Cricket news - Ngidi, ready or not, facing up to new normal

"As the bowlers, we each have our net. We each have our balls. There is no touching, hardly any communication as well." - Ngidi.

"As the bowlers, we each have our net. We each have our balls. There is no touching, hardly any communication as well." - Ngidi.

The world was different the last time Lungi Ngidi stood at the top of his run, ball in hand, ready to wreak havoc. That was on March 4 in Bloemfontein, where a flat pitch and a vast, fast outfield reduced bowlers' bang to a whimper.

But Ngidi wreaked havoc regardless, taking a career-best 6-58 - the finest figures yet by a fast bowler in the 30 ODIs played in Bloemfontein, where only Imran Tahir and Lance Klusener had previously claimed five or more wickets in a match in the format. Three of Australia's top four - David Warner, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne - were among Ngidi's victims, the latter two removed in consecutive deliveries.

Never short of pace and presence, Ngidi brought patience and precision to the party. Janneman Malan's unbeaten 129 followed him becoming - four days earlier in Paarl - the only man to be dismissed by the first delivery he faced in international cricket. That probably cost Malan his place in the squad to play three ODIs in India that was announced two days before the Bloem game. So he stole the headlines. But Ngidi did at least as much to win the match, which South Africa did by six wickets to clinch the series with a match to spare.

Rested for the last game of the rubber in Potchefstroom three days after that, Ngidi no doubt looked forward to wreaking more havoc in India. The first match, in Dharamsala on March 12, was washed out and the last two were cancelled because of fears over a virus that seemed to be named after a brand of Mexican beer.

Almost four months on, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 500,000 people around the world and put much of life as we know it - cricket included - on hold as authorities scramble to try and slow its spread.

That's not all that's changed. George Floyd's graphic, public, and importantly, videoed killing by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 has galvanised the globe in protest against systemic racism. But Floyd is one among many: since Ngidi was last on the field US law enforcement officers have killed 156 people. Last year 327 lives were taken this way. This year the total is already 327. Most of the killed have been black men. Most of the killers have been white.

There's not a lot of sport to watch due to the pandemic, but much of what there is to see has been graced by gestures in support of the Black Lives Matter movement raised to combat the epidemic of police killings. Like players in football's English Premier League have done since the season resumed on June 17, West Indies' cricketers will wear "Black Lives Matter" on their shirts in their Test series in England, which starts on Wednesday.

Will they also "take a knee" - kneel - during the playing of national anthems? This form of protest against racial oppression was pioneered by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and has gone viral since Floyd's death. So much so that those who have remained standing during anthems have been slammed on social media and felt the need to explain their inaction.

Like the rest of South Africa's cricketers, Ngidi has not yet had the opportunity to join that conversation in public. But that doesn't mean he and his teammates haven't been talking politics in private.

"That's definitely something that we will discuss once we are together in person," Ngidi said during an online press conference on Monday (July 6). "We have spoken about it and everyone is well aware of what's going on. It's a difficult one because we are not together, so it's hard to discuss. But once we get back to playing that is definitely something we have to address as a team.

"As a nation as well, we have a past that is very difficult because of racial discrimination. So it's definitely something we will be addressing as a team and if we are not, it's something I will bring up. It's something that we need to take very seriously and, like the rest of the world is doing, make a stand."

South Africans lived under racism from 1652, when Europeans first settled there, until the inaugural democratic elections in 1994. The 342 years of brutally racist repression used to govern the country between those landmark dates created what remains, according to several authoritative sources, the world's most unequal society.

Covid-19 has only served to widen the disparities, with the largely black poor - who comprise more than 80% of South Africa's population - significantly less able to ward off the virus. Their residential areas are more dense than affluent districts and they are less likely to have access to water. That hinders social distancing and regular hand-washing, two key defences against the spread of the pandemic. Poorer South Africans are also more likely to have to endure unwarranted violence from the police and army during lockdown. The country got its own George Floyd on April 10, when Collins Khosa was beaten to death by soldiers at his home in Johannesburg.

Ngidi is far removed from all that, but Covid-19 has had a dramatic effect on his life despite the fact that, on June 26, the government cleared South Africa's cricketers to return to training and playing. "It's difficult and it's different," he said. "We have to book [training] sessions now, so there are certain groups of guys that come in at a certain time and when they are done another group comes in. I don't think we are exceeding numbers of about five at the moment."

Cricket South Africa named a 45-man high-performance training squad last Monday. The players are practising at their nearest franchise ground, which in Ngidi's case is at Centurion.

"As the bowlers, we each have our net. We each have our balls. There is no touching, hardly any communication as well. Before going to the gym you have to let them know so they can sanitise the area before you come in and sanitise once you leave, for the next group.

"There's a whole lot of things you need to remember as well. We have to test regularly now. There's temperature checks at the gate, there's hand sanitisers, we fill out forms. It's a whole process before you can actually bowl a cricket ball.

"It's very frustrating but also very necessary at this point and especially with us coming up with the 3TC game next week. Even though it is a bit of a schlep and it is hard work, we still need to do it because we've got a game to play next week."

On July 18, three teams of eight players - including Ngidi - will trial a new format, 3TC, in a single match of 36 overs at Centurion. Organisers hope the Solidarity Cup will raise as much as USD177,000 for charity.

"From what they explained to us, it is going to be very different," Ngidi said of the complicated rules, which allow for the last not out player in an innings to keep batting. "I still don't fully understand what's going on. I know it's going to be a different type of game. It is still a bit confusing but with everything they have explained, I am looking forward to how it's going to play out."

For now, Ngidi is getting used to the strangeness of the new normal in a country that has one of the fastest coronavirus infection rates in the world: "It feels like some biohazard kind of event has happened. There's no touching, you barely ever take your masks off other than when you are within a certain distance of people. The filling out of forms, the bookings, it's a mess to be honest with you but its very necessary because obviously its a very serious pandemic.

"I don't believe COVID is something we can take lightly. It does feel like something out of a movie because the safety precautions that are being taken are something you have never experienced before as a player. We no longer go into the changerooms. You get changed in your car and you go straight to the field or straight to the indoor nets. We don't gather in groups anymore and it feels weird since it's a team sport. You're playing by yourself but everyone is still there. It is very different."

One of the differences is that players will no longer be able to spit on the ball to help their team's bowlers. "The first thing we are coming back to is white-ball cricket and I am well aware that it only swings for the first three or four overs anyway," Ngidi said.

"A few of the boys have complained. Once [the ICC] said there's no saliva, a few of the batsmen posted on the group that now they are going to be driving on the up."

Without saliva keeping one half of the newer ball shiny and weighting one half of the older ball, it will be less likely to swing. Thus batters will be able to trust that the ball will arrive on the same line at which it was delivered. That will allow them to decide, earlier than usual, which stroke to play and help them execute it more forcefully.

"Already we can see what type of mentality the batsmen are coming with, so now we have to find a gameplan to get the ball to swing," Ngidi said. "Maybe a damp towel is the best thing but you've got to find something to shine [the ball]."

That and other issues will make Ngidi a keen watcher of what happens when England and West Indies mark the return of the global game at Southampton on Wednesday.

"I am glad that someone else is playing before we do so that we can see how everything is going to work. The basics of the game will still apply but just to see how everyone is going to be handled off the field and how interaction is going to work with camera staff and all those guys, and to give us a blueprint of what to do to get our cricket going again..."

The world is different. How much more different it will become we don't know, although it's a given that Covid-19 and cops will keep killing people. As for the rest, we're about to find out.