Farhaan Behardien, who always struggled for a place in the Proteas, had finally found a home in Durham. But the Covid-19 lockdown has seen him stuck in Pretoria.
If all things had been equal, Farhaan Behardien would be a bit of a folk hero in northeast England by now. The veteran batsman, who signed a Kolpak contract with the Durham Cricket club, may well have had a few early season County Championship knocks and made himself the glue that he became in the Titans middle order, where he played for 14 seasons.
If all things had been equal, Behardien's exit from the domestic calendar proper might have been marked with a bit more than a press release and a few tweets. After all, the 36-year-old is the most decorated player in South African cricket, with more than a dozen honours garnered during a career rich in domestic reward and international frustration.
"Sixteen trophies," he corrects.
It is a rich haul, by any measure, but the man nicknamed Fudgie might as well have been handed the moniker of "Marmite", given the polarity of public opinion on his qualities whenever he was summoned to play for the Proteas.
As he looks back on a career that included an ICC Champions Trophy and three ICC World Cup appearances, including two Twenty20 (T20) editions and the unforgettable 2015 heartbreak of Australasia, Behardien admits that there was always uncertainty when he was in the green and gold. He even captained the T20 international side briefly in 2017, but never felt comfortable in the national setup.
"A bit more clarity would have been appreciated. But I look around me in that middle order, AB [de Villiers], Dave [David Miller], JP [Duminy] and Faf [du Plessis]. The game situations that I found myself in meant that I was sometimes not sure what my role was."
A look at his role at the Titans, where there most certainly was clarity of expectation, reveals that Behardien was a calculated finisher. He won countless matches for the most dominant franchise in South African cricket, often timing the back end of a chase or a first-innings assault with brutal efficiency.
Dominant franchise, struggles at Proteas
It remains a puzzle that his Proteas career never quite kicked off in the same fashion, but Behardien says he feels no malice and all is now water under the bridge.
"I have always considered myself a team man, first and foremost. I was happy to do whatever I was asked, and I think I suffered the consequences of that at times. If someone was required to do something, I would do it, no questions asked. I would swing for the hills, whatever the outcome."
He points out that South Africa's main problem at tournaments was the batting, and so much time was devoted to tinkering with the make-up of that puzzle. Given the quality around him, he spent much time occupying the most unforgiving position in the game, that of stabiliser, accumulator and finisher, all while trying to make sense of better bowlers, higher stakes and sharper spotlights.
"I loved every second of it. I have no regrets. It was a massive privilege playing for my country, but it did hurt not being in the reckoning for the 2019 World Cup. I thought that I was playing some of my best cricket in the season before that and I really wanted to go. I had a great 2018 Mzansi Super League and I was domestic T20 Player of the Year. I had scored over 1 000 runs across all competitions," he said.
"It hurt quite a bit to know that I wasn't in the picture anymore. In hindsight, I think that I got to the end of 2018 and thought that 'this is it'. The 2019 World Cup would have been a great swansong and it took a while to get over it."
In the same breath, he was happy for the guys who were going, because he knows how special a World Cup is. It is not something to be taken for granted and several close friends ticked this box at his expense.
"A guy like Rassie van der Dussen has performed domestically for years, so it is always nice to see that commitment being rewarded. It's easy to think that the international dream is over once you reach a certain age, but it is always encouraging to see players who have done the hard yards eventually getting their due."
Domestic fare and the traditions of the game really matter to Behardien, who adds that the only box from his childhood dreams that he didn't tick was a Test cap. This is still the ultimate for cricket players, even as T20 giggles pop up all over the world.
"I'm proud of what I achieved in South African cricket and now this new chapter with Durham is very exciting," he admits.
Why wouldn't it be? It is a chance to extend a playing career by a few years and experience a new cricketing culture and climate. It's also an opportunity to pass on the rich seams of knowledge he has garnered for more than a decade. There is genuine excitement about the idea of having to start again, on a slate that will be decorated purely by the colours he chooses to splash across this extended summer phase of his cricket odyssey.
Covid-19 stumbling block
If all things had been equal, he would have come to terms with the thick Tyne and Wear accent by now. But the Covid-19 pandemic, and subsequent national lockdown, means he is still in Pretoria, finding inventive ways to kill time.
"If I run around my house 50 times, that equates to 3km. Trust me, I have done the measurements, so that has become a running trail. From the wall of the garage to the end of the driveway is about 15m, so I can also do shuttles," the fitness fanatic explains.
He has honed other skills, including developing a quiche recipe of which he is extremely proud. And video games that require strategic thinking have caught his attention. But he is itching to be on the other side of the world, playing out the final chapter of his career.
"Guys are playing on later and later now. A guy like Shiv Chanderpaul was still playing at 42, and for a batter that is possible. I am hoping that I have a few good years in me at Durham."
There is added incentive for playing county cricket, aside from the obvious financial security. As a student of the game, Behardien is keen to play at some of the most storied venues the game has ever known.
"One of our last games of this season was against Middlesex, at Lord's. I have been 12th man there, but I have never got a chance to play there. Or Trent Bridge in Nottingham, or Old Trafford. To be able to go and play at such awesome grounds is a massive motivator for me, because they have so much history."
Despite the uncertainty of Brexit and how that will affect the rash of Kolpak contracts in the county game, Behardien has been assured that he has a future at Durham. Should the rules switch decisively, he will become one of the two overseas players that might become part of the county game from 2021.
"Marcus North, the director of cricket at Durham, has been fantastic. They have been in constant contact and he was the one who suggested that I rather sit out the lockdown back home, rather than be in a new flat, in a city, and be unable to familiarise myself with my teammates and surroundings. I can't wait to get over there," Behardien says cheerfully.
It would certainly have been difficult to crack a smile during some of the tougher periods of his time in the national team, but Durham are well aware that they have signed an experienced and tenacious player of substance, and a mentor of stature.
All things being equal, and they have often been unequal for Behardien in elite cricket, the little corner in northeast England might see the best of him. He is following in the footsteps of former Proteas batting coach Dale Benkenstein, who dusted off international frustrations and became a folk hero at Durham.
When the gates eventually open again and he is free to stop running in circles around his house, Behardien will point a straight and urgent line towards Newcastle and look to add yet more loot to his rich haul with the Titans.
Maybe, just maybe, he will also reiterate that the Marmite opinions were in poor taste.