Against the odds

Dewald Pretorius, Durham's second overseas professional who made his Test debut against Australia this year, tells Peter Roebuck about how he survived a horrific childhood.

This is the story of a young man named Dewald, a battered white child who went on to open the bowling for South Africa. Dewald Pretorius' troubles began before he was born because his father had a child by another woman and ran off with her. Even now Dewald only knows scraps about his father. His mother remarried and the stepfather was a brute who belted his stepsons every night, grabbing them and thumping them with a plank.

'We lived in fear,' Dewald recalls. 'We hated it when 5pm came because he was on his way home.' They could not bring any friends back, and no one visited. 'We tried to run away but they always brought us back,' he says.
The boys ran wild and were hungry, bruised and in rags. For 10 years this wretchedness continued, the mother cowering, the boys angry and despairing. And then the stepfather did not come home one night. Dewald and his brother, three years older, waited with trepidation and then relief as they went to bed unpunished. Next morning he still was not back so they went to school.

'After two or three lessons the headmaster called us in and told us that our stepfather had been murdered,' Pretorius remembers. 'It was hard not to be happy.' He pauses and adds, almost reluctantly: 'We hated him. There is no other word.'

Care became an issue and counsellors appeared. Fearing separation from their mother, the boys refused to see the doctors so the police were called and they were taken away, passing their mother and screaming as she slumped on the pavement. The boys were taken to a 'place of safety' where they stayed for seven months until the case was heard.

It was a violent place. Every Sunday the lads were made to fight till one bled and then the victor fought till he bled and so on, the seniors urging them on, supervisors turning a blind eye and no complaints allowed, for they brought retribution.

Next the Afrikaner youngsters were put in a hostel in Kroonstad, their home town in the Free State, and Dewald stayed till he was 13. Officials decided they could not live with their mother because they 'looked hungry', though Dewald says this was the hostel's fault. Their mother decided her boys would be happier at an orphanage in Bloemfontein.

Dewald had known no warmth, nor had he met anyone who believed in him. But at the orphanage and at Dr Viljoen's School he found concerned adults who provided love and encouragement. They told Dewald: 'You can make something of your life', and he committed himself to passing his exams and leaving the orphanage as its outstanding product. He achieved both.

His brother was not so lucky. He was sent to a reformatory, came back 'worse' and nowadays tramps the country in rags. Dewald found him a job but it did not last. 'You can only help those who help themselves,' he said.

At 13, Dewald discovered cricket and, he says, 'my whole life started then'. Friends were playing and he joined in, not wanting to return early to the orphanage. He found he could bowl faster than anyone else and was immediately put in a team, an enormous boost to his confidence.

Bloemfontein is a small town and word spread about his pace and enthusiasm. Corrie van Zyl, then the provincial coach, took an interest, as did Hansie Cronje and Allan Donald, who provided guidance and help, saying: 'You just keep going.' Pretorius regards Cronje as the best man he has met.

He took a job at Free State's ground and practised every night, determined to play for his country. At Cape Town, against the best side in the world, he had made it. Things did not go so well on his debut, but he says: 'I promise you I'll be back.' Afterwards, he saw his girlfriend and then visited the orphans.

Pretorius has come a long way. He worked for three years as a hostel father at the orphanage. He tells the children: 'You just keep going. You can make something of your life.' And then goes to the nets, utterly determined to fight his way back into the Test team.

First published in the Cricketer Magazine 2002.

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