Inspired by Makhaya Ntini, Lonwabo Tsotsobe is a man on a mission
Tsotsobe is part of a battery of high-class South African pacers. Though he's played five Tests, he's more of a regular in the limited-overs formats where the angles he creates as a left-arm pacer, his ability to swing the ball and keep it tight have stood him in good stead.
For a fast bowler, Lonwabo Tsotsobe smiles a lot, mainly off the field. On the field, he's generally not in the batsman's face, though he admits to having said "some stuff" over the course of his career. Tall and lithe, Tsotsobe looks a natural athlete; in his early years, he alternated between dunking a basketball, striking a tennis ball, and kicking and running with a rugby ball.
Eventually, he settled for sending down the cricket ball as it became increasingly clear that this was the sport he was best at. Today, Tsotsobe is part of a battery of high-class South African pacers. Though he's played five Tests, he's more of a regular in the limited-overs formats where the angles he creates as a left-arm pacer, his ability to swing the ball and keep it tight have stood him in good stead.
It was quite natural that Tsotsobe took to sport from an early age. "I come from a sporting family, so I was under pressure to start playing sport as well," says Tsotsobe. "My mom, brother, dad, sister - they all played sport. My sister was captain for South Africa women's rugby, my brother plays for the first team in local rugby, dad played rugby during the Apartheid era, and mom played netball."
At 15, Tsotsobe attended selection trials in Eastern Province, and the fact that he caught the eye of the men who mattered acted as the spur to streamline his pursuits to one sport. "Two years later at 17, I thought if I can stick with this, I can go all the way. I was selected for my Eastern Province team, my first team at school, and it all went very well. That's when I thought maybe this is what I should focus on and try to make this my career."
Tsotsobe's idol, unsurprisingly, is the man who blazed the trail for him and other black South African cricketers. "My bowling idol is Makhaya Ntini," he says. "The way that man carries himself, the things he does, the humility he has - that's what I feed off. I watched a lot of games where he was playing, and that's actually what I wanted to be. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. When he moved out, I wanted to be the guy that came in. Fortunately, that's how it happened."
After starting well - Tsotsobe took 4 for 50 on his One-Day International debut against Australia in 2009 - he stayed on the fringes of selection without getting into the starting XI because of South Africa's impressive pace stocks. "We all know that in the South African team, we've got very good players. And I can gladly say that I'm very pleased to be amongst those great players in the team. They're very good guys, very friendly guys," says Tsotsobe of his bowling colleagues, who form arguably the best attack in world cricket with Dale Steyn leading the way.
"Dale is a guy that works hard and he's not shy to give advice," says Tsotsobe, 29. "He's not someone who will look down on people. If you're having a bad game, he'll come up to you and say, 'Hey listen, tomorrow is another game. Just focus on tomorrow, let this one go past.' He's a very good guy. Morne Morkel is the funniest guy you'll ever meet. He loves cracking jokes. He's also someone who will give you his experiences of wherever he's been all over the world. There's a lot you can learn from those guys."
Given the abundance of pace riches in the South African team, with Steyn, Morkel and Vernon Philander leading the way, and Tsotsobe jostling alongside the likes of Kyle Abbott, Rory Kleinveldt, Wayne Parnell and Marchant de Lange, it's each man for himself, in a way.
Tsotsobe says his method is to put in more at practice to gain the edge. "For me it's basically the amount of work that you put on at practice that gives you the extra zip or mile compared to your opponent or the guy that you're competing with. If I don't get selected, I always try to find out why I'm not selected and I always make sure I try to improve on what I need to do."
Tsotsobe missed out on a place in the Test party for South Africa's series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, but is part of the ODI squad. After that looms the home series against India, its fate still uncertain. "To be honest, I haven't looked that far ahead, but I'm sure it's going to be a good contest, because we all know that India is the No.1 ODI team in the world and South Africa is the No.1 Test team."
Tsotsobe's personal high point during India's last series in South Africa was the Boxing Day Test in Durban where he took the wickets of Sachin Tendulkar, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni. In the CLT20, as part of the Lions squad, he's done battle with Dravid again and is looking forward to bowling to Tendulkar.
"I'm not bowling to the name Sachin Tendulkar, I'm just bowling to my areas," he explains. "If he hits me out of my areas, I don't have a problem. They (Dravid and Tendulkar) are two brilliant guys, have played for a long time and you can learn from them. You feel honoured to bowl to them on their home turf."
Preparing to head back to the nets, Tsotsobe is stopped his tracks when asked if the zeal to increase fitness thresholds is inspired by Ntini, who would zip across the outfield whether it was the first over of the day or the 90th. With a chuckle, he says, "I don't think anyone can be as fit as Ntini. You can only try. He was a machine. I'm not yet there, but I've got my days as well when I can be a machine."