As a South African, David Wiese was prepared for the impact of Brexit and the accompanying end of the Kolpak arrangement on his career. What he hadn’t been expecting was for a variant of a virus none of us had even heard of little more than a year ago to restrict him from plying his trade as a cricketer.
That’s exactly what happened with this year’s Abu Dhabi T10 tournament, however. “A week before I was supposed to fly to the T10, Emirates cancelled their flights to and from South Africa, so you could already see that there was something fishy going on there,” David recounts. “Then I was booked on Kenya Airways to get to Dubai.
"While I was at my layover in Kenya, there was a message that came out saying that they’d suddenly banned all South Africans from entering the UAE because of this new variant that we have here. So, I was stuck at the airport for a couple of days with them trying to sort out government permission for me to go straight into the bio-bubble there.
"I got to spend two nights in the Kenyan airport, which was quite fun! It was literally two nights sleeping on the couch in the lounge.
"At the end of the day, it didn’t work out for me, so I had to fly back home again. That was bitterly disappointing. I was looking forward to going back to play the T10 again. I enjoyed the format last season and I wanted to go back and do well again this year, but it was out of my hands and it just gave me two more extra weeks at home to spend with the family.”
The emergence of the South African coronavirus variant has seen a ban on travel from the country to the UK in place since Christmas Eve. Will the restrictions be lifted in time to allow David – no longer eligible to play for Sussex as a Kolpak, but signed as an overseas player for the 2021 Vitality Blast – to make it to The 1st Central County Ground for the tournament?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he responds, accurately representing the uncertainty that continues to surround one aspect of the season ahead, if somewhat overstating the club’s playing budget. “Hopefully they’ll open up the borders again at some stage. I’m hoping that because I will have a work permit over there and a contract in place, they’ll let us in.
"May is still a long way away when it comes to Covid. So hopefully things work out and I can come over and spend the season there."
After David’s performances over the past few seasons, particularly with the bat, Sussex fans will be hoping things will work out too.
But the 35-year-old’s return to the South Coast in a post-Brexit age was far from guaranteed. “At one stage, it wasn’t looking good for me with the Kolpak changing and me having to play as an overseas. We had already signed our overseas players for next season, but thankfully for me when I came over to play in the last Blast, things went quite well for me, and I feel I pushed my case a bit more.
"Luke Wright fought really hard for me to come back as an overseas player again. I’m grateful to him for instilling that faith in me and for wanting me back. I went over there for the season, I didn’t have any contract in place, and I left with an offer so that’s always a comforting thing to know that you played your part and did what you were meant to do.
"I’m excited to be coming back again.”
As much as anything, David is pleased that he might now get another chance to play in front of the Sussex faithful, something else that he was denied by COVID-19 in 2020. “Sussex has been so good to me over the past couple of years and it was a place where I had always planned on ending my career.
"Unfortunately, with the Kolpak ending that might not happen but if I can get another season to play in the Blast and hopefully we can get a couple of crowds in to entertain at Hove, it will be nice. If it is my last season for Sussex, to sign off in front of a couple of people in the stands.”
Ever the professional, the Pretoria resident has been making sure he keeps on top of his fitness and skills back home despite the reduced opportunities to play in tournaments this winter. “Luckily for me, gyms have opened up again so I’ve been able to keep the physical side of things going.
"Also, competitive sport here has opened up again also, so I’ve been training a little bit. I’m fortunate enough to still have a good relationship with the coaching staff and the guys at the Titans where I used to play, so I can go over there and train with them whenever I want to and bowl a little bit there and use the outdoor facilities.”
What about turning back the clock and pulling on a Titans shirt at Centurion Park? “I’ve chatted to them a little bit and I’ve said to them that with me not being a Kolpak anymore, I’m a local again and I could play.
"It’s difficult for them because they’ve got their contracted players, so obviously they’ve got a responsibility to those players. Of course, I’m also playing all these overseas tournaments so I don’t think my availability is as much as they would like it. If I was going to play back for the Titans again, I’d like to make it a full season and be available and not pick and choose the whole time.
"Maybe in the future, I’ll give it another bash here, but at this stage it’s just about focussing on one or two other tournaments."
His return to local-player status in South Africa makes it impossible not to ask whether David has his eyes on playing for his country again. Compatriot, Simon Harmer, a fellow ex-Kolpak, has admitted to wanting a return to the international stage, and David’s consistently impressive T20 batting performances in recent years would surely make him worthy of consideration by a South Africa side still looking for their strongest eleven in the shortest format with a World T20 just around the corner.
“I’ve made peace with the fact that my international career is over. I’m content with the career I had. I played in the T20 World Cup for South Africa. I’ve played a couple of ODIs also.
"I’m grateful for the opportunities that I had to play for South Africa, but I feel that me going over to Sussex and signing the Kolpak deal was the right thing for me to do. I am a better player for it now. There’s no regrets on my side and in terms of playing for South Africa again, that won’t happen in my eyes. I’m fine with that.
"Even if I started playing for the Titans and became eligible for selection, there’s nothing that I’d expect. There’s a lot of young talented players coming through now and I’m a little bit aged now and moving on in my career. It’s not something that I think of at all. I just focus on doing my best for every team that I play for."
But let’s say the selectors came calling…
"I’ve learned in life that you don’t rule anything out, but you don’t put your hopes on anything either. At this stage, yes there are two T20 World Cups coming up in the next two years, that I could see myself playing. I feel like I’m a better player now than when I did actually play for South Africa and if an opportunity comes by for me to play in those World Cups, it would be difficult to say no.
"But it’s not something that I get my hopes up about or that I am working towards or striving for or anything like that. I’ve only got two or three years left in my career and I just want to play as much as I can and enjoy it as much as I can.
"When you start putting those unexpected pressures on yourself, you can start to lose focus on the bigger picture, which is just to go out and enjoy yourself. I don’t know how many games I’ve got left in me. This old body is starting to creak a little bit more than it used to, so I am just going out and focussing on taking every single day and every single game at a time.”
You’d think one upside of just playing T20 cricket for Sussex this year would be a lighter workload for that aging body compared with those it has endured in recent English summers, but you’d be underestimating David’s undying love for the game and for playing for Sussex, as it turns out.
"I’m not going to lie to you, if they come calling while I’m over there and they want to put the Duke in my hand, it’s going to be difficult to say no. I always said I’ve got one or two years left in me in red ball cricket. I still enjoy the challenge. I still enjoy going out there and putting myself through those long overs and long spells in the field.
"My body might not agree with it as much as it used to, but if the opportunity comes by and they need a player for a couple of games while somebody else isn’t there then I’ll jump at that opportunity. I still love playing the four-day game and I love being out in the battle with the guys."
In the meantime, however, David will be focussing on the short format. "I’m leaving at the end of the week to the Pakistan Super League. At this stage it looks like we’re able to go over there. I think it also helps that we’ll be going straight into a bio-bubble, so there’s not that much fear about it. Touch wood!
"It’s a bit frustrating that we’re getting ostracised a little bit and getting excluded from the world. It’s tough times at the moment and you’ve got to take it as it comes. Hopefully, things will get better as we go on."
There are plenty of more pressing reasons for us all to share that hope, but for Sussex supporters, seeing David Wiese pull on a Sharks’ shirt once again would still be cause for celebration.