The final instalment in Ali Bacher and David Williams' trilogy celebrating South Africa's best cricketers looks at the country's strongest suit: its bowlers. Published six years after Jacques Kallis and 12 Other Great South African All-Rounders and four after South Africa's Greatest Batsmen Past and Present, the latest volume contains more players - 18, compared to 13 and 12 in the previous two books. That alone speaks to South Africa's excellence in this department, especially considering those who were left out.
Nine of South Africa's top ten Test wicket-takers have chapters dedicated to them, but Jacques Kallis, despite being sixth on that list, does not feature. The rationale for his exclusion, as well as those of Mike Procter, Trevor Goddard and Aubrey Faulkner, was that they were discussed in the allrounders book. However, Kallis, also appeared in the book on South Africa's greatest batsmen, and his inclusion in this volume would have sealed his status as the most valued cricketer the country has produced.
Also absent among the modern greats here is Imran Tahir, whose prowess in the white-ball game has seen him become South Africa's second-highest wicket-taker in T20I cricket and eighth-highest in ODIs . From an earlier era, Krom Hendricks, who was called the fastest bowler in the world in the late 1890s (but was denied the chance to play for South Africa because he was of colour), Athol Rowan and Bert Vogler, who both had exceptional records at first-class level, are also excluded.
Instead, the book concentrates on performers in the post-WWII era, and has made room for four players who were not capped in Tests. Eric Petersen and Owen Williams, bowlers of colour who played for the non-white South Africa Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) and Vince van der Bijl and Don Mackay-Coghill, who thrived during the isolation years, are recognised.
Perhaps contrary to expectation, the opening chapter is not about a snarling speedster but Hugh Tayfield. Called South Africa's "best-ever spin bowler" by the authors, Tayfield was the first South African to 100 Test wickets. Bacher's and Tayfield's playing years for Transvaal overlapped, and Bacher is well placed to provide insight into his team-mate's character. Tayfield's presence "gave me a lot of confidence", Bacher writes, because "he never knew the meaning of defeat". Tales of Tayfield's tenacity include his going into a tea break wicketless saying he would take five in the last session and doing it; and battling through illness to take nine wickets in the fourth Test against England at the Wanderers in 1957. His career, though, came to an early end, at the age of 31.
There's a hint of mischief in this chapter too: it wonders what modern journalists would have made of Tayfield's reputation as a ladies' man. It might have added to the spark of the book had that thread been explored through to its end.
Vernon Philander's 2014 ball-tampering incident and Kagiso Rabada's repeated breaches of the ICC code of conduct, and his love of music, don't find a mention, while the Makhaya Ntini rape case is only mentioned in one paragraph. As was the case with the earlier book, colour is often saved for the older players, about whom not as much is known. However, there is one gem in the Dale Steyn chapter, in which South Africa's leading bowler compares cricket to his other passion, fishing, and then tells us which of the two he prefers.
"You have to pick your lure, depending on what kind of fish you want to catch - what kind of ball to bowl to which batsman, short ball or the yorker. You have to study the conditions - is it windy, is it overcast, is it hot? So cricket and fishing have kind of gone hand in hand for me. The only difference is, when I am playing cricket, I have millions of people watching me, wanting me to take a wicket; whereas when I am fishing, nobody notices when I don't catch a fish - so I prefer fishing," Steyn says.
Steyn is South Africa's most successful fast bowler, but Neil Adcock and Peter Heine were the originals, "the forerunners of both the accuracy and aggression of the great West Indian pacemen of the 1970s and 1980s". Still, it was only later, when South Africa had a batting line-up that could match their bowling strength, that results improved. Peter Pollock played at a time when his younger brother, Graeme, was scoring runs, and they were both part of the 1969-70 team that beat Australia at home, a feat only achieved again in 2018.
By then, South Africa had had Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers, Shaun Pollock, Paul Adams and Ntini, all of whom blazed their own trails. Donald's experience is credited with being the reason South Africa did not start out as a second-tier team post-readmission, while the descriptions of Adams' action are particularly amusing. The usually staid Pollock, who remained South Africa's leading wicket-taker for more than a decade before Steyn broke his record, steps out of his crease and admits here that he felt his retirement in 2008 was premature, telling Bacher that he "might have continued playing if there had been a different approach from the selectors about a different role for him in the team - perhaps a withdrawal from the bowling front line, and more emphasis on batting. But no such discussions took place." Philander has since said similar, that he walked away although he could have kept going, because he lost faith in the administration.
Philander was at the centre of a selection scandal during the 2015 World Cup, when he was included in the starting XI ahead of the in-form Kyle Abbott to meet a transformation target. Philander did not play ODI cricket after that year but this book makes the case that he should have been considered for the 2019 World Cup, though not for his bowling alone. "There was widespread comment that the batting tail in the ODI squad was looking too long, and it would have been a lot stronger with Philander there."
While none of the three books in this series courts controversy, this one makes the boldest claims. It posits that Morne Morkel would have rivalled James Anderson had he not retired in 2018, and predicts that Rabada "in a country that has produced an unmatched succession of fast bowlers… could eventually be judged the greatest of them all".
Will Bacher and Williams produce another volume, perhaps looking at South Africa's best fielders or wicketkeepers? At the launch of this book, neither seemed ready to add to this worthy collection. One thing they are certain of is that they will not be examining South African cricket's best CEOs, because that would be too short a book to put together.
South Africa's Greatest Bowlers Past and Present
By Ali Bacher and David Williams
Penguin Random House
224 pages, R205