Author: Jermaine Craig

This article appeared in The Star Newspaper on Thursday, 4 August 2022

“Pressure is a Privilege”. “Dream Big”. “Consistency Creates the Extraordinary”. “TEAM is very important because Together Everyone Achieves More”.

It’s like a scene from the movie ‘Any Given Sunday’ as Lions Cricket staff chant these mantras as a matter of course in meetings at the Imperial Wanderers Stadium, with the union’s Chief Executive Officer Jono Leaf-Wright in the Al Pacino role as the inspirational taskmaster giving the ‘Inches’ speech.

There’s clearly something special in the air at the Wanderers, the team culture and positivity is unmistakable.

Leaf-Wright was just 37 when he took over the reins at Lions Cricket on 1 October 2019, a young modern manager taking over South Africa’s only tier one cricket stadium and the largest cricket union in South African.

He took over from his predecessor Greg Fredericks, who was a seasoned sports administrator and highly regarded at Lions Cricket for helping lead the Union too much on-field success, but like many sporting codes and cricket unions Lions Cricket struggled financially and commercially, declaring huge losses in the financial years prior to Leaf-Wright joining.

Leaf-Wright took over only six months prior to the global COVID pandemic which hit SA and grind local and international sport to a complete halt which further exacerbated Lions Crickets parlous financial situation, as the union faced complete disaster.

For the fresh new CEO rolling over and playing dead was not an option, instead he introduced a spirit of innovation, partnerships, excellence and a shared vision for the union and its stakeholders.

To make the Lions roar again on and off the pitch, they did what all lions do – they hunted as a PRIDE – and of all their mantras “Pride is what we are and Pride is what we create” became the most important.

Leaf-Wright led from the front, with an inclusive style that acknowledged every member of the union and importance in weathering the COVID and economic storm.

He knows intimately how important every staffer’s role is, having started literally from the bottom up in the game of cricket.

As a teenager he did an internship during the 2003 Cricket World Cup and when Sri Lanka toured South Africa soon after he walked up to the Proteas dressing room at the Wanderers and knocked on the door.

It was legendary Proteas team manager Goolam Rajah who answered, bemused and a little surprised at the teenager in front of him.

“I am here to learn Sir. I will do anything you need me to do, even cleaning the team’s shoes or making their milkshakes,” Leaf-Wright said to Rajah.

Rather than kick him out on the spot, Rajah said, ‘come in boy.’ Having witnessed the work ethic and energy of the young man he used Jono as the Proteas’ change room attendant for their home matches within Gauteng, as the youngster ended up learning about the ins and outs of the game while in the presence of the likes of Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, JP Duminy and so many more greats of the South African game.

Rajah, who was the Proteas’ manager and father figure for over 20 years, became a valued mentor to Leaf Wright and was the first to congratulate him on his appointment as Lions Cricket CEO, saying “if you need anything feel free to reach out”.

When Rajah passed away due to COVID in June 2021, Leaf-Wright was one of those who paid tribute at his memorial.

It is much of Rajah’s ethics and leadership skills blended with other wonderful coaches, administrators and businessmen and women that have guided Leaf-Wright on an eventful cricketing and entrepreneurial journey.

A serial entrepreneur and qualified Level 3 cricket coach, he used the R3000 left to him by his grandmother when she passed away to buy his first bag of cricket balls and coaching equipment, which would lead to his private coaching academy becoming one of the biggest and best in the country, coaching over 870 kids a week with 92 coaches across the Province.

After getting his level 3 coaching qualification in 2009, he played an important part in Cricket South Africa’s Talent Acceleration Programme. He was National U19 Talent Scout for the Lions region, Lions U19 coach and played a key role in scouting and management with the national under 19 set up. Players like Rabada, de Kock, Rickelton, Mulder and so many more can directly through the talent program Leaf-Wright led successfully for over 11 years.

When the Indian Premier League was hosted in South Africa in 2009 Leaf-Wright worked for the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) during the tournament and sat in the team dugout with some of the biggest players in the world in the final against the Deccan Chargers played at the iconic Wanderers. He then went to India and played a key role as one of the coaches to RCB and became close to many of the IPL players representing sides.

All the while he was honing his cricket and entrepreneurial knowledge, teaching, setting up school cricket festivals which annually attracted dozens of teams and over 25 000 fans each year, serving on sporting committees, lecturing at coaching courses, running township cricket programs, while also being an active shareholder in more than ten businesses Leaf-Wright certainly understood what hard work is about and how to drive excellence while juggling many balls.

With plenty of experience built up over the 18 years coaching and in business, Leaf-Wright was a popular appointment as Lions Cricket CEO, and the right man for the famous Bullring’s most turbulent period during COVID.

Even with cricket shut down, there were many full time Lions Cricket employees to sustain and thousands more in Gauteng who were reliant on cricket for their livelihood.

