Hampshire star Kyle Abbott’s ‘humbling’ experience helping to feed the vulnerable in his native South Africa during lockdown

Kyle Abbott had already bowled more than 1,500 balls for Hampshire and taken 51 wickets at this point in 2019.

Thursday, 18th June 2020, 2:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 18th June 2020, 2:53 pm
Kyle Abbott celebrates a Hampshire wicket in 2019 - this summer he's been doing something very different during lockdown. Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images.

A year on, and the fast bowler has instead helped distribute almost 200,000 meals to rural areas hit hardest by the coronavirus in his native South Africa during the lockdown.

Abbott is part of the ‘Feeding the Wildlife Community’ initiative – which was set up by Hampshire head coach Adi Birrell’s conservationist cousin Grant Fowlds and professional rugby player Joe Pietersen, and their charities Project Rhino and Nkombe Rhino.

The scheme sees the team drive to communities on the edge of National Parks and game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal who could otherwise have turned to illegal poaching to feed themselves during the global pandemic.

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Abbott, a keen fisherman and surfer, explained: ‘Wildlife conservation is something I wanted to get involved in and this opened up an opportunity to do something.

‘It’s been a nice way to spend lockdown and explore something that is close to me and I’m passionate about.

‘It started in late April when Grant was called out to a game reserve in Zululand because some elephants had escaped.

‘While they were there, they saw two guys with a four-metre-long python which they had killed and were going to eat because lockdown had brought people to their knees with no jobs or income.

‘Bushmeat poaching started up at that time and was quite rife. It was purely guys killing wildlife for the pot – nothing as malicious or sad as rhino poaching.

‘As they were leaving the reserve a guy came up to them asking for a job or food and said ‘please can you help us?’ and as the guys drove back they came up with an idea.’

The plan was simple; hand out 5kg bags of pre-cooked porridges – which simply require milk or water and provide 100 meals – along with masks and hand sanitisers to those in need.

‘We are talking about rural Natal which is really out in the sticks,’ Abbott said. ‘A lot of them are subsistence farmers with cows, goats and vegetable gardens but most don’t have electricity or running water.

‘Due to the coronavirus, the breadwinners in those households suddenly didn’t have any income. They were living it tough as it is and this put more pressure on them.

‘They’ve definitely welcomed us. There has been a few dances and prayers. They are incredibly grateful people and it is nice that we can help out.’

The trips are often last minute as they can only be carried out once funds are donated.

Then, days are long – waking up early and not returning to base until nightfall – with plenty of treacherous driving involving hanging over rocks and dodging wildlife.

The experience has humbled Abbott and shifted his world views.

‘One of the biggest things that we have learnt through this lockdown is how fortunate we’ve been to have a roof over our heads and running hot water,’ he said.

‘We never came across anyone sad out there, everyone said they were hungry but greeted you with the biggest smile on their face.

‘They are incredibly resilient and grateful.

‘It is definitely something that you can take away when we are striving for more money or a better house or car that there are people with nothing, but that is enough. It is incredibly humbling.

‘Over the last couple of weeks, I have realised that I didn’t actually know much about the area and the culture which I have now learned so much about.

‘Going to these places has been bred into me but this is the first time I’ve actually given back through conservation.

‘There’s a difference between being a bush lover and being a conservationist – it is very different from spending a week in the Kruger National Park and then going home.

‘It is starting to be a transformation and a new avenue which is quite exciting at the moment.’

For the most part, Abbott remains incognito but attention does come his way once the recipients are made aware of someone with 99 international wickets in their midst.

‘I haven’t been recognised because I’ve had a mask on!’ quipped the man who appeared in 11 Tests (39 wickets), 28 ODIs (34 wickets) and 21 T20 internationals (26 wickets) between 2013 and 2017.

‘We have a guy who does a whole presentation in Zulu and he sort of acts out my job.

‘Then he asks me to take my mask off and they are pretty clued up. There has been a few who have noticed and asked for a quick photo here and there!’

Cricket has been far from his thoughts since he was forced to cancel his flights to the UK five days before his scheduled departure.

But the lockdown in both hemispheres have given Abbott time to contemplate that the time off could mean for his career.

Since arriving at Hampshire in 2017, the player who celebrated his 33rd birthday yesterday has bowled 1,551 competitive overs, so a year’s break might be seen as a good opportunity to rest his body.

He said: ‘There is huge potential to extend my career but I always liken a bowler’s body to an old diesel engine.

‘If it doesn’t start up for a year there’s usually a problem, but the ones which are used every day tend to last the longest.’