Two memories from Beni Hansen‘s childhood stand out for his father.
The first was when Beni left his own birthday party to hit some balls. The Hansens and a few friends had just finished eating the cake and were about to open the presents.
As everyone scrambled to get in place, Beni appeared in the background, mini-bat in one hand and ball in the other, toddling to the backyard to play.
The second is from a few years later. Shane Hansen walked in to check on his sleeping son and found him cuddling his brand-new Black Widow bat. It was the first real bat the boy owned and there was no better explanation for his love for it. Both moments were preserved for posterity, one in a video and the other in a picture.
Beni tried his hand and excelled in various sports: rugby, swimming, football, tennis, and hockey. But his primary love was cricket, and his childhood is replete with bat and ball memories. His parents, Shane and Lisa, bought him cars, guns, Legos, and all the other stuff boys normally like. He would look at them but never took an interest in them.
“He was always asking me to come outside and throw balls so he could hit and practice catching,” says Shane.
When Earl Woods realised his son had a special talent, he took matters into his own hands and dedicated his life to developing Tiger into a golf champion. He famously jingled coins in his pocket while Tiger stood over putts, hurled projectiles through his line of sight, and even shouted as he went into his backswing.
Jenner Maponga, Beni’s coach from the time he was four, had a similar but different approach. He often corralled local kids and asked them to scream and shout at Beni during his net sessions.
He often asked the older boys to sledge him. “He was a natural athlete. The game came easily to him. So, I decided that he needed mental strength training from an early age,” says Maponga.
In 2009, a group of researchers carried out a study of Dutch footballers to identify psychological predictors for future success. They looked at factors that include goal commitment, problem-focused coping, and seeking social support.
Seventy-two percent of players who did well in these areas as youngsters became elite athletes as adults. This trend also holds for cricket, a mentally challenging sport.
The early training paid off for Beni, who spent his early years playing up the age groups. He made his under-10 debut at age seven and scored his maiden hundred two years later to prove that he was not in the team as an extra body in the field.
A year after the ton, he scored his first 150. If there was a chink in his game, it was his susceptibility to being run out. He was one of the fastest kids at his school and took on the best throwers in the field more often than not.
Beni’s development also benefitted from the atmosphere at Sun Valley Primary School. His arrival coincided with the school’s best sporting years. “During Beni’s time there, they had four strong years of cricket. I mean, I can’t even remember the school losing a cricket match. And that was playing against Rondebosch, Bishops, and SACS. They were quite incredible,” says Shane.
In addition to playing for his school, Beni also played club cricket for the All Rounder Cricket Academy. The Academy competed in various tournaments in and around Cape Town. Some of the tournaments earned top performers slots on overseas touring teams.
At 11, Beni outperformed older boys and was part of a team that toured India for a fortnight. A year later, he made a squad that toured Sri Lanka. The two tours were organised by Hennie Claassens from Somerset CC.
Claassens outdid himself on the Sri Lanka tour. Unlike the India tour where the youngsters played at smaller stadiums, mostly club cricket grounds, in Sri Lanka the kids played their matches at Pallekele and Galle cricket grounds. “It was just an unbelievable tour that he managed to organise to get them to play on Test grounds,” says Shane.
As a testament to his mental fortitude, in the first match, which was played barely 24 hours after they arrived in Sri Lanka, Beni came in to bat at number seven and scored an unbeaten 94 to guide the touring side to victory. He averaged 50 on the tour.
Arsene Wenger is renowned for his talent-spotting abilities. In 2011, he sat down to discuss the art with Four Four Two magazine. In the interview, he shared that it normally took him 20 minutes to make his mind up if a player had potential for the future.
According to the former Arsenal manager, certain youngsters have talent and skills that are so obvious it might take less. “Lionel Messi, at 13 years of age, would have needed about one minute. I have seen tapes of him at 13,” Wenger told the reporter.
It took Andrew Willey a handful of overs to make his mind up about Beni’s potential. The youngster first caught Willey’s eye when he was 12. “When I first saw him, Sun Valley was playing one of the local schools.
He looked organised and technically sound,” says Willey, who did not waste time and immediately approached Beni’s parents and offered the boy a place at Jacques Kallis‘ alma mater, Wynberg Boys’ High.
“It was a difficult two years for us. We had a few offers on the table, but Lisa and I did not want to decide for him. It was Beni’s future and we wanted him to pick the school he liked better. One time he asked me if he could go to Wynberg and still play for Rondebosch. Eventually he picked Wynberg because that’s where his hero, Kallis, went,” says Shane Hansen.
In his early years, Beni was on the path to being an all-rounder in the mould of Jacques Kallis, bowling and batting. That changed when Jenner Maponga taught the youngster the art of wicketkeeping.
Maponga’s intention had not been to turn the boy from bowling, it had been to help his batting. “Wicketkeepers read the pitch better than other players. I thought it would help him to play spin better,” says Maponga.
It was a masterstroke that benefitted Wynberg in later years. “We didn’t have good players of spin and Beni was the one who held many innings together with his ability,” says Willey.
Beni did for the school what Kallis did for South Africa. He was their middle-order cog. He stabilised the innings or moved the game forward, depending on what the match required. “He played the situation well and, most importantly, he was happy to move up or down the order, if needed. He was very flexible,” says Willey.
However, the most impressive thing about Beni Hansen, according to Willey, is his temperament. “One time, we were playing an away match on a tricky pitch. We didn’t score many runs and he was given out LBW to a horrendous delivery.
He didn’t argue, he just put his bat under his arm and walked off the pitch,” he says.
Beni is not given to tantrums, his parents actively discouraged toy-throwing and screaming as a method for him to draw attention to himself or his concerns from an early age.
“He is one of those youngsters who takes setbacks in his stride. It’s as if he understood from an early age that failure is part of cricket and sometimes decisions will not go your way,” says Wayne Hendricks.
Hendricks and Beni have known each other since Beni’s days with All Rounder Cricket Academy. Hendricks ran the club and focused on coaching the older kids while Jenner Maponga provided foundational training.
The pair reunited when Beni moved into the hostels at Wynberg. Maponga, who had coached him until that point, was unable to make regular trips to the school to help Beni with his training and Shane and Lisa reached out to Hendricks to see if he could step in. Hendricks was more than happy to take over.
“When Beni was young, he and Jenner would train for hours because he enjoyed training so much. That has not changed, he enjoys training so much we lose track of time,” says Hendricks, who says their sessions do not focus on technique too much. Instead, they focus on processes.
One of Beni’s lifelong dreams had always been to be selected for the SA Under-19 team and missing out on being part of the 15-member squad taking part in the 2024 Under-19 World Cup was the biggest setback of his young career. “He got in touch with me a day or two after the team announcement. He was hurting and we had a 45-minute chat, and after that he was back to his old self again, smiling. He understood that it wasn’t the end of the world for him, and more chances would come,” says Hendricks.
The next weekend after the chat, Beni, who had never opened the batting, was asked to open the innings for Claremont Cricket Club. Claremont’s regular opener, Western Province’s Daniel Smith was unavailable. Beni took up the challenge and smashed a brilliant unbeaten 84 that was capped off by a reverse lap off a fast bowler for six.
A week after that performance against Primrose Cricket Club, Beni scored a masterful 114 against the Titans at the Coca-Cola Khaya Majola Week and finished the tournament as the third-highest run-scorer, scooped the Player of the Tournament award, and was named the SA Schools‘ captain.
“It’s seldom that people speak of players that bring out the best in the coaches. Most of the time, the conversation revolves around coaches who bring out the best in the players. I have coached for 20 years and not many kids have brought out the best in me like Beni,” says Wayne Hendricks.