SA20 breakout star Ottniel Baartman stakes his claim for a World Cup spot

Ottniel Baartman celebrates the wicket of Ryan Rickelton SA 20

As the star of the second season of the SA20, Ottniel Baartman has made headlines, but he is not exactly happy about it.

"There is a hype about it and for me, personally, I don't like it," Baartman says during a first-class match at Newlands. "The media can make or break you, just like one bad performance can put you on the back foot. But I do feel I am on the map now."

He is, and in a big way.

Baartman was the SA20's leading bowler until the final, when he was leapfrogged by his team-mate Marco Jansen. Baartman was part of an attack that dominated the competition - all three top wicket-takers came from Sunrisers Eastern Cape (SEC) - and he helped his team become champions the second year running by taking an eye-popping 4 for 10 in the first qualifier, giving them a direct route to the final.

He also did all of that in a T20 World Cup year, where bilateral fixtures are so scant that national coach Rob Walter has made it clear the SA20 and CSA domestic T20 challenge will inform his final selection. South Africa last played T20Is against India in December and won't play any before their World Cup squad travels to West Indies ahead of the World Cup. So it's no surprise that Baartman finds himself in the conversation. "All the messages I get and all the calls are from people telling me, 'You are next in line for the World Cup.' I don't want to give them an answer because I don't know selection."

But Baartman's SA20 coach, Adi Birrell, who pre-signed him for SEC after seeing him playing for his provincial side, South Western Districts, a few seasons ago, does, and he believes the case has been made. "His alignment was very good. He runs in straight, follows through straight, and not much can go wrong with his technique. So it's easy for me to say that, of course, he has got to go [to the World Cup], because he has done so well, but I haven't sat down and looked at the options," he says.

"What I will say is that this is his time. He is at the top of his game. Too often, not only South Africa but teams in general go for the young guys with potential, instead of picking the guy who is at the absolute peak of his powers. You need to win the trophy now, and so right now you need people that are in form. I feel he should be going."

Birrell's point rings true for as recently as the last T20 World Cup in Australia, where South Africa exited in the group stage after a poor chase and defeat to Netherlands. Leading into the tournament, opening batter Reeza Hendricks scored four successive half-centuries on a tour of England and Ireland but did not get a game at the World Cup because of the presence of Quinton de Kock and captain Temba Bavuma, who had returned from injury and struggled for runs. Birrell didn't say it but South Africa can ill afford a repeat of that.

Could Baartman fit in? A first-choice South Africa line-up will include some combination of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Jansen, Anrich Nortje and Gerald Coetzee (if both of the last two are fit). Andile Phehlukwayo, Lizaad Williams and Nandre Burger are also in the mix, which suggests it's a crowded field, but the advantage Baartman has could lie in the conditions.

While the drop-in pitch in Nassau County, New York, will be a mystery until the tournament begins - South Africa will play three of their four group-stage matches there - they then move to the Caribbean islands, where surfaces are said to be somewhat similar in character to St George's Park, scene of much of Baartman's SA20 success, or Kingsmead, where he plays his domestic cricket.

Baartman himself wouldn't go that far, because he genuinely does not know what to expect. "I've never been outside of South Africa" he says. "So I don't know any of the grounds or what to expect. If I go, it will be a first for me."

And a fairytale story for a sportsman who had the odds against him from the beginning.

Unlike many of the athletes who advance to the national team, especially in cricket and rugby, Baartman did not go to an elite private school or come from one of the bigger provinces. He grew up in Oudtshoorn, a town in the Western Cape, inland and about equidistant from Cape Town and Gqeberha, best known for its ostrich farms. He still lives there and describes it as a "small town with a small community", where "there are a lot of good sportsmen but they are not going anywhere".

That's partly because they are encouraged to concentrate on other things, like getting a good education. "I had the opportunity to go to a private school but my mother did not recommend that," Baartman says. "It was one of those things where they just focused on sport and not academics. For us, it was: you have to learn first before you can play sport."

Still, Baartman enjoyed the game, kept playing and started his career in his hometown. He eventually had to move to a bigger centre to turn professional. He was offered a rookie contract in Bloemfontein and spent three years there with Knights, who opted not to renew his deal after the first pandemic summer of 2019-20, so he moved to Dolphins. "My career started to go up from there. They had all the facilities and some world class coaches," he says.

In the 2021-22 season, Baartman was the leading bowler in the CSA Provincial T20 Cup with 11 wickets at 10.09. The following summer, he was second-highest in the CSA T20 Challenge with 15 wickets at 14.40. Throughout, he showed himself to be "very competitive and quite astute with his tactics - clever cricketer," Birrell says. "He looks for the tough overs. And we trusted him with the big overs: at the back end of the Powerplay and the death."

That's because Baartman's speciality is the yorker. He learnt it in his youth "playing street cricket, because we used to just hit the stumps as many times as we could and I feel like it started there," he says. "It was about how many yorkers you could bowl in a row."

These days he calls it his "go-to delivery", which explains why he was used so extensively at the death by SEC. In the qualifier, he had Heinrich Klaasen caught behind off a wide, yorker-length delivery in the 17th over, to all but end Durban's Super Giants' chase. But it's also not the only ball he has become known for. "His seam-up ball is pretty good too," Birrell says. "And then he has got a bumper and a bouncer."

In SEC's first win of their SA20 2024 campaign, Baartman took 3 for 35 against Mumbai Indians Cape Town, dismissing Dewald Brevis and Liam Livingstone with short balls. Asked how many variations he has, Baartman wasn't sure but listed the knuckleball among them. "I feel that delivery and the yorker are the two I can get away with when the pressure is on."

He has a few more opportunities to show his worth over the next seven weeks when he will be in action for Dolphins in the CSA T20 Challenge that starts on Friday and concludes at the end of April. All eight Division 1 provincial teams will play the other seven both home and away, for a total of 14 matches, before the knockouts. With no IPL deal calling Baartman, he is expected to be able to fully participate in this tournament and make himself impossible to leave behind when South Africa name their World Cup squad in May.

"He is just a really great talent and it's pretty raw. He didn't go to fancy schools. He has trod that other path," Birrell says. "And he is a favourite in our team. Very popular. He will be an asset."