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Obus Pienaar: I went from a certainty for selection at the Knights to not being picked at all
St. Louis Americans' and former South African U19 all-rounder on why he moved to the USA
Obus Pienaar did not reach the level that many predicted he would or that he himself had hoped to reach. This was not due to any single factor but rather many and at different times of his career. International Cricket may have eluded him in South Africa, but it is something he might be able to correct in the USA.
Speaking to All Over Cricket, Pienaar conveyed a tinge of regret about his career in South Africa, where he played at every level of the game — from age group national level to franchise level — but could not break into the Proteas side.
From a young age, it was clear to those around him that he had the raw talent to become an international cricketer.
“I played all sports growing up, I wasn’t confined to any one sport, which I think helped me a lot with my skills,” says the former South African Under-19 all-rounder, who is currently plying his trade with the St. Louis Cardinals in Minor League Cricket (MiLC) in the USA.
Of course, the game is full of professional cricketers who grew up playing various sports at an elevated level; Herschelle Gibbs with rugby, AB De Villiers with tennis, and Jonty Rhodes with hockey to name a few. The only difference between them and Pienaar is the latter did not get to play international cricket for South Africa.
Pienaar, however, did play representative cricket from an early age.
“I played representative cricket for Free State at primary school, but it was only when I went to High School at Grey Bloem that my game rocketed, in part due to my gaining a growth spurt which added an extra bow to my game as a bowler.”
“I played all the representative cricket from U15 to U19, and the right people started to take note of me and my performances. Being able to bowl left-arm pace helped me. In grade 10 I went to the SA U19 camp where I worked with Ray Jennings and without question, outside of my father, he had the biggest impact on my career. He instilled in me the importance of doing the challenging work, which is something I freely admit is something I needed.”
This early exposure to representative cricket and world-class coaching paid off handsomely. In January 2009 Pienaar went on to make 72 (66) against an England U19 side that included Liam Dawson, Azeem Rafiq, Chris Wood & Nathan Buck, who all went on to have successful county careers. Two years later, he grabbed national headlines, scoring 212 against a strong Titans pace attack that included Marchant De Lange and Hardus Viljoen, both of whom went on to play for the Proteas.
Sadly, Pienaar’s career never kicked into third gear after his initial promise. Unbeknown to him, the growth spurt that gave him a point of difference would soon turn into a curse for him. He suffered a serious stress fracture at 21, which stopped his career in its tracks.
While Pienaar wanted to switch to bowling spin to prevent further injuries, his coaches did not agree. Combined with a dip in performances, this led to him being dropped entirely from the Knight’s squad, which affected his mental well-being.
“To be honest, I know I did not achieve quite what I wanted to in South Africa,” admits Pienaar.
“The stress fracture did have a massive impact on that being the case as I was not able to bowl with much pace, which meant I was restricted. I went from a certainty for selection at the Knights to not being picked in the team at all. This was difficult to adjust to…In fact, it got so bad that I ended up losing my franchise contract with the Knights and was having serious doubts about the long-term possibility of my time in the game.”
Pienaar does not mention it as such but life in South Africa as a semi-professional is notoriously hard as you’re often left in the wilderness never to be seen again at the higher level. Although semi-professional cricket is supposed to be a pipeline to the next level it is more like being a lone castaway on an island waiting for a passing ship to notice your smoke signals.
The all-rounder knew something had to change if he was going to make his way back into the game.
Finally, at the age of 24, Pienaar decided once and for all to give up pace bowling, which did not sit well with his coaches. It was against this backdrop that he regained his franchise contract only to lose it again. On the wrong side of 30, with the hopes of playing franchise cricket and representing the Proteas fading away, Pienaar decided to pursue opportunities overseas.
“I left South Africa for several reasons, and they were more about having a life outside of cricket. My wife and I are newly married, and we wanted to travel. It was something we really enjoyed, and she had been with me when I played league cricket in England and Ireland.”
Shadely van Schalkwyk was the first player from South Africa to move to America, and he helped ease Pienaar’s nerves about a potential move to the USA.
“After speaking to [van Schalkwyk] around this time on the phone I spoke to my wife, and we decided to take the offer we had the offer from ACE (American Cricket Enterprises)…This, of course, all happened when Covid hit, so instead of something that should have taken a few weeks it took close to a year, which was incredibly stressful, but we are happy and settled now.”
Talking about the experience of playing in America and on the various pitches during the recently completed Minor League Championships, Pienaar says he did not find the adjustment that challenging.
“It hasn’t been difficult for me, but I think playing in Bangladesh, Ireland, and SA has helped in that regard. I think if I were eighteen, I would have struggled.”
The Minor League Championship had a combination of cement pitches with matting, hard clay pitches with matting, and turf pitches. Pienaar really enjoyed himself in the Minor League Championships and finished with 444 runs with an average of 44.40.
“I love it here and the fact that we only play the one format means I can fully focus on that format and develop my game solely on that. It is imperative that I make sure I find the boundary on a consistent basis here. In this competition, I would say my six-hitting has improved by 25% already. The fact that the pitches here in St Louis are all matting on concrete means the bounce is consistent which promotes six-hitting.”
In spite of this, Pienaar does admit the facilities need to improve for USA Cricket to be competitive on the international stage.
“It is something they are improving daily and it has improved massively since I have been here. The pitches here in St Louis are all on council grounds, so the outfields are not allowed to be cut, which means the outfields are very lush,” he explains.
He is, however, incredibly positive when he talks about the talent in America that he has seen or played against.
“I have been really surprised at the number of cricketers there are here, there must be five to ten times more cricketers than in SA and the amount of talent is amazing. Here at the St Louis Academy, we have about eighty kids and I would say about 40% of them are South Africa level talent-wise. It is about nurturing them and giving them a pathway like the Minor League Championship. USA Cricket with the large immigrant populations has enough talent to make USA Cricket a real force in the game. It’s just about having the facilities and pathways for them to thrive.”
Pienaar also harbors ambitions of playing in some of the biggest overseas T20 leagues.
“I want to play in the CPL, IPL, BPL and other leagues if the opportunity comes about. Playing cricket at this end of the world you feel closer to all those leagues, so I hope that will work in my favour…For now, although we have only been here for 5 months, I am incredibly happy and am enjoying my cricket.”
Pienaar’s departure from South African cricket is arguably a loss to Cricket South Africa and a career unfulfilled, but he is trying his best to make his performances count in his adopted home. Despite being thousands of miles away from his birthplace, the 32-year old is getting closer and closer to an international cap.
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