When Madibaz fast bowler Lutho Sipamla walked into a cauldron of noise at the Bullring in early February, he would naturally have been focused on bowling his maiden delivery for South Africa.
The 20-year-old was making his national debut in the second Twenty20 international against Pakistan and proving that he belonged among such illustrious company would have been at the forefront of his mind.
But, for someone with a deep attachment to the Eastern Cape, and more particularly Nelson Mandela University, it would have been a poignant moment to reflect on the institution’s storied history.
Legacy of cricketing excellence
In earning his cap at the highest level, Sipamla was continuing a legacy of cricketing excellence that has been crafted by a succession of high-quality players who attended the varsity since the birth of the University of Port Elizabeth over half a century ago.
Since the gentlemen’s game became an integral part of the then-UPE’s extracurricular programme in 1966/67, it has produced a constant stream of provincial cricketers who made their mark on the South African scene.
Several went on to receive the highest accolade in the sport when they were selected to represent South Africa, performing with distinction around the world.
Possibly one of the biggest coups for cricket at the varsity was pulled off by the late Kotie Grove when he was instrumental in bringing South Africa-born Kepler Wessels – who had grown disillusioned with his international career in Australia – to UPE in 1986.
Although not a student, Wessels’s dedication and strict discipline rubbed off on his colleagues in the university and Eastern Province set-ups.
He was the catalyst for a golden period in EP cricket when they won seven domestic trophies in six seasons and had a lasting influence on the plethora of cricketers who played under his captaincy.
When EP won the Currie Cup for the first time in 1988/89, nine of the squad of 12 were either from UPE or alumni of the varsity.
When the country was welcomed back into the international fray in 1991, Wessels, along with ex-UPE students Dave Richardson and Tim Shaw, were among those chosen for the ground-breaking three-match tour of India.
Richardson went on to become the country’s first-choice wicketkeeper until his retirement in 1998, whereupon he joined the International Cricket Council, later becoming its chief executive officer.
Nearly three decades since that trio walked onto the hallowed pitch at Eden Gardens, Sipamla and fellow quickie Anrich Nortje are continuing the varsity’s proud history under the banner of Nelson Mandela University.
The slog to the top
As remarkable as it may seem, given the numerous league and national titles they have accumulated over the years, the first team once competed in PE’s second-tier competition.
That was until 1971/72 when they were crowned PE first reserve league champions, gaining promotion to the then-first league.
It was an indication of the game’s growth at the institution, but it was to be another decade of slogging before they announced themselves on the national stage by capturing the SA Universities title for the first time.
That was in Cape Town in December 1981, a triumph that spawned a string of successes that would put the varsity squarely on the national cricketing map.
Including that first title, teams from the institution have won the SA students’ tournament on 12 occasions while lifting the national club trophy four times from 10 finals.
While they have won many premier league titles, there was a remarkable sequence when they were crowned PE champions for eight successive seasons from 2008/09 to 2015/16.
It should be no surprise that the class of 2019 continued to underline the strength of Madibaz cricket by regaining the premier league title and qualifying for the national club championship.
In the Grove
None of this would have been possible without the enthusiasm and dedication of two administrators whose names have become synonymous with cricket at the varsity – Kotie Grove and Flip Potgieter. Both passed away within months of each other last year.
They were lecturers at Nelson Mandela University, but their passion for the game led them to the cricket fields where they took on the roles of chairman (Grove) and president (Potgieter) in the early seventies.
There were many others who contributed, but there can be no argument that their partnership and commitment ignited a pride in the sport that is palpable within the university’s corridors to this day.
Former EP cricket chief executive Dave Emslie placed their contribution in perspective after Grove passed away.
“Kotie was such a remarkable person in that he had so much energy, and he put that energy to good and positive use.
“He was always the kind of guy who you were pleased to see and vice versa. Of course, nature takes its course, but this loss has certainly left a big hole that will be difficult to fill.”
He added that Grove and his “twin”, a former EP president, managed to bring club cricket at the university back from the grave and that, in turn, had a knock-on effect for the province.
The two administrators, for whom being involved in the game was a labour of love, were honoured for their contribution to the club by being named Honorary Life Presidents in 2013.
Since UPE, PE Technikon and Vista University amalgamated to eventually become the Nelson Mandela University, a new crop – led by the likes of Sipamla and Nortje – have been honouring the proud heritage created by those pioneers.
Madibaz Sport cricket manager Sipho Sibande has a ringside view of what the sport means to the class of 2019.
“There is an expectation of success every time the guys pull on their shirts,” he said in an interview at the cricket clubhouse.
“They realise that hard work is part and parcel of it, but there is a genuine desire to keep improving because every year they aim to go one step further than those who went before them.
“Given the rich history of the club, there is still plenty of hunger to succeed.
“It helps to have a facility like this where pictures date back to that maiden league victory in 1971/72. They can see the history of the club and know that they are in the same rooms where many greats celebrated their successes.”
When they next walk out for the Proteas, Sipamla and Nortje will no doubt be focused on the job at hand.
But, one day, they will visit the clubhouse and look at yellowing photos from their prime, knowing that they form part of the rich tapestry of cricket at the institution.