of the remaining eight white-ball games of that engagement and put him in doubt for the Australia series - which started 36 days after he was hurt. He played in all four Tests, during which he escaped further injury despite twice being hit on his dodgy finger. Thank you, Mr. Govender.

That Wanderers Test against Australia was the last of Morne Morkel's career, and because of a side strain it looked like he would limp into the sunset after bowling 12.2 overs in the first innings. Enter Govender to soothe Morkel back into good enough shape to send down 10.4 overs in the second innings, and trap openers Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns in front. This time Morkel's over was unfinished because the match ended when Nathan Lyon was run out.

Aiden Markram made a brisk 78 in the first innings against Pakistan at Newlands in January 2019, but a quadricep strain meant he could neither bat nor field in the second innings. Govender's golden touch meant he was able to play at the Wanderers less than a week later. He made 90 in the first innings.

If you didn't know already, you've no doubt cottoned on that Govender is the South Africa team's physiotherapist. He has been in the job since December 2017, and likely will be for years to come. But, right now, he's busy with more important matters than panel-beating cricketers back to functionality.

For one thing, there's no cricket currently because of the coronavirus pandemic. For another, in May 2017 Govender founded a sports medical centre at the Wanderers that continues to function under lockdown, albeit at a limited level. For still another, Govender's wife, Prenitha Naidoo, is a homoeopathy doctor who runs a chain of pharmacies and is thus deep in the fight against the disease.

When Govender and Naidoo sit down for dinner in the evenings, the conversation goes far beyond passing the salt. "We talk about work and running practices, all the issues that come with dealing with people and different personalities," Govender told Cricbuzz. "We have the same challenges in terms of dealing with people and corporate politics.

"We do talk about COVID-19 procedures. Pharmacies need to understand what's working and what's not working. I get a lot of feedback from her about all her policies. That can involve screens or what happens in front of the counter, the use of sanitisers. For instance, you shouldn't spray sanitiser on your own hand when you get to a public place. Someone else needs to do it for you. Because you going to be touching other hands."

"You shouldn't spray sanitiser on your own hand when you get to a public place. Someone else needs to do it for you. Because you going to be touching other hands."

How much do they discuss cricket? "Weirdly enough, we don't talk about it a hell of a lot. She has long days, so we try not get too involved in cricket stuff. So you put on the TV and watch stuff that's not brain-orientated. So you don't have to concentrate. You just put on the silly stuff. Obviously we chat around things that are bothering us. Who else do we have to offload stuff on?"

But the couple may have to talk cricket one of these weeks. Not in terms of what can be done to keep Dale Steyn's bowling shoulder in one piece for the T20 WC, or how to stop Markram from punching solid objects when things don't go his way. Rather, they might need a plan to make up the earnings Govender would lose should South Africa not return to action for many months and therefore have no need for a physio. Can he imagine cricket returning anytime soon?

"It's really difficult. I've been so goal-driven to be a part of cricket. I've had this dream since I was in grade 10 [of 12 in high school]. My whole focus was around cricket. You're pushing and hustling towards that. That's all you know because that's all your life is about. Then you think, what if this doesn't happen? What now? It's difficult to change that mindset immediately. What comes afterwards? But I'm an optimist and I think we'll get out of it."

An optimist indeed, what with his view on the positive aspects of this strange, unsettling and, for too many, deadly time: "I think it's a way to reset everyone, in a weird way, to bring everyone to an equilibrium. It's humbling a lot of people. Cricket can be quite demanding on the mind, so this gives us a break to re-assess things."

But not everyone sees the bright side of the global catastrophe quite so clearly: "For sportsmen it's difficult. They're anxious about keeping their strength and keeping their skills. That's the anxiety. The anxiety is not staying at home, because everybody wants to be at home with their family.

"Longevity and greatness comes with a hundred or more Tests and getting 300-plus wickets. You're looking at guys like Dale. He's a serious athlete, and that takes dedication. You need to be injury-free, you need to be totally fit, you need to have the right mind - a lot of the greats are a bit loony! You've got to be a special individual to be willing to work that hard for something. You've got to be totally driven. Otherwise everyone would be able to do it."

But even the special ones need help: "I know the cricketers' histories pretty well. I did my assessments with each of them before COVID, the individualised rehab and prevention stuff. I have a framework of what I can work with."

Govender is involved in dispensing the good sense that may be required to dissuade players from, say, trying to lift their refrigerators during their home exercise routines: "Injuries can occur during lockdown. Guys have more time, so they think they can train harder and more. There are horror stories of people doing half-marathons in a three-metre by three-metre room." Not the players under his care, but they are as susceptible to other fragilities as the rest of us: "Your immune system drops because you are more fatigued. So you may need to see a doctor about that. Of course, because you're more aware of being ill, as soon as you have a cough you want to go and have it checked out."

"There are horror stories of people doing half-marathons in a three-metre by three-metre room."

Only around a quarter of the practitioners at Govender's medical centre are seeing patients, and just one or two a day at that. "We're all going to be out of pocket. That's the reality. It's about coming up with a strategy and a scaling plan of how to eventually get to the norm. There's a lot of new changes and you need to think on your feet. You read a lot to follow what's happening. Our cleaner is the most important person. Some people might not think a cleaner is that important, but if you don't have one..."

South Africa's lockdown regulations have prohibited the buying and selling of alcoholic drinks since March 27, and Govender has heard stories of "people delving into the hand sanitiser" - which typically has an alcohol content of 60%. "At the beginning, it was quite a blessing after all the touring, but now it's getting long. How many days is it now? We came back from India [on March 18] and we went straight into quarantine."

So he is blessed to have Naidoo. "She's a homoeopath so she tells me my medical kit is not natural! But she understands that we need to get guys going. And I use a lot of [natural] probiotics, especially if guys are on anti-inflammatories. Because stress comes from the gut. That's where anxiety builds up. She's got very good views. She's a very powerful and driven woman and I look up to her immensely. She keeps me grounded. We do have arguments but you must have someone who sees a different picture, which she does.

"If we think there are no mental health issues at the highest level [of sport] we're lying to ourselves. How do you manage your stresses? Who do you deflect them to? You have to have support systems, and she is my biggest support system."

You probably don't know Craig Govender, but you should know he is in good hands. Just like his more famous patients.