Meet the South African opener who prepared for England with club cricket

·5-min read
Meet the South African opener who prepared for England with club cricket - GETTY IMAGES
Meet the South African opener who prepared for England with club cricket - GETTY IMAGES

How do you prepare for your first Test series in England and the unique challenge of facing the Dukes ball delivered by James Anderson, who has taken more wickets with it than anyone who has ever lived?

For South Africa’s opener, Sarel Erwee, the choice was simple. His English summer has so far been spent in the Surrey Premier Division, batting for Weybridge against the likes of Malden Wanderers and Reigate Priory, registering 52 and 77 against those two respectively.

Erwee played 10 Surrey Premier League games and two Royal London National Club Cup ties before joining up with the South Africa Test squad for last week’s defeat to the England Lions.

Erwee did not exactly set the world alight, or ‘do a Rikki Clarke’, making one hundred in 12 innings - but he did honour a promise made before Covid prevented travel for two summers. Since Erwee made that pledge to return to Weybridge for his fifth season at the club, he was unexpectedly given a Test debut at 32 in South Africa’s series against New Zealand in February and then scored a maiden hundred in his second Test.

Instead of looking for a county gig, Erwee decided it was Surrey Premier Division bowlers who would provide the warm up he needed for this week’s opening Test at Lord’s. To supplement club cricket life, Erwee trained in a gym owned by former Surrey player Matthew Church and faced the bowling machine at Wellington College.

“I committed to playing Weybrdge in 2020 before Covid hit. I told them I would honour that and that I wanted to come back one more time before my stint as a cricketer was over,” he tells Telegraph Sport. “I decided 2022 would be a great chance to come over, catch up with family over here and good friends I’ve made at the club.

A Lord's Test match is a far cry from the Surrey League - TIM ASHTON/WIMBLEDON CC
A Lord's Test match is a far cry from the Surrey League - TIM ASHTON/WIMBLEDON CC

“Cricket was not really the main driver. It was more to catch up with people, but then hearing we had a Test series over here I had to put my mind back on cricket and prepare. The Surrey League is a decent standard. You don’t expect to turn up on a Saturday and face county level bowlers. There is the odd county second XI cricketer but it is still nicely competitive.

“I experienced the step up a bit this week against the Lions. Things happened quicker, there was more pressure from both ends.”

Erwee has only been to Lord’s once before this week when his friend Jason Roy gave him a ticket to watch an England ODI in 2017. Roy and Erwee are friends from academy days in Durban and have remained in touch.

Not that long ago, Erwee was “one phone call” from retiring but was persuaded to carry on by his girlfriend and parents. He was fed up with first-class cricket after years on the domestic circuit. Runs had dried up, he had gone almost two years without a hundred and struggled with his mental health. Erwee has since spoken openly about his mental battles, a brave step in the alpha male world of South African sport.

The pandemic gave him time to re-evaluate and work with sports psychologist Kirsten van Heerden. It worked. Runs flowed and his chance came for the national side earlier this year when Covid ruled out Keegan Petersen.

A good understanding has been built with Dean Elgar - they average 49 together for the first wicket. Erwee bats patiently, allowing his partner to be more attacking and impose himself as captain.

'It was a surprise when I was first called up... I was close to quitting at one point'

Erwee will need to back up his Test hundred this series as it is his only score above fifty so far, but as a late bloomer he is grateful for his chance and his tenacity suits the flinty cricket that Mark Boucher and Dean Elgar want to promote.

“It was a surprise when I was first called up. I went through a patch with my mental health and after that all I wanted to do was enjoy my cricket again so when that call did come, I was very surprised to be in the Test squad,” he says. “I was close to quitting. A lot of people get to the stage where they think it is not for them anymore and don't enjoy waking up and going to work.

“It was not the actual cricket I did not enjoy. It was off-field stuff I had to deal with that made me not enjoy cricket, when inside me I still love the sport so yeah I was very, very close to stopping but look in hindsight and I’m quite glad I didn’t.”

A number of Weybridge colleagues will be at Lord’s on Wednesday and they have even organised a box at the Oval to support their team-mate in the third Test.

“I’ve never played at Lord’s so I'm absolutely buzzing. I have done quite a bit of visualisation about what it will be like to be there, to walk out to face the bowlers and what the crowd will be like,” he says.

It may be a change of scenery from Weybridge Green, but it is one Erwee is ready for.