Saint Charles’ old boy SJ (Sarel) Erwee has been one of the most successful and consistent Dolphins’ batsmen of recent seasons, bringing stability and runs to the top of the order, and performing well in all forms of the game. KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan caught up with him to talk about how his former school had helped develop his love for the game and about how he became a success at franchise level.

His home language was Afrikaans, so he attended Piet Retief in Pietermaritzburg until the end of grade three, before switching to Pelham from his grade four year on. During his time at Pelham, while playing in Midlands’ cricket trials at Saint Charles, he scored 60, an innings that was witnessed by two Saint Charles’ matric boys, Glenn Addicott and Brad Moses, both of whom would go on to play for the Dolphins.

Afterwards, they asked him which school he was planning to attend for high school. His initial thoughts had been Maritzburg College, but, he admitted, he was not about to tell the two Saint Charles’ boys that. They told him they would help make sure he moved to the school. Then, when he thought about it, as an Afrikaans boy, Saint Charles began to make a lot of sense.

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He explained: “I think, as an Afrikaans boy going into an English school, you’re looking for a bit more one-on-one help, in case you’re battling with school work when it’s your first time in an English class. Saint Charles had small classes, maximum of 20 in a class, so you got individual attention if you needed help. That was what drew me toward the school, knowing I would survive in an English environment as an Afrikaans boy.”

Also, the two matric boys had made a very favourable impression on young SJ: “Having matrics caring for youngsters and wanting them at their school, that was quite special as well,” he said.

SJ’s dad, Sarel, had enjoyed a successful career as a provincial rugby player, and it was his favourite sport, but when SJ said he wished to concentrate on cricket, his dad backed his decision.

“As a youngster, I guess all parents want you to do well and they obviously push you to do well, and they do what is necessary to give you the best opportunity to do well, things like extra coaching. As a sportsman, he wanted that for me. He was very strict as a father, but very supportive. He knew what it took to succeed at a higher level.”

“He wanted the best for me and my cricket. Whatever it took, he was that pillar that supported me in those decisions. Him knowing what it took, and the things that you need to stay away from if you wanted to make it in sport, I learnt from those things. He kept me grounded.”

Celebration time with the Dolphins.

Another big influence on SJ was Saint Charles’ 1st XI coach, Dave Karlsen. “He believed in me from a young age,” SJ said. “I started training with the first team at the end of my grade eight year. I trained with them for a bit during my grade nine year. I think I played a couple of games in the Michaelmas Week in grade nine. He always believed in me and pushed me. During PE lessons, he would actually do a bit of coaching with me. He saw the potential in me from an early age.”

He was also encouraged by other boys at the school. “The brotherly community and family attitude at Saint Charles was nice. We had a lot of guys, like Glenn Addicott, who helped me. Also, his brother Denzel and Brad Moses, they were always willing to help and willing to throw balls. There were a lot of senior guys (they know who they are) when I was a youngster at first team practices willing to learn, and they were willing to give advice and willing to help.”

During his time at Saints, SJ earned provincial representation for KZN Inland at under-15, under-17 and under-19 level, which he achieved for two years in succession.

Straight out of school, he joined the Dolphins Academy, but on his arrival there he realised he would need to adjust his goals. He explained: “I used to be a bowler that could bat a bit. When I went to the Dolphins Academy, there were much better spinners than me; Keshav [Maharaj] was there. Our Academy coach just said to me, ‘You can bowl, but work on your batting’.

“I suppose I just fell a bit more in love then with batting than bowling. It was more fun batting and whacking bowlers than bowling. That’s when I changed into a batter.”

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During his time at the Academy, SJ made his first class debut, but it was a hit and miss affair, and he was in and out of teams. KZN Inland, where he was to later enjoy a lot of success, was not run in an especially professional manner.

“I was batting at three, then at seven, then nine, then five. I was all over the show, so I never really had a set plan about how I wanted to bat and where I wanted to bat, because I was chopping and changing week in and week out. That probably affected my stats negatively,” he said.

His cricket career, though, took a decided turn for the better when Grant Morgan joined Inland as coach from the 2012-13 season. His leadership and coaching turned the fortunes of the long down-trodden team around and soon they were winning trophies, something which had appeared unthinkable previously.

SJ was batting at five when Morgan arrived at Inland, but the new coach had seen something in the left-hander and pushed him up the order to number three. He explained to SJ how he wanted him to play, told him to back himself, and assured him he would stay at three for the rest of the season. With that, SJ’s game began to mature.

“Then I figured out I didn’t want to play for Inland for the rest of my career. I wanted to move up.

