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Personality of the week - Van Lingen takes cricket to the sand dunes

2024-05-30  Correspondent

Personality of the week - Van Lingen takes cricket to the sand dunes

Firdose Moonda

 

Namibian cricketer Michael van Lingen is hoping the national team’s success will inspire people outside the capital city to pick up the game too.

In the 35km stretch between Namibia’s coastal towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, there are endless sand dunes, and about 100 000 people. However, only one of them, Van Lingen, is an international cricketer, and these days he is instantly recognisable in the area.

“I stay at Long Beach, and I see a lot of youngsters who have never played cricket and have never even heard of cricket - but they’re now interested in the game. When I’m there, I train in my Namibian kit, and that’s how I try to inspire the guys,” says Van Lingen, a top-order batter.

“Cricket Namibia (CN) has guys who are going into rural areas. They get the children and parents involved. But because cricket is not an old sport like rugby in Namibia, people don’t know it. A lot of parents are sceptical and ask: ‘What is this sport? What is this bat and ball?,’ but it has grown so much in the last two or three years.”

Where the 26-year-old Van Lingen lives is important because although Namibia itself is huge - at more than 800 000 square kilometres - its population of just over three million people, is tiny. 

Almost anything of significance that happens in the country takes place in the capital, Windhoek, including most elite sport, and it’s rare to find someone who still lives in what could be called the wilderness involved in something as high-profile as cricket.

Just his presence could help grow the game he learnt through television, and later in South Africa.

“The skill and everything I’ve learned was through television because the facilities here weren’t great. We had only one field and a cement pitch, and the coaches were few.

“I would watch (South African) guys like Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting, and all the top players. I used to like Michael Bevan. He was one of my favourite cricketers because he is left-handed, and was a finisher. I also used to be a finisher when I was young, so I would try to replicate what he did,” said Van Lingen.

When he was in his second year of high school, Van Lingen and his family moved to Western Cape in South Africa, where he attended one of the country’s best-known sporting schools: Paarl Boys, whose alumni include England international Dawid Malan.

“I went to the school for squash actually, but then cricket started to take over.”

At the outset, Van Lingen was a middle-order batter who only bowled in the nets. “I actually started off bowling left-arm wrist spin, and it came out well. But obviously that’s quite a hard skill if you haven’t been doing it for years. I sort of put that in my back pocket and I guess I could bring it out again, but I can’t promise that it will be any good.”

Instead, he made his name as a seamer, and was selected for Namibia’s squad for the 2016 U/19 World Cup. “We lacked bowlers at that time, so I thought I would make sure it was something I did.”

At the tournament, Van Lingen took 4 for 24 against South Africa, dismissing future internationals Kyle Verreynne and Tony de Zorzi, and finishing as Namibia’s second-highest wicket-taker. 

Less than two months later, he made his first-class debut, but went wicketless. After that, he did not play cricket for the next five years.

“My studies took over and then it was Covid-19, but I also had injuries. The reason I stopped bowling in the first place was because I had a stress fracture in my lower back. I was out for a year, and then when I started playing again, two weeks in, I tore my hamstring. I just decided to step away from cricket.”

He finished his studies at the University of Pretoria, and moved back to Namibia to help with the family business. “I just started playing for fun, and before I could wipe my eyes out, I made my international debut.”

In that first T20I game against PNG in Dubai in October 2021, he didn’t bat, and bowled only one over - of orthodox left-arm spin.

“My mechanics were awful, and I was very injury-prone, so I sort of stepped away from bowling because there would always be some niggle that held me back. I decided to start focusing on my batting instead.”

In his fourth match against Scotland at the 2021 T20 World Cup, Van Lingen opened the batting, and scored 18 off 24 balls.

“We only had one or two guys that wanted to open the batting, and because I played squash, I’ve got a good eye and good reflexes. So I said, I’ll give it a go, I don’t think I’ll be too bad at it.”

In his first ODI, a month after his T20I debut, Van Lingen scored 51 off 48 balls from number three as Namibia beat Oman by 40 runs in Windhoek.

Since then, he has scored four ODI hundreds and two T20I half-centuries, but he hasn’t quite nailed the kind of power game the 20-over format demands. “I am a bit more technical; I focus on timing the ball, and I wouldn’t say that I am a big six-hitter, especially in the beginning.

In the Namibian set-up, Van Lingen feels a slightly more circumspect approach works. “We’ve got a very strong finishing team. Guys like JJ Smit, David Wiese and Gerhard Erasmus come in after we have set a strong foundation in the powerplay, and just finish it. They can take games away from teams,” said the player.

In the 2024 T20 World Cup, Namibia is slotted in Group B, along with Oman - whom they beat 3-2 in a T20I series in April.

“We want to be playing against England and Australia, and the likes of South Africa and New Zealand. We’re very excited and very, very positive. We think if we play good cricket on the day, we can take any of the four teams out. We’re very optimistic about making it through the group.”

That’s fighting talk from a side who have never played England or Australia in T20Is, and have only ever beaten three full members in the format - Zimbabwe, Ireland and Sri Lanka. 

No member of the current side has played in the Caribbean before either, apart for Wiese, who featured in the CPL.

Their win over Ireland came during a dream run at the 2021 T20 World Cup, where they progressed from the first round to the Super 12s. Van Lingen was part of that squad, and remembers it as life-changing.

“There’s not much of a better feeling. I never thought I would be able to feel so much joy and see so much passion and love for the sport code, and for the country.

“For me, the biggest thing about qualifying for the Super 12s was the inspiration that the youngsters had. 

That was huge. After that World Cup, I think cricket increased ten fold in Namibia. People suddenly started asking questions, and wanted to get involved. Before that, people didn’t even know Namibia played cricket, especially people at the coast.”

“Now they do, and it’s a big deal because Cricket Namibia is trying to grow the game outside the capital ahead of the 2027 ODI World Cup, which the country will co-host with South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Namibia must still qualify for that tournament, but Van Lingen is confident they have the inspiration and plan to get there. 

“There’s still a lot of time, so there’s still a lot of upskilling that we can do. We’ve seen the stadium in Windhoek getting built and the other preparations going on, and it’s such an exciting time for the whole country.

- www.espncricinfo.com


2024-05-30  Correspondent

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