Fourteen years into his career, Wayne Parnell is still plugging away

Over the course of four ODI World Cups, he has been in and out of the South Africa side while plying his trade in leagues around the world and in county cricket

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Wayne Parnell in the field, Australia vs South Africa, 3rd Twenty20, Sydney, November 9, 2014

"I go out and try my best but when I'm done playing, no one is going to think of me. The game is going to move on"  •  Mark Kolbe/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

At 19 years of age, Wayne Parnell was the youngest cricketer to be nationally contracted in South Africa's history. He was an all-round wunderkind and a left-armer to boot, and was described as an "asset for years to come" by the CSA CEO at the time, Gerald Majola.
Parnell lit up the 2009 T20 World Cup with 4 for 13 against West Indies (including the wickets of Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard) and finished as his team's leading seamer at the tournament. South Africa were dumped out in the semi-final by eventual champions Pakistan but with an X-factor player like Parnell in their ranks, it did not look like it would be too long before they went all the way.
Fourteen years later South Africa still don't have a World Cup trophy but Parnell's career has evolved through 135 international appearances either side of a Kolpak deal, several county stints, and spells in various T20 leagues. He is among the most experienced members of the South Africa side, a keen observer of his own, and others', journeys through cricket, and a leader without a title - though he still can't call himself a regular member of the starting XI.
"I'm fairly satisfied," Parnell said when asked to reflect on his career so far. "But the thing I would trade everything for would be to be part of a South African team that either wins an ICC event or even just plays in the final."
Lots of South African cricketers say this but very few have got as many chances as Parnell has. He is one of only five South African players whose career has spanned four ODI World Cups . He has also played in two Under-19 World Cups and four T20 World Cups.
If selected for the upcoming ODI World Cup, Parnell will be the only member of the 2011 World Cup squad to play in 2023. That makes him part of a small club of two - current white-ball batting coach JP Duminy, who was also part of the 2011 World Cup squad is its only other member - who can speak to the differences in team culture between then and now.
"If I look back, it was just that something was missing ," Parnell said. "Maybe it wasn't a proper squad. We just had a bunch of players. There was something lacking. Maybe certain players didn't like other players . The dynamics were just off a little bit.
"The environment has changed a lot over the course of my career. It's so much better now, where players are interacting with each other and you can feel it's more genuine. Maybe it's just the way cricket has evolved."
Two years ago South Africa's Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings revealed some of the historic problems with national squads, even after readmission. There were tales of cliques and othering but Parnell also recalled a basic insecurity among players, who sounded desperate to hold on to their places . "It was like, 'If I'm playing, then I can't help this guy because he might take my spot and then I am out,'" he said. "Now players look at it like, 'If I help Marco Jansen get better and he takes my spot, that's good because it means he is better than I am and in that way he raises my level as well. And if I raise my level and he raises his level, then the whole team is better.'
"If we have that mindset, we are helping the team. I'm not thinking that if I am bowling well and he is not bowling well, I am not going to help him because then I can make sure I get picked. If you have that mindset, you are never going to win a World Cup."
Was that elbowing of other talent out of the way caused just by larger-than-life characters or was there an element of selfishness to it? "I don't mind big personalities if they have the right attitude and if they care about the team environment as well," Parnell said. "They have to have in their minds that it's not just about them, it's about us. Previously that was lacking. Because I am older, maybe I can see the bigger picture. It just seems there is a more genuine want for people to do well."


The search for improvement is never-ending for most sportspeople but in Parnell's case it was more of an essential than a secondary goal. The main criticism he faced early in his career was that he was inconsistent. In a country that prizes fast bowling above all else, his quest for speed meant that he neglected other skills and it was only when he began playing more regularly in England that he started to explore what else he could offer.
"I still have the ability to get up to 140 but what I've realised is that if it's 140 or 135, it's actually almost the same thing . If you ask batters, it's more or less the same. Even guys who are bowling 150, the top-class batters play it as if it's 125," he said. "And playing in the UK, sometimes the wickets are really flat, so being able to bowl quickly is not enough."
So pace might be pace but it's not everything. Parnell decided to try and rediscover his ability to swing the ball. "I had to figure it out for myself because it's not something that is encouraged back home, where it's more about hitting a certain length. You do, but if it's going straight, you're like a bowling machine," he said.
For a journeyman cricketer, especially on the T20 league circuit, the opportunity to work on skills of your own can be rare, but one such window presented itself last year for Parnell. He was part of Northern Superchargers' Hundred squad but only joined them after South Africa's series against England and Ireland, so he had a period where he was not contractually required to be part of either squad and used it to work on his game, training on his own.
"I would go to the outground in Leeds every day and spend half an hour or 45 minutes, bowling by myself, working out different things and trying to see with different grips on the ball, which one swings more. When you are in a team environment and you are training, it's very competitive but to actually work on certain things, you have to go by yourself, when it's quiet, when it's a relaxed environment, and just play around.
"Even back home, in Cape Town, I've done a lot of that over the last couple of years, where I go out on my own, put my AirPods in, put some music on and just bowl on my own and try and figure out what works well. Maybe with maturity, age, and having played a couple of seasons, I've become more self-aware. I lacked that previously. I think the best teacher is yourself. Someone else is teaching you from their perspective and what they've learnt but you are the one going through it. Everyone is different and I think that's really worked for me."