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“I had a look at the Dolphins side and where there could be an opportunity. I am very good friends with Divan van Wyk and obviously Imraan Khan, our coach now, we get along very well. We had a good relationship when they played for Inland and they’ve helped me quite a bit through my Inland career and my cricket career. I have got a lot of respect for them. I still speak to Divan and ask them for advice, likewise with his brother, Morné. They’ve helped me a lot.”

“I saw the middle order was packed with youngsters and guys that were consistently doing well. But there were only the two openers, Divan and Imraan, and I thought there was an opportunity there. I was going to try and take it. If it worked out, I could have a successful career. If it didn’t, well I gave it a bash. Divan and Imraan were very supportive of that. It seemed to work out.

“Whenever they were playing for the Dolphins, I would open for Inland. Things started going nicely and they were backing me. In the training sessions, they would help me. We would train with the new ball and they would tell me what it takes, the mind-set and technique. It’s funny how it works out that way.”

SJ Erwee has excelled in the shorter forms of the game, averaging over 40 in the 50-over format. (Photo: Hollywood Bets Sports Blog https://blog.hollywoodbets.net/)

Another important event in his development occurred when SJ was appointed captain of the KZN Inland team. At the time, Grant Morgan was moving to take over the Dolphins, while former Inland captain Shane Burger took up the reins as coach of the side.

“They thought if I captained the team it would give me a bigger responsibility to actually take things more seriously. It ended up exactly that way. I felt that it wasn’t just about me personally as a player trying to do well. I was doing it for the team. That’s where Grant Morgan changed the whole Inland set-up. That’s how we started to win trophies, by playing for each other. We ingrained that into our game plan.”

The one thing that was missing, though, was a century. Many times, SJ would make an eighty or a ninety, but then miss out on three figures. In February 2016, that all changed and when he achieved the milestone he went very big.

Facing a decent Namibian team in a Sunfoil 3-Day Cup match in Pietermaritzburg, he and Divan van Wyk put on a huge 306 runs for the opening wicket before Van Wyk departed for 152. SJ, though, was far from done. Coach Shane Burger had predicted that he was due for a big innings and it duly arrived as SJ, in a knock lasting almost seven hours, struck 23 fours in an innings of 200 not out.

“To get a double-hundred after getting a lot of eighties and nineties the years before, there was a sense of relief,” he said. “I also felt like I wasn’t finished. I was relieved, but there wasn’t any massive celebration. But it was a case of this is what it feels like, I need to get more and more. Then the celebrations become a bit bigger and you feel a bit happier. To get a double-hundred was nice, but it was the start of everything.

“Once I got that double-hundred, I then got a list A hundred for the Dolphins, and then a first class hundred the week after that, for the Dolphins again.

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“You get a taste of something and you pick your way through your innings afterwards and see what you did right, what you can do better. You find a process and that’s what clicked for me. Those are processes that you try to repeat day in and day out. That 200 just kick-started me.”

The Inland team also taught SJ life lessons about the vital role of teamwork in cricket, and about taking knocks but then getting back up and fighting. Many of the Inland team were players that other provincial sides had rejected, but they pulled together and won both the 3-Day and T20 provincial titles, convincingly defeating teams that had once deemed them not good enough.

“That’s what Grant Morgan instilled in us. With him getting Shane Burger there, he was a great leader, a great human being, and a great coach afterwards. Our blueprint was yes, you get rejected somewhere else, and things might not go your way, but ultimately there is more to life than just cricket and being successful on the cricket field. It’s the relationships you build around you. You train together every day. You might as well have a good time with each other. That’s how friendships build. Most of us stay in contact with each other, wherever we are around the world, because of the relationships we built in that team during that era.”

Morgan and Burger played crucial roles in SJ’s growth and he regards both men as mentors who were able to extract the best out of him.

On the attack for KZN Inland in the Africa T20 Cup, which the team won in 2017. (Photo: Hollywood Bets Sports Blog, https://blog.hollywoodbets.net/)

One of the most important lessons from Grant Morgan, which he carries with him still, is something one of Morgan’s coaches had told him: You make your mark before lunch, you get in after lunch, and you score your runs after tea.

“That’s the kind of mentality that instilled in me,” SJ said. “Even in the white-ball format, you don’t have to go to a 150 strike rate from the start. Get yourself in and batting gets a touch easier. I’ve tried that over the years and it seems to work.”

In 2017, he had the rare opportunity to represent South Africa in the Hong Kong Sixes. “The Hong Kong Sixes was incredible,” he reckoned. “I watched it as a youngster and it was always something that looked like fun. It was incredible. You saw a small field and balls flying everywhere.

