April 21, 2016

'Nobody in domestic cricket right now can replace Amla and de Villiers'

Former South Africa captain Kepler Wessels talks about the talent coming through in South Africa, the impact of T20 cricket, and playing with and against Allan Border

"After we beat Australia by nine wickets in our first match [of the 1992 World Cup], we realised that we were good enough to be playing at that level" © Getty Images

What was it like being made captain of the South African team after years of isolation?
The short limited-overs tour to India, before the 1992 World Cup, came out of the blue. It was a complete surprise to all the players. Clive Rice was captain, but a few weeks later, when the World Cup squad was announced, Rice was out, and I was captain. I knew that I'd be in the side for the World Cup but I didn't think I'd be in charge.

There was a little bit of bad feeling in Transvaal, where Clive and Jimmy Cook played. Neither had been selected for the World Cup team, and people over there took it out on me a bit. That didn't bother me. I knew I hadn't sought the job. It was the selectors' decision.

Did you think that South Africa was good enough to compete against experienced international teams in that World Cup?
We knew we'd be competitive, but we didn't have much of an idea about how well we'd do at that level. I was the only one who had played any international cricket and that was a long time ago. After we beat Australia by nine wickets in our first match, we realised that we were good enough to be playing at that level.

You were noticed very early as a schoolboy cricketer.
I averaged 259 for Grey College in Bloemfontein at one point. I made the South Africa schools side aged 15 and the Orange Free State Under-18 side aged 14. Played in a week-long tournament against the other states. Allan Lamb and Peter Kirsten were at the tournament. They were a couple of years older than me. All school sport in South Africa is competitive. When I was younger I played rugby as well as cricket. Grey College was more a rugby school than a cricket school.

"Donald could crank it up and be explosive when he wanted to, but it didn't come naturally to him. As a captain, sometimes you had to force him to bowl aggressively"

What was the toughest cricket you played? The Currie Cup, Sheffield Shield, county cricket?
Sheffield Shield, without a doubt. One week you'd be playing a Test or a one-day international, and the next it would be a Shield game, with all the international players representing their state. Everybody played. New South Wales and Western Australia were full of international players. When I made my Test debut, there were seven Queensland players in the Australia squad. Sometimes Shield cricket was tougher than Test matches. Back then, only West Indies, or a really good England side, were bigger challengers.

How would the mid-'70s South Africa team have fared against West Indies in an imaginary Test series in, say, 1977?
Difficult to say. In 1970, the South African team was stronger with all those players at their peak. After South Africa was banned from international cricket, that team and those players were never really tested against the sort of pace attack West Indies had over a sustained period. You would assume that Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock would have scored runs. Barry got runs in World Series Cricket in the first season against all those quick bowlers. Mike Procter did well too. But these greats were coming towards the end of their careers, and we don't really know how the team would have reacted when faced with a side, and a bowling attack, as good as West Indies had.

"Border was always a bit grumpy, but we can all be like that at times" © Getty Images

Viv Richards or Barry Richards - who was the best batsman?
Very difficult to say. They were both so different. Viv was destructive and powerful, Barry a great technical player. Both of them were brilliant in their time. It's a pity that Barry wasn't able to play more Test cricket.

Garth Le Roux, Allan Donald and Dale Steyn - how do these great South African fast bowlers compare?
Allan Donald bowled quicker for more years than Garth. Garth was really quick for a couple of years and then settled down to bowl medium-fast outswingers. I never faced Dale Steyn, but I've seen a lot of him obviously, and to look at, you can't distinguish between him and Donald.

Donald was like a lot of fast bowlers. He had raw pace when he first started, then like Dennis Lillee and Richard Hadlee, as he gained more experience, he refined his action, bowled within himself, but always in good areas. He could crank it up and be explosive when he wanted to, but it didn't come naturally to him. As a captain, sometimes you had to force him to bowl aggressively.

"I'm not so sure about all these private leagues springing up all over the world, though. That's a bit excessive"

On the 1985 tour of England, when you were playing for Australia, Allan Border, the Australian captain, was criticised for being too friendly with the opposition. Is this true?
I was joking with Ian Botham about this the other day. During that series, Botham spent more time in our dressing room than in his own. Botham and Border were good friends, but it wasn't a serious issue, and had nothing to do with the result. England were just better than us. They had a better bowling attack. For the first four Test matches we kept things even. But we knew that we'd just been hanging in there, and that sooner or later the dam walls would break.

How had Border changed by the time you faced him, for South Africa, in the early nineties? It is said that he'd hardened up, become grumpier and more distant from opposition.
I didn't see that he'd changed at all. We were pretty close when I was in Queensland, so I knew his personality. By the time I played against Border for South Africa, he was coming towards the end of his career, and when you get older you become more intense, we all go through it. He was always a bit grumpy, but we can all be like that at times.

Is T20 doing for the game what Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket did in the late '70s?
It probably is. In some ways it's taking over [the game] and that's inevitable. It's not a bad influence, it has grown the game, brought a lot of money in, resulted in players being paid more. I'm not so sure about all these private leagues springing up all over the world, though. That's a bit excessive. One year they take the best players, the next year they don't pay their bills and they are gone. I'm hoping that somehow that gets controlled - I'm not sure how - and that international cricket takes preference.

International T20 and the established leagues like the IPL and the Big Bash League - yes, that's benefiting the game.

"Kagiso Rabada's emergence on the scene has been terrific" © Getty Images

Does South Africa have enough young talent coming through?
I think they do, but it's inevitable when you lose players as good as Jacques Kallis, and with Dale Steyn coming towards the end of an illustrious career, it will take a while to replace them. In this country, though, there's always enough talent coming through, in cricket or rugby. The question is harnessing that talent and developing it.

Will South Africa be okay when AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla retire?
There's nobody in domestic cricket right now who can replace those two. There are other guys who are good and consistent, and who can do well. Whenever players as good as Amla and de Villiers retire, though, there's always a tendency to think that no one that good will ever come along again. Yet they do.

How good is Kagiso Rabada?
Very good. He's strong for somebody so young. I think he will continue to develop, if he doesn't get injured. He's already pretty quick for someone of his age, and I think he'll be a force to reckon with. He's got quite a heavy workload at the moment. Hopefully that won't affect him in the long term. As a person he is mature, sensible, comes over very well spoken and has a good education. All good signs.

Is it important for South Africa to have another top-class black quick bowler? It has been a while since Makhaya Ntini retired.
I think it's massively important for South Africa to get as many of those guys coming through the system and playing well. It does wonders for the game, grows the game across the country, and gets the whole country behind the team. Rabada's emergence on the scene has been terrific.

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