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Richard Levi’s career comeback turns on New Zealand – again

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There once was a time when little boys across the land wanted to be Richard Levi. That time didn’t last for as long as it possibly should have, but all that’s beginning to change again as Levi (34) turns out for Western Province (WP) in this month’s T20 Challenge being played in a biosecure environment in Gqeberha.

So, how did Levi’s return come about? A couple of months ago, Salieg Nackerdien, the WP coach, heard that Levi was back in Cape Town from his base in England, and asked him to come down for a net at Newlands.

“We were impressed with his form, but there wasn’t really a place in our squad for him at the time,” Nackerdien said. “Then Keegan Petersen went and tested COVID-19 positive, which meant he couldn’t travel with the Proteas to New Zealand.

“Zubayr Hamza was called up from our squad to replace Keegan, which left us with a vacancy – Richard filled it.”

It’s ironic that New Zealand should have indirectly provided Levi with his latest break because the country plays a huge part in his cricket journey. Those with good memories will remember that it was in New Zealand 10 years ago to the day that Levi scored what was then the world’s fastest T20 century when he bludgeoned 117 not out for the Proteas against the Kiwis in the second match of the series in Hamilton, a sleepy provincial town on the banks of the Waikato River.

The details of the match are worth recounting, if only because they remain incredible, even if Levi’s 117 has long since been overtaken as T20 cricket’s highest individual score.

The Kiwis batted first, scoring a perfectly respectable 173 for four in their 20 overs. The South Africans then began their chase, with very few predicting the carnage to follow.

Levi opened the batting with Hashim Amla, who was out at the beginning of the third over for two. Wayne Parnell, next in, didn’t last very long either, out for four in the fifth over, but this seemed to be of little consequence to Levi, who was popping the ball over the boundary ropes with almost reckless abandon.

Levi found a willing partner in AB de Villiers, who came in at four, as he proceeded on his merry way. All in all, he faced 51 balls in his 117 not out, batting for 67 minutes. He didn’t even bother with fours on Hamilton’s small Seddon Park ground, preferring instead to deal in sixes, of which he scored 13 (to his five fours).

It was all over in 16 brutal overs, the South African innings taking 16 minutes less than the Kiwis’ had, as the Proteas squared the series after losing the first game to level matters at 1-1.

Although the innings was admired and well-received, it was also so beyond the bounds of possibility that it was greeted with a note of exasperation. “Such was Levi’s destructive mood that no New Zealand total might have been big enough,” wrote a local cricket correspondent afterwards.

It’s tempting to see Levi’s storybook innings as the beginning of his slow decline, but the truth is messier. Levi, for all his power, clean hitting, and butcher-like forearms, was never the most athletic of cricketers. Some said he carried too much weight and he could be bogged down by accurate spin bowling. He scored only one more 50 in his 12 more T20s for South Africa, and slowly he faded from the reckoning.

Today, he describes himself fetchingly as a “part-time fisherman, full-time human being, and someone who plays the odd game of cricket”.

All this might be beginning to change. When the SA Jewish Report spoke to Nackerdien, he told us that he was keen to recruit Levi for WP’s 50-over campaign too, which would mean a longer summer for Levi (and less deep-sea fishing) than he had possibly predicted.

WP’s four-day form hasn’t been good this season, neither has it been very good under Ashwell Prince in the seasons before that, and Nackerdien is well aware this needs to change.

He’s in the first year of a three-year contract but he also knows that the WP board and cricket-loving public are tired of the persistent cloud of under-achievement that hangs over the province. Levi could play a big role in changing that.

At the time of writing, WP have won all three of their T20 Challenge matches in the “Windy City”, with Levi making useful contributions in the first two of them. T20 cricket is a bit of a lottery at the best of times, but early indications are that WP, on top of the log as we write, are one of the more difficult sides to beat.

Levi didn’t play in Sunday’s game against the Lions, but Gavin Kaplan (featured in these pages two weeks ago) very much did. His 39 against the Lions was full of crisp boundary hitting, with one pugnacious on-drive really catching the eye. It’s stretching the imagination to suggest that Kaplan is another Levi, he isn’t, but it would be interesting to see them at the crease together as WP hit the business end of the competition.

Roll on the good times.

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