Namibia at the 2024 T20 World Cup – Michael van Lingen is taking cricket out of Windhoek and into the sand dunes

In the 35km stretch between Namibia’s coastal cities of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, there are endless sand dunes (including the world’s seventh largest, creatively named Dune 7) and about 100,000 people. Only one of them, Michael van Lingen, is an international cricketer, and these days he is instantly recognisable in the area.

“I stay at Long Beach and I see a lot of youngsters that have never played cricket and never even heard of cricket – and they’re now interested in the game. When I’m there, I train in my Namibian kit and that’s how I try and inspire the guys,” says van Lingen, a top-order batter.

“Cricket Namibia have got guys going into rural areas. They get the children involved and they get the parents involved. Because cricket is not an older sport like rugby in Namibia, people don’t know cricket. Lots of the parents are a bit sceptical and ask: ‘What is this sport? What’s this bat and ball?’ And then they realise it’s a great sport. It’s grown so much in the last two or three years.”

Where the 26-year-old van Lingen lives is important because although Namibia itself is huge – at more than 800,000 square kilometres – its population of just over 2.5 million people is tiny. Almost anything of significance that happens in the country takes place in the capital, Windhoek (400km east of Walvis Bay), including most elite sport, and it’s rare to find someone who still lives in what could be called the wilderness involved in something as high-profile as cricket has become.

Just his presence could help grow the game that he had to learn through television, and later in South Africa.

“The skill and everything I’ve learned was through TV because the facilities [in Namibia] weren’t great. We had only one field and a cement pitch and the coaches were minimal.

“I would look at guys like Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting and all the top players,” he says. “I used to like Michael Bevan even though he was a bit before my time. He was one of my favourite cricketers because he’s left-handed and was a finisher and I also used to be a finisher when I was young, so I would try to replicate what I saw him do.”

When he was in his second year of high school, van Lingen and his family moved to South Africa’s Western Cape, where he attended one of the country’s best-known sporting schools: Paarl Boys, whose alumni include England international Dawid Malan.

“I went to the school for squash, actually,” van Lingen says. “But then cricket started to take over.”

At the outset van Lingen was a middle-order batter who only bowled in the nets. “I actually started off bowling left-arm wristspin and it came out well, but obviously that’s quite a hard skill if you haven’t been doing it for years. I sort of put that in my back pocket and I guess I could bring it out again, but I can’t promise it will be any good.”

Instead, he made his name as a seamer and was picked in Namibia’s squad for the 2016 Under-19 World Cup. “We lacked bowlers at that time, so I thought I would make sure it was something I did.”

“My studies took over and then it was Covid, but I also had injuries,” he says. “The reason I stopped bowling in the first place was because I had a stress fracture in my lower back. I was out for a year, and then when I started playing again, two weeks in, I tore my hamstring. I just decided to step away from cricket.”

He finished his studies at the University of Pretoria and moved back to Namibia to help with the family business. “I just started playing for fun and before I could wipe my eyes out, I made my [international] debut.”

“My mechanics were awful and I was very injury-prone, so I sort of stepped away from bowling because there would always be some niggle that held me back. I decided to start focusing on my batting instead.”

“We only had one or two guys that wanted to open the batting, and because I played squash, I’ve got a good eye and good reflexes, so I said, I’ll give it a go, I don’t think I’ll be too bad at it.”

Since then, he has scored four ODI hundreds and two T20I half-centuries, but he hasn’t quite nailed the kind of power game the 20-over format demands. Van Lingen thinks he knows why. “I’m a bit more technical, I focus on timing the ball and I wouldn’t say I’m a big six-hitter, especially in the beginning.

“I don’t really like to compare myself to guys like Travis Head and all those players. I just try to focus on my own game and make sure that I nail my skill as a solid opening batter. One of my goals for this World Cup is to lay a strong foundation in the powerplay for the team.”

In the Namibian set-up, van Lingen feels that a slightly more circumspect approach works. “We’ve got a very strong finishing team. JJ [Smit], David Wiese and Gerhard [Erasmus, the captain] can come in later if we’ve set that strong foundation in the powerplay and just finish it. They can take games away from teams.”

In the 2024 T20 World Cup, Namibia are slotted in Group B, along with Oman – whom they beat 3-2 in a T20I series in April – Scotland, England and Australia, and it’s the big guys that they are gunning for.

“We want to be playing against England and Australia and the likes of South Africa and New Zealand. We’re very excited and very, very positive,” van Lingen says. “We think that if we play good cricket on the day, we can take any of the four teams out. We’re very optimistic in making it through the group.”

That’s fighting talk from a side who have never played England or Australia in T20Is, and have only ever beaten three Full Members in the format – Zimbabwe, Ireland and Sri Lanka. No member of the current side has played in the Caribbean before either, save for Wiese, who has featured in the CPL.

Their win over Ireland came during a dream run at the 2021 T20 World Cup, where they progressed from the first round to the Super 12s. Van Lingen was part of that squad and remembers it as life-changing.

“There’s not much of a better feeling. I I never thought I would be able to feel so much joy and see so much passion and love for the sport and for the country.

“For me, the biggest thing about qualifying for the Super 12s was the inspiration that the youngsters had. That was huge. After that World Cup, I think cricket increased tenfold in Namibia. People suddenly started asking questions and wanted to get involved. Before that, people didn’t even know Namibia played cricket, especially people at the coast.”

Now they do and it’s a big deal because Cricket Namibia is trying to grow the game outside of the capital ahead of the 2027 ODI World Cup, which the country will co-host with South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Namibia still have to qualify for that tournament, but van Lingen is confident they have the inspiration and plan to get there. “There’s still a lot of time, so there’s still a lot of upskilling that we can do. And we want to get there. We’ve seen the stadium [in Windhoek] getting built and the other preparations and it’s such an exciting time for the whole country to be hosting the event.”

By then, if all goes well, there may also be more national cricketers living at Long Beach.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s correspondent for South Africa and women’s cricket

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