August 12, 2013

South Africa's next wave

The understudies to the No. 1 Test bowling attack are eager to carve their own paths

"If you're asking if we think we can be the next Dale, Vernon and Morne, then I would say no. We're not like them."

Marchant de Lange frowned while making that statement. Then he paused and looked at his team-mates for affirmation. Kyle Abbott nodded vigorously in agreement, Ayabulela Gqamane consented with a small smile, and behind the trio, Beuran Hendricks, who was listening in, nodded in their direction.

They all agreed on one thing: they are South Africa's next generation of bowlers but don't want to be defined by what their predecessors have done. "We want to make our own name. We can't live in their shadows. We've got our own qualities and we want to show what we can do," de Lange said.

In a few years' time, there's a good chance de Lange, Abbott, Gqamane, Hendricks and a few others will be South Africa's men in whites, and they know that. De Lange and Abbott have already received their Test caps and Gqamane and Hendricks are being groomed for national roles in a winter programme that includes A Tests against the two countries whose senior sides will tour South Africa this summer - Australia and India.

South Africa are increasing their focus on the A side as they plan for ways to stay on top of the Test rankings. Their recent one-day form points to batting problems but since Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla have indicated there are years left in each of them, attention has turned to the bowlers, because replacing them will not be easy.

Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel have been credited with much of South Africa's success. Their individual brilliance has earned them the No. 1, 2 and 9 spots on the Test bowling rankings respectively, making South Africa the only country with three bowlers in the top ten, but what's impressive is how they operate as a unit. Steyn swings the ball at pace, Philander combines unfailing accuracy with subtle seam movement, and Morkel brings the bounce. With Kallis also offering movement, as a quartet they have reduced South Africa's need for a spinner to a great degree.

"You obviously can't plan for exactly how you're going to get a whole new unit but we are preparing individuals in certain ways," Vincent Barnes, director of the high performance programme, said. "We're making sure guys are ready so they can step in at any time."

Barnes and Corrie van Zyl, the former national coach who works with emerging players, have identified and are mentoring a group of about ten quick bowlers. That includes those who play in other formats, like Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Rory Kleinveldt, Wayne Parnell and Chris Morris; those who have played on occasion and are now looking to nail down a spot, like Abbott and de Lange; and those on the fringes, like Hendricks, Gqamane, Hardus Viljoen and Mthokozisi Shezi.

Abbott seems to be leading the queue. He was part of the XI the last time South Africa played a Test, in February against Pakistan, as a replacement for an injured Kallis, and took 7 for 29, the second-best innings figures on debut by a South African. As the incumbent, he is expected to be a part of future squads.

"He is very good, he swings the ball, he is accurate and he always hits good areas," Barnes said of him.

"What we do is not an easy art, so we spend a lot of time together at training and afterwards, talking about stuff. We also need to know each other's games so we can work together"
Kyle Abbott

Abbott is also among the more mature and confident of the hopefuls, and when he speaks, the rest listen. His ability to lead an attack was on display in the two unofficial Tests against Australia. He only took three wickets in each match but set the tone. "I'd like to play more Tests but I know that may not come immediately. I've been working on my fitness and the mental side of the game a lot, and I hope if I just keep doing what I did to get in, then I will get in again."

De Lange has had to adopt the same approach after losing ground to Abbott following a lengthy recovery from stress fractures. After being ruled out of South Africa's tour of England last June, de Lange only made his comeback in February. Excitingly, when he did, he was regularly reaching speeds above 150kph, and he knows that will set him apart from the rest.

"I know pace is my strength, so I will keep working on that," de Lange said. "At the moment, I am just happy to be back and to be feeling strong. I had to make slight changes to my action, so it's good to be getting rhythm back." He may have spoken too soon. De Lange only managed one over in the second innings of the second match and left the field with a rib injury. He is not playing in the limited-overs tri-series, which involves India A and Australia A, but Barnes is hopeful that de Lange will be back for the four-day matches in late August with careful management of his injury.