“I took the staff through the vision of the Wanderers becoming a green, multi-purposed stadium that we needed to bring to life again, giving the community a sense that the lights were always on and that it was a living, breathing, working space to enjoy. Crucially, we needed to create recurring income and ensure we created an eco-system within the stadium that sits in the golden triangle of retail in Africa,” Leaf-Wright told The Star on a tour, where he showed the remarkable transformation at the Imperial Wanderers Stadium.

Of the 189 private suites that had been sitting idle at the stadium with no cricket played, many corporates have agreed with the vision to convert them into day-to-day office co-working spaces for their employees and are loving the back drop of the stadium as their day to day space to enjoy, work and play.

The Imperial Wanderers is now home to a sports shop, medical centre, retail companies, robotics companies, branding companies, forex companies and so many more. Most interestingly a vibrant yoga studio is now in place on the deep square leg boundary, where the popular Standard Bank hospitality suites once was. In a quirk of fate the yoga studio’s owner Sally Flanagan’s father, Patrick Flanagan, used to be a bowler for Transvaal at the Bullring in the 1970s, as the Wanderers’ exciting new multi-purpose future merges with its storied cricketing past.

“This is no longer just a cricket stadium, it is a stadium where cricket is played in, a stadium where dreams are realized and hard work takes place both on and off the field. During COVID we also sought to keep club cricket and community sport alive in the hearts and minds of the community,” says Leaf-Wright, with initiatives such as the launch of the Diadora Jozi Cup ensuring a thriving club tournament for club cricketers from under 11 to over 40s, culminating in the amateur clubs playing in the final at the Wanderers with all the usual big match trimmings, fireworks and floodlights.

On Mandela Day this year CGL partnered with humanitarian organisation Ashraful Aid to provide 20 000 relief packs to those in need as the union entrenched its role as a caring part of the Gauteng community. This community give back has been one of many that Lions Cricket have delivered on since Leaf-Wright took the reigns. One of the biggest points Leaf-Wright emphasizes is that he and his team are focused on not only producing good cricketers on the field but great people off it and people who can contribute to building a better Province and country, united and aligned towards a common vision together.  

Cricket success has been achieved as the Imperial Lions senior mens team – for whom its national team stars such as Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada, Rassie van der Dussen and Reeza Hendricks are still active participants – winning the CSA T20 Challenge, 4 Day Challenge twice, One Day Cup twice and many other accolades over the past few seasons. The Lions Colts this past season were first place in the 3-day and 1-day competitions with 100% percent records, while the Lions academy remained unbeaten throughout the season.

The Lions have significant national team representation in both the men’s and women’s teams, with the Lions being among the first to offer contracts to its women players.

On the field success and the innovative business approach to turning the union’s fortunes around, is now relating to financial and commercial success too.

“We can no longer think we are just the custodians of sport, we are in the business of sport and of cricket. The money we get as a union from Cricket South Africa needs to be ‘bonus money’, not a significant part of it. We have to become 100% self-sustainable and be the masters of our own destiny,” says Leaf-Wright.

Other than major partner Imperial (now DP World as announced by the Union this past Tuesday), new Lions Cricket partners include McDonald’s who returned back to professional sport in SA after 26 years and chose Lions Cricket as the first professional body to support, Fidelity/ADT, Ellies, Beyers, Enza Construction, DNG Energy, Sunbet, Sun International, Sunfoil, Coca Cola, SAB and so many more. Lions even have airline partners like Lift Airlines and fuel partners in Masana Fuels who are fueling excellence for this great Union. It is believed that Lions Cricket will announce a Telco and smart solutions partner in the coming weeks which will gear the stadium to become the first 5G, smart and most tech advanced stadium on the continent which Leaf-Wright and his team are very excited about.

Ahead of its Annual General Meeting, Lions Cricket have just received news of its clean audit and significantly the union’s first net profit for Lions Cricket since April 2017. This is a phenomenal achievement taking into account that the last international match the stadium could sell tickets for and enjoy over 25 000 screaming fans was 21 February 2020. For the past two and half years with Covid restrictions the stadium could not enjoy fans yet the incredible turnaround under very tough conditions has taken place and being celebrated by all.

It’s been a revolution forged from a crisis that has been turned into one of opportunity and forward thinking, with the union’s people at the heart of its sea change, and Leaf-Wright and his team are just getting started.

“We are going to continue to drive excellence and create a diverse and inclusive environment where everyone feels they have a voice and a right to be heard,” he says adding, “nothing of what has been achieved could have been possible without my staff, players, Board, sponsors and every person involved in Lions Cricket who all continue to work hard and strive towards a common vision of being the Pride of Jozi, impacting lives and using cricket as a vehicle to create change both on and off the field”.

Leaf-Wright loves reminding all those he connects with to Dream Big and when I left the stadium and my interaction with Leaf-Wright and his staff I certainly felt a big dream has become reality and that nothing is impossible for Lions Cricket.