Lungi Ngidi has been set three tasks during this year's Mzansi Super League (MSL): to hone his craft, so he is able to win more games for the team; to keep his bowling loads up, so he is ready for the Test summer ahead; and to make sure he stays fit for the season after a history of injuries. He knows that the last of those will be the most difficult for him to control.
"You can tell yourself that [you will stay fit] but you never know what's going to happen to the field. You never know that you are going to tear a hamstring until it happens," Ngidi said ahead of the Tshwane Spartans match against Nelson Mandela Bay Giants in Centurion. "You always want to finish the season unscathed, but I will just take it one game at a time and see what happens from there."
Ngidi's most recent niggle was a hamstring strain, which forced him to withdraw mid-match in South Africa's defeat to Bangladesh at the World Cup and miss the next three games. He recovered in time to play two more, but was only deemed match fit for the Tests against India by late October, for South Africa's final fixture on a forgettable tour.
"Every player would love to have something like that [the consistency of one mentor], but it's not happening at the moment [in the South Africa men's set-up]... It is nice as a player to work with a coach for a long period of time." Lungi Ngidi
Before that, Ngidi had a side strain that kept him out of the 2019 IPL, a knee injury in Australia in late 2018, which sidelined him for three months, a hip injury in early 2017, which kept out of a tour to New Zealand, and an abdominal injury which forced him out of five ODIs against Sri Lanka.
His fitness concerns stem from a combination of bad luck and the inevitable consequence of trying to manage a big frame while bowling quick. But, as Ngidi matures, he is getting to know himself and understand his own body a little more.
"It's not a perfect science," he said. "As a young bowler, I am still trying to find the best way to make sure I am 100% ready for every game. Over the years that has changed. Different trainers have different opinions for to you try different things. I am trying to settle into a groove now, and I feel it's coming a lot better than over the past couple of years."
Having played in the South African set-up in the Russell Domingo, Ottis Gibson and Enoch Nkwe eras has meant Ngidi has rubbed shoulders with different coaches. While that may have broadened his perspective, it's also meant he has not had the consistency of a mentor - something Ngidi hopes will change.
"Every player would love to have something like that but it's not happening at the moment," he said. "There's not much you can do about it as a player and until someone is appointed, you've got to work with whoever is there at the time. It is nice as a player to work with a coach for a long period of time."
The proof is the domestic set-up, where Ngidi has worked with Titans and Spartans' coach Mark Boucher since the former wicketkeeper-batsman joined the franchise. "For example," Ngidi said, "Boucher and I have worked together since I played for the Proteas and I feel he is one of the guys that understands me as a player. He may not be a bowling coach, but he knows what gets me ticking mentally. And that's very comforting for me because I know where to go if I am struggling."
Though not struggling at the moment, Ngidi is at that point in his career where he needs to make the step up. This is his third international season, so the early excitement and the second-season blues are both over. In the shortest format, his 50 T20 caps are likely enough to see him considered a senior and at the Spartans, that's what Boucher wants him to be. Ngidi has been instructed to become more resourceful and work on his skills in this competition, something he is taking seriously. "I was told to find a way in whatever situation I am in. I take 100% of that responsibility," he said.
At the same time, he knows he needs to look ahead, to the four Tests against England, which are the marquee matches of this home summer. Ngidi has only played five Tests but is expected to be a big part of the England series and understands he needs to have form and fitness on his side when the series starts.
"As a cricketer, I know what's coming up in the calendar and it would be reckless and irresponsible of me to disregard that. While training for T20, you've got to make sure your bowling loads are still up for four-day cricket and you do not neglect those skills," he said. "As much as this is the T20 tournament, there's obviously a bigger picture in terms of the English team coming to play us on South African soil which is a must-win for us. In no way do we disregard those skills in a T20 tournament."
It may be unfair to judge Ngidi on the evidence of the India series, where he played one match and went wicketless, but it's the most recent data we have. And going by that, Ngidi has to work on his control and his lengths, which he seems ready to start fine-tuning, especially for when he plays on unhelpful surfaces in future.
"Personally, it was disappointing to not get as many games as I wanted to play and to not perform the way I wanted to in the one Test that I did play. For me, that's just a learning curve; Indian conditions are different," Ngidi said. "Out of the four Test series I've played, two of them have been in the subcontinent, so it's not exactly easy as a fast bowler but you've got to find a way and that's what I am doing. Hopefully, next time I go there, I will be a lot better."