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Analysis

South Africa pace quartet give reason for tempered excitement

Rabada, Ngidi, Jansen, Nortje offer a glimpse into what could become one of the world's fastest, baddest bands of quicks

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
17-Aug-2022
Anrich Nortje claimed three wickets on the opening day  •  Getty Images

Anrich Nortje claimed three wickets on the opening day  •  Getty Images

Let's not get too excited yet, even though the 32 overs we saw today have given us reason enough to: South Africa are getting the (new) fast bowling band back together again.
Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Anrich Nortje have provided a glimpse into what could become one of the quickest, baddest pace packs in world cricket and they're ready to shout about it. "We've got some pace, we've got bounce, we've got guys who can swing it and we've got guys who can bowl quick bumpers," Rabada, who recovered from an ankle ligament injury that he admitted had him "pretty concerned" to play in this Test match, said.
But he left out a few things. For all the venom South Africa have in the quartet who took the field at Lord's, they also have something they have sometimes lacked: variety.
This group of seamers includes a left-armer in Jansen, which they haven't had with regularity since Lonwabo Tsotsobe (Wayne Parnell made the odd appearance afterwards), who is also a fairly decent lower-order batter. It also has someone who is willing to put speed second to more subtle skills like seam movement in Ngidi, who only bowled five overs but he held his end while Rabada did the damage at the other.
Ngidi's development is perhaps the most pleasing thing about South Africa's summer so far. He was the leading seamer in the T20I series and has shown great maturity as a cricketer. Speaking three days before the series started, Ngidi revealed that he thought strategically about developing a different skillset to the rest of the attack and used his time on the sidelines to do it.
"We've got guys that bowl quickly so if I am not as quick as them, I looked at what else I can do. I've tried to fill the gaps," he said. "The time at the IPL, when I was not playing, everyone sees that as a negative, but I had the chance to work on different skills and I think we saw that come out in these recent games."
As a result, Ngidi was given a specific role for the Tests: "I've been asked to bring that element of control," he said, and his new-ball spell of 0 for 12 in five overs was an example of how seriously he has taken that instruction on board. Ngidi bowled mostly back-of-a-length and aiming for the top of off-stump. It's almost the role Vernon Philander used to play, but Ngidi is quicker and Philander moved the ball off the seam a little more. Ngidi is working on developing that and he has a master of the art of seam bowling, Charl Langeveldt, South Africa's bowling coach, to guide him. His mantra is to keep Test cricket simple, something Rabada repeated at the end of day one.
"Normally, you do the same things in Test cricket," Rabada said, though that is exactly what England's assistant, Paul Collingwood, hoped South Africa would not do. Collingwood explained England's approach is aimed at getting bowlers to veer off their usual lines and lengths. Ben Stokes, for example, charged Rabada from the get-go. That approach works when the opposition attack is under pressure (see England's last four Tests as evidence) but as South Africa hinted pre-series, it could have the reverse effect if their bowlers are consistent, which they back themselves to be.
Rabada zoned in on off-stump and was able to find the deficiencies in the England openers' defences pretty quickly. Both Alex Lees and Zak Crawley were loose on the drive and Rabada, with some gentle away movement, found the edge. Similarly, South Africa burst through golden-boy Jonny Bairstow's, by taking advantage of his tendency to leave a gap between bat and pad. It was Anrich Nortje who bowled the ball that was full on off-stump swinging in a touch and through the gate and who was able to bring out the chainsaw celebration. "Anrich is a very passionate individual, hence the celebration," Rabada said. "And rightly so, it was a good ball."
It was also more than that. This is Nortje's first Test since the series in West Indies in June last year and first full series with South Africa since he recovered from a hip and back injury that sidelined him for six months. When Marco Jansen debuted against India, and impressed with similar speeds to Nortje, it became difficult to see if Nortje would immediately find a way back into the XI. Then, South Africa were also playing with an allrounder, Wiaan Mulder, who they have since dispensed with to make room for the fourth quick. So far, it looks like a good decision. Nortje has stormed back with speeds in the upper 140s, he squared Stokes up to induce the edge and bowled Ben Foakes to claim a third.
All that is reason for South Africa to believe they had a very good first day but they will assess it in context. Their bowling is their stronger suit and even though they executed excellently on a seamer-friendly day, they will also be quietly relieved their batting was spared facing England in the same conditions. They won't always be that fortunate and they may not always have the ability to play an attack like this, as history has shown. Four quicks don't come around often, together.
The last time South Africa fielded four genuine quicks was four years ago, against India at Newlands. They had the opposition 92 for 7 in response to their 286 before Dale Steyn walked off mid-over with a heel injury and did not return for the rest of the series. By the time Steyn returned, Morne Morkel had retired. That foursome, the only pace attack since 1981-82 to each have 100 Test wickets, never played together again ending the promise of delivering on another Garner-Roberts-Holding-Croft before it even really began. This one's chances could be better. They're all younger than 30, but they're all all-format and T20 league players. So get excited about them, but don't get too excited yet.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent