Lungi Ngidi's nine-for for Titans on return from a back injury that sidelined him for four months is as much as cause for celebration as it should be a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of managing the young quick. Ngidi's franchise coach, Mark Boucher, told ESPNcricinfo he would not like to see his seamer rushed back to the international stage for at least "a few months", and hopes his workload is monitored closely as he develops.
Ngidi, 21, enjoyed a rapid rise last summer, in which he debuted in List A and first-class cricket and followed it up with an international debut earlier this year. With an ability to clock speeds of 140kph, he had massive expectations placed on him. Boucher believes the workload escalated too quickly and ultimately forced Ngidi out of action.
"Lungi came from the Tuks' team where he was bowling maybe 10 overs a day, and then went to provincial cricket, bowling maybe 15 overs a day, and then franchise cricket, where he had to bowl around 20 overs a day and all of that happened in the space of one season when he also made his international debut and got picked for the South Africa A side to tour England. By the time he went over, he was tired; he had a long season and maybe the selection should have been looked at," Boucher said. "He needed a proper off-season to rest and recover so maybe his injury was a blessing in disguise."
After playing in three List A matches for South Africa A in the UK, he was forced to return home before the first-class fixtures and was diagnosed with a stress fracture. He was unable to play for South Africa in a triangular 50-overs competition against India A and Afghanistan A, nor could he take part in the four-day matches against India A . Moreover, he could not play in the first four franchise matches of the summer either.
Instead, he had to work on his recovery, conditioning and overall well-being and that is where Boucher feels he has made significant strides. "We sat down with him and had a chat about the kind of player he wants to become, the work he needs to do on his bowling and even things like the kind of food he puts into his body, and he really committed to the things we decided," Boucher said.
Two weeks ago, Ngidi played a three-day game for the provincial side Northerns, and on Monday, he returned for the Titans with spectacular results. He took the new ball and delivered an opening spell of five overs, in which he took 4 for 24 and then returned to take two more wickets with the older ball later in the day. Ngidi's first innings figures of 6 for 37 ensured the Lions were bowled out for 180 and set Titans up for a nine-wicket victory.
Though he was bowling on a lively pitch, even the opposition was in awe of Ngidi's performance. "He was by far the quickest bowler on display," Geoffrey Toyana, the Lions coach, said. "And he found really good areas."
While observers were impressed with Ngidi's pace and leaner physique, Boucher was happier to see that Ngidi could operate with the same intensity at the end of the game as he did at the start. "Now you will probably find that after 17 or 18 overs in the legs, he is still running in hard, bowling quickly and causing problems for the batsmen," Boucher said.
All that will come as good news to a South African camp beset with bowling injuries, with six quicks - Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Wayne Parnell and Duanne Olivier - all recently sidelined. Boucher, however, does not want to see Ngidi rushed back as a quick-fix. "We understand that there is a lot of anticipation around Lungi and getting him ready but I don't think it should be rushed," he said.
For now, that call has been heeded. Ngidi did not recover in time to play the T20s against Bangladesh and with the national team out of action until Boxing Day, his most pressing assignment will be the franchise T20 competition which starts on November 10. Then, South Africa play four Tests (one against Zimbabwe, three against India), before limited-overs fixtures begin in February, for which Ngidi may be considered.
By then, all the above mentioned bowlers should be back in action, with Boucher expecting Steyn to turn out for Titans in the franchise T20 tournament from the get-go and Morkel and Morris to join them half-way through. Philander has already returned for the Cobras in the ongoing round of first-class fixtures.
However, with a busy season ahead - eight Tests, six ODIs and three T20s on top of a franchise competition that all national players are expected to be available for - bowlers' workloads will continue to be a topic of discussion. South Africa's franchise coaches will meet with national coach Ottis Gibson and CSA's medical committee in Johannesburg on Friday to discuss matters relating to fitness, form and player management.