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South Africa — Modern era’s pace powerhouse

Dale Steyn is the leader of the current generation of South Africa's pace attack © Getty Images
Dale Steyn is the leader of the current generation of South Africa’s pace attack © Getty Images

 

From the 1950s, South African pace bowling has always been a force to reckon with, but had been exposed to only a limited part of the world. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the fast bowling riches of the nation since their return to Test cricket in 1992 and discusses why it deserves to be called the pace bowling nation of the modern era.

 

 

Speed – unchecked and unseen

 

It had been their lot to be first secluded, and then isolated.

 

Hence, only a few bruised and terrorised men from England, Australia and New Zealand witnessed and recounted the fiery pace of Neil Adcock and Peter Heine with the new ball, followed by the relentless accuracy of Trevor Goddard.

 

The sad walk into isolation of a great team is somewhat better documented, and hence, with time, cricket followers around the world have slowly been able to look beyond the apartheid curtain and acknowledge the terrifying combination of Peter Pollock and Mike Procter, followed by the continuing relentlessness of Trevor Goddard.

 

In the isolation years, we came to know of the exploits of quite a few of the fast men hailing from the unfortunate country. Procter for Gloucestershire, Garth le Roux for Sussex, Vincent van der Bijl for Middlesex and, of course, Clive Rice for Nottinghamshire demonstrated their class through the 1970s and early 1980s with fascinating and often fearsome frequency. In the English winters, they disappeared beyond the forbidden borders to run in and hurl them down in the Currie Cup.

 

Some of them grabbed the opportunity of a world stage provided by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket with eager hands. Often they excelled in the rebel ‘Tests’. But the exploits of these worthy individuals remained scantly reported and seen by only a sprinkling of spectators across county grounds and in stadiums in the obscure corners of the South African veld.

 

Hence, the untold riches of South African pace remained rather unsung, sketchily documented while the pacers of the Caribbean were simultaneously turning into legends. The West Indian pace bowlers were busy scripting unprecedented feats with scary speed and intimidation. And the South Africans, with the potential to be at least as good, remained untested at the highest level and unheralded as well.

 

 

The pace machinery returns

 

Come 1992, the nation made a roaring re-entry into the Test fold. Allan Donald tore in with the late Tertius Bosch, followed by Meyrick Pringle and Richard Snell. They matched Curtly Ambrose, Pat Patterson, Courtney Walsh and Kenny Benjamin blow for blow till the third innings, before their own batsmen capitulated to the final lethal strikes of Ambrose and Walsh.

 

The Proteas had emerged in the new era, and had a pace attack to give the mighty West Indians a run for their money. However, somehow the lethal pace attack did not capture the imagination of the cricket followers in the same way as the Windies fast men had done for two intervening decades.

 

Make no mistake. There was no dearth in quality or statistics. From 1992 onwards, South Africa has remained the most difficult opposition to score runs off. Ever since, the country has been the most arduous of lands to visit for foreign batsmen.

 

The great fast bowlers have run in one after the other – Allan Donald followed by the scorching left-handed pace of Brett Schultz, Fanie de Villiers and Craig Matthews piling on the pressure, ably supported by the giant Brian McMillan.

 

With time, the battery was appended with the brimming talent and accuracy of Shaun Pollock. Makhaya Ntini came along as well, with his brand of pace and stamina. And the all-round genius of Goddard, Eddie Barlow and McMillan was taken to platonic perfection by the incomparable Jacques Kallis.

 

Even the support bowlers, the side characters who did not graduate into the role of the spearhead speedster, remained a gallery of formidable menace. Nantie Hayward, Andre Nel and Lance Klusener had the full ability to turn it on when required.

 

And even when the great Donald called it a day, the crown prince of fast bowling was waiting in the wings. Dale Steyn stepped into the breach taking the art of pace bowling to a new level altogether. Morne Morkel came in, as good a change bowler as any. And after Pollock and Ntini had walked off into their lives after retirement, Vernon Philander streaked through the cricketing firmament in a blaze of glory.

 

The Protean attack has remained as lethal as ever, mean, menacing and metronomic in its efficiency. Steyn is indisputably the best fast bowler of his generation. One has to go back past a couple of World Wars, to the era before standardisation of pitches, to get anywhere near Philander’s rate of taking wickets. Morkel is perhaps the best pace bowler since the days of the West Indian greats not to run in regularly with the new ball. And Kallis has remained a steady and skilful fourth pacer who, apart from being one of the very best batsmen in the world, can also bowl uncannily quick.

 

The regular telecast of the games from the 1990s obviously robs the aura of invincibility from this amazing crop of fast bowlers. While a Michael Holding or a Malcolm Marshall dazzled audiences periodically with undeniable genius, they also had their powers somewhat multiplied by the legends of unseen matches and unverified reports. In contrast, the very human gestures of bowlers from Donald to Steyn that people view on their screens perhaps make them more mortal in comparison. Perhaps the helmets and improved protection take the edge off their ability to intimidate.

 

Of course, it also did matter that the team did not really rule world cricket as the West Indians had done. While they were always close to the top – banking almost totally on their pace unit –Australians had a more balanced attack with Shane Warne and benefited from a much better batting line up. Yes, it is very rare for a crack bowling team to have names like Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd at the top of their order. That does make a difference.

 

However, when it comes to what matters – and by that I mean taking wickets – the South Africans have done way better than anyone else in the last twenty years.

 

If we order by averages, five of the top ten pace bowlers since South Africa’s re-entry to the Test world in 1992 happen to be Proteans – Philander, Steyn, Donald, Schulz and Pollock. It speaks eloquently about the huge quantities of riches of the nation in this particular area.

 

At the same time, there is another dimension where it does seem that the modern day Proteans are right up there with the West Indians in their prime.

 

In the 1980s, we had names like Franklyn Stephenson, Sylvester Clarke, Anthony Gray, Eldine Baptiste and so on who could have walked into any Test side of the world with their fast bowling deeds but managed to play very few Tests for West Indies alongside the crowd of fast bowling greats – in some cases, they did not play any at all.

 

There was a popular saying that if you shook a tree in the Caribbean islands, some fast bowlers would drop at your feet. In the current day, South Africa can be rightfully said to have taken over the claims of such a huge supply of high-quality reserves.

 

As Steyn, Philander, Morkel and Kallis run in together, we have waiting in the wings men like Kyle Abbott – who took nine wickets including seven for 29 on debut against Pakistan earlier this year. Such is the overflow of fast bowling riches in the land that he is yet to play another Test.

 

We also have Merchant da Lange, whose number of Tests is just two although he captured seven for 81 in his first match. If we look further, we come across immense talent in the form of Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Rory Kleinveldt, Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell.

 

Along with the exceptional on field talent, it is this scintillating bench strength that underlines the claim of South Africa as the modern day powerhouse of pace. A claim that remains understated and curiously unrecognised.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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