"De Lange still has that massive explosion at the crease and not much of a follow-through, but he no longer has the mixed action, so I don't think he should have the same issues, but we will monitor the bowling loads as we get into the season," Barnes said.

Kleinveldt replaced de Lange for the tri-series but hasn't got a game yet. Neither have Tsotsobe or Parnell. Barnes wants to make sure that the three are not forgotten because they spend so much time on tour.

"I definitely want to work with Lopsy and Rory and look at a few things in terms of length, like I have been doing with Wayne over the last few months. I can tell you, he is more than ready to play for South Africa again." Parnell proved himself to be an able death bowler in South Africa's T20 series in Sri Lanka.

Dividing time between working with the players already in the system and those knocking on the doors can be tricky but Barnes is hopeful that they can also learn while representing their franchises, where players spend most of their time. However, the biggest hindrance to their development in domestic cricket is thought to be the pitches, which were criticised for being too sporting last season and for not allowing bowlers to learn how to take wickets when conditions don't suit them.

"We have to have facilities that demand different skills of bowlers, and [those] that do not make wicket-taking easy," van Zyl said. "We have talent but we need to broaden the skill base." Van Zyl recently met with the franchise groundsmen to come up with a national strategy for surfaces on which first-class matches are played. Staging the first-class competition later in the summer, November instead of late September as it was last season, will also go some way to ensuring more competition between bat and ball.

For Barnes, that will have the added bonus of unearthing a spin candidate. "If you look at the top ten wicket-takers last season, the only spinner was Imran Tahir, and that's because often the others spinners wouldn't get much opportunity. The pitches were not allowed to deteriorate," he said.

Tahir is no longer part of South Africa's Test XI, having lost his place to Robin Peterson after averaging 50 in 11 matches. But he has been included in South Africa's T20 squad and seems certain to travel to the UAE for the two-Test series against Pakistan in October as the second spinner. Barnes believes he still has a "massive future" as an international cricketer, but Tahir will face stiff competition for the spinner's slot.

Warriors' offspinner Simon Harmer took 8 for 87 to bowl South Africa A to victory over Australia A in Rustenburg recently. Harmer hails from Pretoria but moved to Port Elizabeth to study and look for cricketing opportunities that were not present upcountry.

He worked with former national player and current selector Shafiek Abrahams as well as Johan Botha to develop his skills. "I have a pretty orthodox action and my strength is turning the ball, so that's where my focus is," Harmer said. "But I think improving my batting will be the [clincher] for me in terms of playing international cricket. I've been putting in a lot of work there." Harmer has a first-class hundred, ten half-centuries and a batting average of 31.79. Barnes said Harmer has improved a great deal and will do further specialised coaching work with spin consultant Claude Henderson.

It's a clear sign that, along with the quicks, Harmer is one for the future. Barnes said he also "works very well" with the group of seamers in the mix at the moment. Ultimately Barnes wants to find and hone players who complement each other in order to give South Africa's senior side the most thorough range of options. So far, he is pleased with the mix he has.

"In Beuran we've got someone who can swing the ball back in, and in Ayabulele we have someone with skill, who can develop into someone like Vernon, and who also has a good bouncer. We've got guys who work well together."

The players agree. "It's like a bowlers' club, especially with fast bowlers," Abbott said. "What we do is not an easy art, so we spend a lot of time together at training and afterwards, talking about stuff. We also need to know each other's games so we can work together."

And what happens when one of them gets the nod ahead of the rest? "You always feel happy when your team-mate does well," Abbott said "Having that competition will make us better." De Lange, who has seen others move ahead while he struggled to get fit, sounded more realistic. "But you can't say you don't wish it was you. It also makes you want to strive a little harder so you can be next."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on August 15, 2013, 14:20 GMT

    Tahir still lacks the consistency of line and length to make him an effective test bowler. His variations though make him more effective in the shorter formats. Given Petersons recent form I would be keen to see Harmer given a shot sooner rather than later.