“The guys were had in our side were good guys. We had a lot of fun over those four or five days and we won! I don’t think anyone expected us to win. We got sent to the airport and that was the first time we met with each other. We didn’t have any travel kit. We got to Hong Kong and tried to enjoy our trip. It’s not every day you get to go to Hong Kong and just whack a ball around while experiencing a new country and a new culture. We tried to make the most of the days we had there. It seems like if you try to enjoy something you’re going to do well and that is exactly what happened.”

And even though it wasn’t a major tournament, it was still special to represent the country. “When you hear the national anthem playing and you hear your name announced as playing for South Africa, it is still a privilege. It’s not the ‘real thing’, but to know there are seven of you representing South Africa at a world tournament is quite cool.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has prevented SJ from playing club cricket in the UK this season, but he is hopeful that will happen next year. Coming up, hopefully, though, is duty for the Dolphins. “I think I’ve got to be back in Durban for training on the 15th [of June]. We’ll train in small pods.”

As one of the more established players in the team, and as someone now into his thirties, he still continues to lead, but simply through the example he sets for the younger players.

“As the younger guys come through, they talk to you about things. They look at what you do and not just what you say. We have got a lot of leaders in our side, older guys or more experienced guys. Leadership is not always just about talking, it’s about doing. If I keep performing, training hard, and setting the example for the guys coming through, that’s also leadership.”

SJ remains a faithful supporter of Saint Charles and an inspiration to the boys of the school.

While his school days are long past him now, SJ says there are lessons from Saint Charles that he has carried with him throughout his life. “Saint Charles is a small school. There are a lot of talented and hard-working people at the school. You are expected to show good manners as a Saint Charles’ boy and you need that a lot longer than sporting achievements, because sport only lasts for that long. Life after sports and the relationships you build during your sporting career are very important. Humility and manners, how approachable you are to people are very important.”

He maintains close ties with the school and eagerly follows their cricket programme, which has enjoyed some outstanding successes in recent times, including winning 21 matches in succession in 2019 and reaching the final of the National Schools T20 competition.

“I am very excited to see what Saint Charles is achieving,” SJ said. “It’s nice to see Morné van Wyk as the cricket pro. It shows how seriously they are taking their cricket and it’s shown in how well they have done over the last couple of seasons. Morné will only do good things there. He has always been a hard worker and he has got different ideas and techniques, which will help the kids, not only at school, but also after school.

“I am very, very excited. I follow the sport at Saint Charles closely. I try to stay in contact with the Master in Charge of Sport, Rowan Irons, and Morné. It is brilliant to see how well they are doing and what is going on at the school.”

Following a victory in the Kearsney Stayers’ Tournament at the end of 2019 and, more recently, a win in the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament, the most prestigious event in the sport in South Africa, Michaelhouse basketball is on all-time high. The team is widely regarded as the best in the country, so KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan recently visited Balgowan to find out more about the side.

Chatting to the 1st team coach, Nkanyiso Ngcobo, who began his stint in charge of the team in late 2015, it became clear that the basketball team’s success was because of the buy-in and support of the entire school into and for the sport.

The first question, was, unusually, what is going right? That’s when, unusually again, rugby made its way into a story about basketball success!

“I think it is probably the working relationship that we have with the Sports Department as a whole, the strength and conditioning side of it, in terms of the fitness of the boys, as well as the relationship, probably most importantly, that we have with the rugby club,” he said.

“We support each other. We realise that basketball and rugby go hand-in-hand, so the more support that is given to basketball for basketball to flourish, there is also a knock-on effect for rugby and it does well.”

In some schools, the competition between sporting codes and coaches can be quite toxic, so it’s a very important point made by Ngcobo.

Reflecting on his charges recent annexing of the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament title, he said: “It is the title you want to win. It’s the first time that we have won it. In fact, we also won the Stayers’ Tournament for the first time at the end of the last year.”

Michaelhouse edge Maritzburg College in basketball thriller

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Point guard Banele Sithole drives up court in the final of the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

But this was no team of one-year wonders. It had been built up and honed over time: “It has actually been five years in the works. We have been trying to build our club from the ground up. We have structures in place for coaches and the development of coaches, and the support that we have from not only the club management, in terms of the master in charge, but also from other staff members, has been fantastic.”

Something else that has also helped Michaelhouse is the fact that it is a boarding school. Ngcobo explained: “The boys have really found a passion in basketball. It’s also part of their social life. It isn’t only about sport. You will find them playing basketball in their free time.

“For us, it was just about tapping into that love of basketball and making sure that the foundation and skills were there.”

Turning to how Michaelhouse approaches the game, he added: “Right now our style of basketball is structured. We try and play within the systems. We try to apply a lot of basketball IQ to everything we do. Even when we practice, we look at situational practices. In terms of skills, in terms of running, in terms of fast breaks, guys inherently have that. But it is about awareness and recognising what the game is giving you.

“We allow players to express themselves. We’re not limiting guys and turning them into robots. But at the same time, all the guys play within a structure.”

It’s at that point in the conversation that we’re joined by the back court duo of Jason Makhele, the shooting guard, and Banele Sithole, the point guard and co-vice-captain. Captain JC Oelofse and fellow vice-captain Kwanele Khumalo are unavailable because they’re on a basketball camp in the United States!

To be a winning team, to be the best, it takes more than talent, it takes a special connection between the players and a relentless drive to succeed.

Jason said that although he became a member of the side later than some others, it is their togetherness that has made them a formidable force.

“I think this is one of the only teams that no matter what grade you are in, we all come together as a team. I came into this group in grade 11, and it is my first time playing with them. Most of them have been playing together for four years, but I still feel part of the team.

“It’s not just a first team, it’s like a family.” (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

“We’ve worked out handshakes and nicknames, so it is a very special thing to come into a first team and then feel like it’s not just a first team, it’s like a family.”

“Our pre-game warm-ups and rituals are pretty exciting, because everyone has their specific role, which we do every time.”

“The atmosphere at our games at Michaelhouse is incredible because we have the whole school supporting us.”

That’s when Coach Ngcobo chipped in, revealing a downside to the tremendous support the team has: “They enjoy the atmosphere, I don’t particularly. After every game, I lose my voice because I have to shout so loudly so they can hear me on the court.”

“The drums are right behind me, the band is right behind me, the boys are screaming behind me, and these guys just can’t hear a word I am saying.

“It’s a nice problem to have because it does a lot for the team spirit. It brings a lot of energy to the game, but I am constantly trying to out-shout the supporters.”

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The other thing about being a team – and it’s more important in basketball than in many other sports – is having a bench that is able to contribute. It is not just about the starting five.

“We have had several conversations as a team in which we have tried to identify each person’s role, what they think it is and what I think it is,” coach Ngcobo said. “One thing that we always stress is when you are coming on make sure that we keep the momentum going. If the team is slacking, make sure you pick the energy up.

“What I value about this team is that everyone is always ready to step on the court and do what they can. If they don’t step on the court, they are always ready to do what they can from the bench. That’s very important in basketball, having what we call the sixth man.”

All season long, especially after winning the Stayers’ Tournament at Kearsney in the fourth term of 2019, the ultimate goal for the Michaelhouse team had been to win the Saint John’s Tournament title.

“After Kearsney, we realised this wasn’t just a pipe dream. We could go the whole way,” Banele said.

Point guard Banele Sithole with the Saint John’s Tournament Trophy, coach Nkanyiso Ngcobo, and shooting guard Jason Makhele with the Stayers’ Tournament Trophy. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

But it started with a bit of a damp squib for the side when Enjabulweni School failed to arrive on time for the opening game. That meant, after the forfeit points, the clash with Cape Town’s Wynberg Boys’ High would be the first time the ‘House boys stepped on court in Johannesburg.

Were they nervous? “I think the nerves come from me, really” Ngcobo admitted. “These guys just go out there and play. I’m the one behind the scenes, stressing and trying to put together a strategy, and scouting. Even if I can’t go to a game, I will ask someone to check out the side for me, see what style they’re playing, what size they have. We knew nothing about Wynberg, but I did get some information from other coaches.”

He needn’t have worried too much. Michaelhouse dominated and ran away to a convincing 39-11 victory.

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Next up was Saint Alban’s College, a school with a proven basketball pedigree. Michaelhouse won 26-20, but it was probably a more convincing victory than the score might suggest.

“Sometimes a score doesn’t necessarily illustrate the level of comfort, and I think Saint Alban’s was actually a comfortable victory for us. They didn’t have much size and they had one or two shooters. Because of that we were able to neutralise them with our defence,” Ncgobo said.

That brings us to the Michaelhouse defence, upon which the team’s game is built. ‘House is blessed with a huge building block in centre Simi Femi-Kayode. At 2.05 metres tall (a tiny fraction under six-foot-nine), he is an immense presence around the basket.

Smiling, Ngcobo said: “That’s a big advantage. He’s pretty much the biggest basketball player in the country. Defensively, he is an absolute marvel. He takes care of our paint.

“Basically, to beat us, you have to get us in foul trouble or you have to shoot well.” With limited options, that severely cuts down teams’ chances of beating Michaelhouse.

They shall not pass! Michaelhouse centre Simi Femi-Kayode is a big problem, literally and figuratively, for other teams around the boards. (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

Saint John’s College were next on the schedule for Michaelhouse and the hosts were primed to take on the boys from Balgowan.

Jason commented: “We played Saint John’s earlier in the season [going back to the end of 2019] and it was an easy win. Going to them, it was wow!

“I didn’t expect them to come out like that. I knew they would have the home crowd behind them, but I didn’t expect them to play so hard. It was surprising.”

It was a big surprise for Michaelhouse and when the final whistle went they had fallen 26-29.

That meant the side’s final pool game, against Clifton, would determine who finished second in the group. ‘House played with a heavy rotation and some experimentation, but they soon established a comfortable lead. Clifton, though, were far from done, with their KZN under-19 star, Jacques Mahanga, leading a furious fightback. Sensing the danger, coach Ngcobo sent out his starting five once more and they secured a hard-fought 37-35 win.

In the last 16, Michaelhouse were drawn against Waterford Kamhlaba. While a final score of 34-21 was comfortable, the Swazi side presented a tough challenge. “They were a lot fitter than most of the South African teams,” Jason reckoned. “Though they lacked size, they made up for it in fitness. They made us work hard.”

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That victory meant Michaelhouse’s quarter-final opponents were Saint Charles, a team they knew well and a team they respected. “That was probably our game of the tournament. When we play Saint Charles, we are always concerned. Geographically, they are our neighbours, so they are our rivals,” Ngcobo said.

“It was a tough draw for both schools, but we seem to always get each other. We played them in the semi-finals at Kearsney as well, and we play each other twice, once in the fourth term and once in the first term. It’s always a close game.

“The coach there, Darren Holcomb, was my coach when I was in school. So there are similarities in our basketball style. They share a similar philosophy.”

On the court, Michaelhouse roared into a 12-0 lead against their Pietermariztburg rivals and it looked as if they would record a routine win, but Saint Charles had other ideas and clawed their way back in to the contest. When it ended, House had edged it 28-27.

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The semi-final showdown with Saint David’s Marist Inanda proved to be a less nerve-wracking experience. Michaelhouse’s defence shut down the Johannesburg side’s offence, allowing only 17 points, enabling JC Oelofse and his team to record a six-point victory.

“We generally were defensive-minded [throughout the tournament], despite the fact that we do have some individual scorers who can be breath-taking. We do try to win our game with our defence,” coach Ngcobo commented.

Through to the final, Michaelhouse found themselves up against Saint John’s College once more. Strangely, their loss to the Johannesburgers in the pool game proved to be, if there is such a thing, a good loss.

Coach Ngcobo explained: ” One of the key reasons why they beat us in the first game was that in the fourth term last year they came down to Michaelhouse and I believe they studied us very well. This was after we won the Kearsney Stayers’ Tournament. We were already a target. Their coach did a lot of research and he planned brilliantly for us.

“The downfall of that is that they had already played us once in the tournament. We were now in a position to know what they were going to do. Once we figured out their system, we neutralised it. We also frustrated them because I don’t think they had a Plan B. Our defence was the key.”

Michaelhouse point guard and co-vice-captain Banele Sithole attempts a steal in the final against Saint John’s. (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

The title-decider, though, didn’t start well for Michaelhouse, with Saint John’s surging into an early lead.

“We didn’t start off as well as we had hoped to, but there were some contributing factors,” Banele said. “We didn’t really get to do our warm-up and we started off poorly. But then we started catching up and we built up momentum.”

Saint John’s presented a very physical, aggressive and energetic challenge, but Michaelhouse was up for the game.

They soaked up the early onslaught and slowly upped the pressure. The tide turned and the lead changed. The game finished 48-40 in Michaelhouse’s favour.

The quest to be the best ended in triumph: Michaelhouse, the 2020 Saint John’s Basketball Tournament champions. (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/michaelhouse.org/)

For Banele, it was almost a case of déjà vu: “It was like, this is where we belong. For me, it was like a flashback to the Stayers’ Tournament at Kearsney. We lost to Kearsney in the group stages, then played them in the final and beat them. At Saint John’s, we played them in the group stages, lost, and then beat them in the final.”

Jason, with excitement in his voice, said: “For me, the realisation that we were actually number one in the country made me feel as if this was what I was meant to do. We had accomplished our goal. We didn’t come to the tournament for second or third place.

“We knew we were the best and we had to show the whole of South Africa that we were the best.

“I told myself afterwards that it is not going to be the last time. It has to be repeated.”