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Hardus Viljoen: From rugby hopeful to T20 freelancer, via Kolpak

Hardus Viljoen got the first breakthrough BCCI

When in school, Hardus Viljoen initially thought rugby was his calling. Then he claimed Alastair Cook's wicket with his first ball in Test cricket and thought that that was his calling. Today, it's T20 - and T10 - cricket that is Viljoen's primary claim to fame. Over the last couple of years, he has been part of Multan Sultans, Lahore Qalandars, Chittagong Vikings, Derbyshire and Northern Warriors. In addition to bowling a heavy ball at speeds north of 140kph (ask Moeen Ali, whose bat was snapped in half) and a variety of cutters, Viljoen can muscle the ball lower down the order.

His latest T20 adventure is with Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2019.

Viljoen showcased his hit-the-deck bustle in Mohali against Delhi Capitals and Mumbai Indians, contributing to Kings XI's wins. In a way, his career represents the changing cricketing landscape: from taking the Kolpak route because of lack of game time with South Africa, to giving up the Kolpak contract and becoming a T20 freelancer.

He's a well-established short-format cricketer now, but could have been a rugby professional just as easily. After losing his cricket contract at Titans, Viljoen engaged in rugby training until an injury to Dale Steyn at Titans opened up a spot. In his first match for Titans, against Lions in Benoni, he bagged 5 for 57 in the second innings and helped seal a chase of 309 with a nerveless, unbeaten 45 off 44 balls.

In the South African team, though, the towering presence of Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada meant Viljoen could not add to his solitary Test appearance. He signed a Kolpak deal with Derbyshire and learnt new tricks, which are serving him well across formats.

"T20 is all about being unpredictable - the moment you start getting predictable that's when you're put under the pump"

"It [going Kolpak] was a very difficult decision and, to think of it, it is still difficult," Viljoen told ESPNcricinfo. "My Kolpak contract has ended now. At the end of the day, security in life is very important and you need to support your family. I also had to work on my skills and get to know my game better, and that's what Derbyshire offered to me: the opportunity to get better. I was very one-dimensional at that stage. I just bowled as quick as I could and didn't have too many variations."

Derbyshire did not have a bowling coach, but Viljoen expanded his repertoire by picking the brains of [team-mates] Lockie Ferguson, Wahab Riaz and Ravi Rampaul. Often in county cricket, there are grounds where one boundary is short while the other is longer-than-usual. Such challenges tuned Viljoen up for his stints in the PSL and T10 league.

In addition to nailing the yorkers and bouncers, Viljoen developed a dipping slower yorker that has been mastered by the likes of Lasith Malinga and Dwayne Bravo. He picked up a chart-topping 18 wickets in the T10 league at an impressive economy rate of 7.77.

"At the end of the day, in T20 or T10 cricket, you're going to be hit," Viljoen said. "It's basically about giving yourself the best opportunity to restrict that. I need to give a lot of credit to my captain Darren Sammy. He knew how to use me in that competition and I believe that a lot of players' successes has to do with captaincy.

"Look at MS [Dhoni] for Chennai, he knows how to manage his players. If you know how to manage your players, you can get the best out of them. All credit to Sammy and same with Ash [R Ashwin] for Kings XI. He is very clear about what needs to be done and what is expected of you. If you have guys like that backing you, you can't go wrong."

One of the most popular plays in the T10 league was Viljoen rattling the stumps of Shahid Afridi and giving him a send-off in the final.

"Me and Afridi have had a lot of battles in the past," Viljoen said. "He smashed us when he got his first T20 hundred playing for Hampshire at Derby. He was on top of my bowling and I also remember a game back in the day in Kimberley when South Africa A played Pakistan. Afridi also did well there.

"I've just had days when he came good and he's such a dangerous player that I respect him as a cricketer. So for me to have taken his wicket in a high-pressure situation where he can be the guy that takes the game away from us in the final… To have got him was overwhelming. It (the celebration) was just in the moment. The emotions run high and for me I tend to give every drop of my effort to every team I play."

So, what makes Viljoen tick in these leagues? Absorbing key lessons from those who have been there and done that, and being unpredictable.

"Working with different people in different leagues has helped my game," he said. "I worked with Wasim Akram in the PSL at Multan and before that we had him at Maratha Arabians. And [Dwayne] Bravo was also at Maratha Arabians. I kept on asking him about his slower balls. It's just about figuring out a way things works for yourself as a player. T20 is all about being unpredictable - the moment you start getting predictable that's when you're put under the pump. If you try to be as unpredictable as you can and as effective as you can, I think that's the most important thing."

Viljoen also credits his fiancée Rhemi Rynners, sister of Faf du Plessis, for inspiring him to work hard on his fitness. Before Viljoen broke into the South Africa side, he had shed about 10 kilogrammes.

When asked whom Rhemi will support when Viljoen's Kings XI play against du Plessis' Chennai Super Kings, Viljoen was coy, and downplayed it. "She said whoever bats or bowls at that particular stage, she will support us both. Me and Faf haven't played a game against each other in a while, and everyone back home is rooting for both of us. They want us both to do well."