  • DeckChairand6pack on August 13, 2013, 11:57 GMT

    I can't wait for October to see the Green Machine back in action in the UAE. The Ashes have been entertaining and dramatic, but woefully low on quality. It's great to see the bowling stocks coming through. I'm sure that, come summer, if you go and watch any schools match on a Saturday you will see more great young talent bursting to make it through. Wonderful time to be a Protea's supporter, long may the good times continue!

  • hhillbumper on August 12, 2013, 20:43 GMT

    We have all seen the Aussies potential on paper.Well potential matters nowt. Its what you do when you play and this attack works best with Steyn. What happens when Kallis goes and those overs have to be shared out.Also i keep looking at Philander and can't quite work out how he has the stats he does.It is a very simple method but I do keep expecting someone to smack him all over the place but it never quite happens

  • dummy4fb on August 12, 2013, 19:37 GMT

    Looking from an English perspective, this assembly line looks impressive. Of course many potential matchwinners don't make the grade - Cummins being the latest example - but if the SAFFER potential is realised in the bowling area, then there is possibility they could dominate as the West Indies did. Hopefully (and I do mean it, as SAF v England on fast bowling wickets is the challenge at present) the battle will continue for some years whilst Aus regroups, Pakistan finds a place to play & India gets rid of the 20/20 bookmakers. WIndies - could come through but the batting without Gayle / Chanderpaul doesn't threaten

  • dandi23 on August 12, 2013, 16:07 GMT

    I'm not at all worried about the Proteas batting depth. I believe Duminy could and should be batting at 4 right now, his qualities are wasted down the order. Moving Kallis to 6 would soften the blow of his retirement and give opponents major headaches without compromising the quality of the lineup. Kallis is Kallis. He will bat the same anywhere he comes in. Then there's Faf and Elgar. They've already proved their quality at Test level. I'm a huge fan of Rilee Russouw. Sadly, S.A doesn't trust young audacious talent like India does. Russouw should be opening with Smith, learning and developing at the highest level. Instead we choose the safer option of Alviro Peterson who has done nothing wrong and absolutely deserves selection, but whose ceiling is much lower than the very talented Russouw. Van Zyl is also still young, consistent and lurking. There are only 7 batting spots. You don't need depth quantity. You only need 2 or 3 of the highest quality and I'm certain S.A has that.

  • Sir_Ivor on August 12, 2013, 12:52 GMT

    The rest of the cricket playing countries should be grateful that only 11 South Africans can play against them and there have to be batsman and one wicket-keeper as well. South Africa is the new West Indies who had an assembly line all the time in the 80s and 90s. But the thing is they have to evolve as fast bowlers. Steyn had just raw pace when he started. He has now become a great fast bowler in the lines of Marshall and Akram.

  • dummy4fb on August 12, 2013, 12:06 GMT

    Without a doubt the best Test side in the world. No-one else on current form would be able to challenge them.

  • Marktc on August 12, 2013, 9:25 GMT

    Looking at our batting performances in ODI and T20, I find it pretty short sighted to not concentrate on the batting as well. We have seen how we battle without the three mentioned. With this in mind, I would think massive drive should be under way to get our incoming batsman to top level as well. We need to be able to replace the first choices with guys who just miss out on the spot. Not guys who should still be playing club cricket. We have always been blessed with quality fast bowlers, but really good batsman have been harder to find. I have always maintained that the A side should be playing as much as the Proteas. They need to be tested at a higher level for both form and experience.

  • CricketMaan on August 12, 2013, 7:24 GMT

    Dale, Morne, Phil on thier day can be devastating for any team. They dont even have to be thier best against India for the line up has been brought up playing on slow tracks.And then add abbott, De lange or Tsotobe. Goodness me. SRT is not what he was when he made that extraordinary innings when Dale was breathing fire. I'm looking forward to see Kholi excel for he has the temperment to excel in tough conditions. I dont expect any miracles from Vijay/Dhawan. Pujara might hold but can he last long 6 innings is the big question. That No.6 will atleast see Rohit debut or a Rahane get in although it might still be RJ that will start the in 1st Test.