Cape Town: There are fast bowlers who like to hit the top of off stump and there are fast bowlers who don’t mind hitting the batsman between the eyes. There are fast bowlers who send down bouncers almost apologetically, because their captain has set a certain field, and there are fast bowlers whose DNA dictates that any ball that does not threaten the batsman’s rib-cage is a waste of effort. There wasn’t much finesse to him when he unleashed his left-arm thunderbolts, but Brett Schultz was a scary piece of work when he had a hard cherry in his hands.
Schultz, who is better known as The Bear — because Kepler Wessels kept his animal caged, tempted with meat and then unleashed him on unsuspecting batsman — or the Brett Force, because he literally barnstormed to the crease with a catapult action, high leap, putting all his 100 kilogrammes of muscle behind every ball he bowled, was a force to reckon with. Allan Donald, though well past his prime when South Africa returned to international cricket, had more skill, experience and variation, but if he was the scalpel the captain wielded, Schultz was the sledgehammer.
Schultz played only nine Test matches in a career that spanned less than five years, but he took 37 wickets at an average of 20.24. Long before the Americans made the phrase “shock and awe” a household thing, Schultz had perfected a cricketing version of it.
Ask him if he enjoyed having that power over batsmen and Schultz, now 47, and quite far from cricket, allows himself a chuckle. “It’s a bit of exuberance of youth. It was about performance and it was about being out there and then the nickname — the Bear. There was a whole big character built up around you and I think you play into it. Now that I look back, they used to say put meat around the cage and let him out. And when you are that young, you become that,” says Schultz. “I did enjoy that. Looking back now, maybe I was a bit over the top, but it worked. Today it won’t work because you will be suspended if you do that.”
Schultz, who believed there was life beyond cricket even when he was in the thick of things, has since owned a bar, worked in insurance and set up a business that has offices all over South Africa. Off the field, he’s still a bit like a bear, but the teddy bear kind, the one you might give to a toddler to keep the nightmares away when he or she went to bed. Just how can one person be a killing machine on the field and this off it?
“There are two different personalities. Very distinctive. They used to call it white-line fever. I crossed the boundary ropes, got on the field and you couldn't talk to me. I was focussed, passionate. My job was to either get you out or knock you out. You weren’t going to stick around,” says Schultz. “I wouldn't hold back words or aggression to get you out. Fear came first and your wicket came second.”
There’s a story that explains this dichotomy perfectly. When Schultz, who was based in Port Elizabeth, was playing in a game between Western Province and Eastern Province, against Eric Simons, the former India bowling coach, he gave him a torrid time. At the lunch break, Simons, the mildest man you will meet in cricket, introduced Schultz to his wife and two children, “Gee, what a wonderful family you have,” said Schultz.
“If you can see that then why the hell are you trying to kill me out in the middle?” asked Simons.
“That is the story of the two sides of Brett. Aggressive and focussed on the field but very much a normal guy and chilled out off it,” says Schultz.
“I’m the first guy who will come up to have a beer with you after a conflict with you on the field. What happened on the field stayed on the field for me.”
In his short but impactful career, Schultz’s body was brutalised by injuries. He had seven surgeries on his knees and one on his ankle, but, bizarrely the worst came after he stopped playing.
Schultz retired in 1997, but six years after that he fell off a chair when trying to retrieve a suitcase from a cupboard, in the process of packing for a business trip. The fall left him with a shattered right elbow. “Unfortunately, I picked up what they call a super bug in the hospital. I got very infected and had 16 elbow operations. After the 10th one they said they were going to amputate my arm. I signed the piece of paper when I went under the knife, knowing that I could wake up with what I call my Nemo, my one flipper,” says Schultz, flexing his elbow and demonstrating how it is more bendy than a stick of liquorice.
His right hand is shorter than his left, but, at least, it’s still there. “Fortunately the doctor was able to save it. We then tried to fuse it, looked at replacements, and at the end of the day we took it out. About six years ago, about two years after my last operation, I went into rehab and am now fully functional. I faced this elbow with the same attitude as I did everything else, that you can overcome anything. I’m proud of it, but it was tough. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. A cricket injury is one thing. That’s about not being able to play. This was about not having a limb on your body.”
Schultz is that rare beast, the tearaway quick left-arm bowler. While Wasim Akram is undoubtedly the pinnacle of this rare species, he had a lot more than strength and pace. Akram swung it both ways, seamed it sharply off the pitch, mastered reverse and even had a slower ball. Schultz was old school, someone who bowled a lot of “shock balls” and had three gears: “fast, faster, fastest.”
The good thing for Schultz is that he was weaned away from rugby — which South African kid wants to be a cricketer rather than a Springbok? — by Wessels, who believed the left-armer would go further as a cricketer than a utility forward who played in the tight five.
“Kepler was my father in cricket. He was definitely what I needed. He would let the leash out when he had to and pull it back when he did. He was a disciplinarian, blood, sweat and tears,” says Schultz. “It didn’t work for everyone. It didn't work for Allan Donald but it worked for me. I needed that. Some say that maybe some of that was the reason why I broke down so early because he bowled me a lot, but who says I would have got there if it wasn't for him either? It’s a double edged sword.”
Ask Schultz if he wishes his career might have been longer, or if things might have panned out differently, and you find a man completely at peace with himself. “I think it’s very hard to say you don’t have any regrets,” admits Schultz. “From a regrets point of view, yes, I do have some, but I put it in its box. Because I know with my limited ability, I did what I could. What you saw was what you got. All out, flat out. With age, I would have done it differently, but the exuberance of youth is something you can’t replace. The whole team would get lifted up when there was that sort of energy put into it. Those are the things that makes the game so much fun to watch. You take that out and it becomes boring.”
He was fun to watch and anything but to face. The cricketing gods don’t make cricketers like Schultz very often, and it certainly seems like the mould that was once used has been broken, never to be seen again.
The good thing is, despite being poked and knifed by doctors more than the average voodoo doll, Schultz is an eminently huggable, loveable bear. Don’t put a cricket ball in his hand, and you will be just fine.