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Feature

'You're always in the game' - Lungi Ngidi enjoying golden age for fast bowlers

The South Africa quick hopes curators will not overcompensate for the two-day Gabba finish and prepare overly flat tracks in Melbourne and Sydney

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
24-Dec-2022
With result pitches having become the norm, South Africa have not drawn a game yet during Lungi Ngidi's Test career  •  AFP/Getty Images

With result pitches having become the norm, South Africa have not drawn a game yet during Lungi Ngidi's Test career  •  AFP/Getty Images

It's a golden age for fast bowling in Test cricket and Lungi Ngidi is loving it.
Since he made his debut in 2018, pacers have averaged under 30 year after year - for the first time since 2000, which means there's no better time to be a modern seamer. "You're always in the game," Ngidi told ESPNcricinfo from Melbourne, where South Africa arrived to play their first Boxing Day Test at the MCG since 2008. "In years gone by in Tests, the team batting first would score 450 or 500 runs and you knew, as a bowler, you were going to have a long day. Now, teams want results and that's what people are preparing for and playing for. Everyone wants a result and we don't see a lot of draws. There's always a winner and a loser."
Asked when he thought the format became more cut-throat, Ngidi identified a clear change in approach. "It was once the World Test Championship (WTC) came into effect and there were points on the board and something up for grabs," he said. "It made the game more exciting and more teams decided to go big or big home."
Ngidi is correct. Since the WTC started in 2019 there have been only 19 draws in 132 Tests, which means there has been no winner or loser in just 14.3% of Tests. Between the year 2000 and the start of the WTC in August 2019, there were 195 draws in 872 Tests (22.3%). South Africa have not drawn a Test in Ngidi's career, and last drew in March 2017, against New Zealand, when rain washed out the final day. Since then they've played 45 Tests, won 23, and lost 22, with their most recent game producing a defeat inside two days on a green Gabba surface.
Even for someone who enjoys spicy surfaces, Ngidi could recognise the one-sided nature of that strip, which "was leaving divots" and has been given a below-average rating by the match referee for extra bounce and occasionally excessive seam movement. "People said the Gabba is a fast bowler's paradise and I can see why. Ideally, you want a balance," Ngidi said.
"We all know the financial incentive for people to play in T20 leagues but if Test players got offered the same financial benefits as a T20 competition, you'd be surprised by how many would take it."
Lungi Ngidi
And balance is the key word because Ngidi would hate to see Australian curators overcompensate for the Gabba by preparing flat tracks for the remaining two matches in the series. "I've seen Test wickets where you bowl all day and get one wicket and those are tough. It's pretty one-sided for the batters and it gets disheartening," Ngidi said. "Having played on the Gabba wicket, it would suck for it to be the extreme opposite in the rest of the series."
Not least because contests between Australia and South Africa are typically billed around the battle of the bowling attacks and this one is no different. Australia's pack includes Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Scott Boland, Cameron Green and, if fit, Josh Hazlewood. South Africa have Ngidi, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Marco Jansen. Read the names and it would suggest they match each other pound for pound.
While South Africa's current attack is no match for the Dale Steyn-Morne Morkel-Vernon Philander triad in terms of experience, they have more variety in their make-up and are all developing at similar rates. "We're all around the same age and get along very well as friends. That helps us to be open and honest with each other on the field, whereas if you have a senior bowler around, it can sometimes be hard to tell him what you think," Ngidi said. "We are shaping up well. We have a good left-arm seamer [Jansen] coming through and we've seen how important that is in Test cricket, and then we have a guy [Nortje] who bowls 150kph. And we have the leading [pace-bowling] Test wicket-taker this year."
Rabada's eight-for in the Gabba Test took him past Stuart Broad on the 2022 wicket-taker's list and at present he is only one behind the leading bowlerl, Jack Leach. He is also the fourth-highest wicket-taker in the current WTC cycle, and he remains the leader of South Africa's red-ball attack, even though his form has dipped in the shorter formats. Rabada was their least successful bowler at the T20 World Cup, but Ngidi, who has played 14 of his 16 Tests with Rabada in the line-up, thinks his numbers look worse than they really are because of how outstanding he had been before that. "When KG goes through a slight dip, it's amplified because of how good he is," Ngidi said. "He has a very high standard and when things don't go his way, he takes it quite hard. He is such a hungry cricketer and he is always striving for success. We're a partnership and I try to give him confidence mentally. The rest, he has got nailed."
The same cannot be said for South Africa's batting line-up, which is in the midst of a streak of six sub-200 totals, and which have struggled in the same conditions the bowlers have relished. Although Rabada conceded the batting disappointments have become "frustrating as a team", he asked for patience as they gain experience as a unit. Ngidi went even further. "As bowlers, we understand how hard batting is," he said. "Some of the balls we faced out there [at the Gabba], we thought how on earth are we supposed to do this? So we understand that it's tough for them."
Despite the batting frailties, South Africa went to Australia ranked second on the WTC points table and remain in contention for the final. To keep things that way, they have to win one of the MCG or SCG Tests and beat West Indies 2-0 at home. No one among the current squad has played a Test at either of these iconic venues - experiences Ngidi describes as a "dream come true" - and it's plausible none of them will play a Test match there again. South Africa are not due to tour Australia in the next FTP, which runs to 2027.
This is also South Africa's last three-Test series until 2026, with only two-Test series on the cards until then as the board seeks to minimise losses from hosting Test cricket and cement a January window for its new T20 league: the SA20. Ngidi will play for the Paarl Rocks in that tournament to add to his other franchise gig, at Delhi Capitals. Though he is "enjoying all the formats at the moment", at heart Ngidi remains a red-ball devotee. He is pragmatic, however, about the cash rewards that come with T20 leagues, which have allowed him to buy his mother a home and secure his financial future.
"Test cricket is my most important format. I grew up loving Test cricket and I will always love it. If I had the opportunity to play more Tests I would," he said. "We all know the financial incentive for people to play in T20 leagues but if Test players got offered the same financial benefits as a T20 competition, you'd be surprised by how many would take it."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent