"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."