The most exciting thing South Africa offered at a major tournament in England since their 1999 semi-final at Edgbaston was Wayne Parnell. A decade after the drama of the tie, Parnell, then a 19-year old left-arm quick, tore his way through England and West Indies at the World T20 to put South Africa on course for the cup. We all know how that turned out, but we may have forgotten how Parnell did. Eight years later, he is back to show us.
Not all of that time has been kind to Parnell. After the novelty of his potential faded into inconsistency, he struggled to keep his place. And then injuries struck. A groin strain suffered at the IPL robbed him of what would have been a crucial second bite at a global event - the 2010 World T20 - and most of the next season. So began a topsy-turvy period in and out of the national side, which only stabilised after Parnell played a full summer of domestic cricket, six years into his professional career.
Parnell was left out of all formats of the national team in the 2015-16 summer and spent time honing his craft at Cape Cobras. Though he was hampered by a foot niggle for some parts of the season, he played more regularly than in previous years, was tasked with greater responsibility which even included opening the batting in some limited-overs' matches (Parnell was initially touted as an allrounder, remember?) and he accepted it with aplomb. He finished as the third-highest wicket-taker in the 2015-16 season domestic One Day Cup and led Cobras to the final. At their awards ceremony that year, he scooped four titles, including Player of the Year, and it was around then that talks of a comeback began.
Last February, Russell Domingo explained how despite Parnell's reputation for being erratic, he remained valuable because things happened around players like him. By the time South Africa went to the Caribbean in June to play a triangular series, Parnell was back in the mix and had begun to have serious discussions with Domingo about his future. "Over the last 12 months, I sat down with Russell and tried to figure out a way that I could play more consistently in this one-day outfit," Parnell said in Birmingham, where South Africa are preparing for their second Champions Trophy game against Pakistan on Wednesday. "Consistency was one thing that was mentioned."
Parnell knew that he had to become more reliable in his contributions to the team but for that to happen, he also needed more certainty over his role. That only came at the start of the 2016-17 season, when injuries to the lead pacemen, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and the Kolpak-enforced departure of Kyle Abbott allowed Parnell to establish himself as a new-ball bowler. He has opened the bowling ten times in 13 ODIs since September 2016 and taken 18 wickets at 24.77 with an economy rate of 5.63, which is much-improved on the 18 times he opened the bowling in 51 matches before that. Then, he took 34 wickets at 28 with an economy rate of 6.21; so not only has Parnell become more dangerous but he has also learnt greater control.
That was evident in his performance against Sri Lanka on Saturday, when he went wicketless but returned from a first spell that cost 45 runs in five overs to concede only nine runs in his next five overs. Sri Lanka's situation had changed from the start of their innings when Upul Tharanga was on the attack to a more resigned pace of scoring in response to the inevitability of not being able to chase 300, largely because of Imran Tahir, but the way Parnell pulled things back was a good sign for South Africa.
"It was about staying in the moment, staying in the game. The first five overs didn't go according to plan. When AB [de Villiers] called on me for the last five overs, it was about doing what was needed in that particular time," he said. "I've got plans in place that I want to try and implement. It's about being smart."
Parnell thinks Pakistan may provide a similar challenge, which may mean South Africa will opt for a similar attack that could include both specialist quicks, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel, and only two of the four allrounders. Parnell is one of them but does not see himself fighting for a place against Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo and Dwaine Pretorius.
Rather, he considers himself a cog in a South African wheel which will turn depending on conditions. "For me it is not a case of competing with somebody else. I bring a different skill set to this bowling unit. It's just about trying to be the best version of myself," Parnell said. "We are at a stage where everyone is comfortable with staying and sitting out at different times. We've developed a culture of horses for courses. It's more about what's needed at the different venues than performances."
Regularly impressive performances have told the story of Parnell's coming of age. More of them could turn back the years to the glory of 2009, except that this time, he will want to take the team one step further.