By October 2017, Parnell had played 111 matches for South Africa, but still couldn't really consider himself a regular and too often, played piecemeal parts in series. That may seem surprising considering the splash he made when he started, but he was unable to sustain it enough to consistently make it into a squad that always had access to good fast bowlers. As Parnell was coming up, so were Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and they formed the spine of the attack for much of the next decade. At the same time, South Africa were not quite settled on the type of allrounder they wanted - a lower-order hitter who was mostly a bowler, in the Lance Klusener mould; a top-order batter who could offer a few overs, as Jacques Kallis did until his retirement in 2014; or a spin-bowling allrounder lIke Roelof van der Merwe. Some would argue that they still aren't quite sure. The team's experimentation with options and combinations denied Parnell the opportunity to develop consistency at the highest level, which in turn led to him being too unpredictable when picked.
Looking back, he also wondered if he could have done more with the bat to take ownership of a lower-middle-order place. "It was a combination of a lot of things but mostly we had a really strong team," he said. "And it was such a tricky thing with the position I bat in. You either come in and there's a couple of balls left or you come in and we are in trouble. I don't think I understood how to get the balance right."
With the change of regime in the 2017-18 summer, when Ottis Gibson succeeded Russell Domingo as head coach, Parnell was dropped from the national side. By that time he was married to Aisha Baker, a social-media influencer and entrepreneur, and they were starting to think of the next stage of their life and starting a family. The following year Parnell was part of the Worcestershire side that won the Vitality Blast, which included Moeen Ali, who he became friends with. The idea of moving to England semi-permanently came up around then.
"It was sold really well to me by Moeen Ali," Parnell remembered. "At the time, my wife was pregnant, and with international cricket and the uncertainty around tours, I knew if I did that, I would be in the UK for six or seven months of the year and then for the rest of it, I could come back to South Africa . It would be summer time, and I haven't had a summer off since I was 17 or 18. It had nothing to do with CSA or the team. It was about wanting to get consistent playing time and going into an environment where I knew I could produce on the field and also help guys in and around the dressing room."
Parnell took a Kolpak deal, accepting that before he had even turned 30, he had ended his international career - albeit in expectation of a better quality of life. At the time, the UK had already voted to leave the European Union but the consequences of Brexit on Kolpak deals only hit two years later. The contracts were cancelled and any cricketers who stayed on in the county sides would revert to overseas-player status, thereby making them eligible to play for their countries again.
In 2020, with the world in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic and travel severely restricted, Parnell only played one match, in the Pakistan Super League. The following year, all ideas of a curated life with control over his schedule shattered, he signed with Northamptonshire. During this time there, his second child was born, whom he only met on his return to South Africa at the end of the season. "I'd also seen with the other players who start families not seeing their kids. I really wanted to be part of my children's initial years but it worked out that the thing I tried to avoid is happening," he said.
Given that he no longer had the security of employment in England, Parnell had to take other opportunities that came his way, including one right on his doorstep. In September 2021, he was asked to captain Western Province in the CSA Provincial T20 Cup. They were knocked out in the first round but he was their leading wicket-taker and second highest run-scorer. Two months later he became the first high-profile Kolpak to be re-selected for South Africa, in a World Cup Super League series against Netherlands.
"It was a bit of a surprise," he admitted. "I had just come back and we had the T20 competition, but I did not think about the Proteas at all. I thought I was going to come back, enjoy playing at Western Province, and that it would be nice for my kids to see me playing professional cricket."
Parnell wasn't the only one who wondered why he had been picked. Partly it might have been down to the upheavals of the pandemic and the fatigue being caused by biobubbles. South Africa's T20 outfit had just returned from the World Cup in Abu Dhabi, and with an India series to follow, the selectors opted for something of a makeshift squad for the series they clearly believed they could win, and Parnell suspected as much. "I understand the dynamics of teams and squads but I also thought maybe they think I can still play at this level," Parnell said. "I asked Victor [Mpitsang, the former convenor of selectors], 'Is this just a once-off, where I play a couple of games because the big dogs are resting, or is there actually a way in?' I was told to see it as an opportunity. I did not get a lot of clarity. I don't know why we live in this grey space - it should be a simple yes or no. But I went into that series [which was postponed after one game thanks to the Omicron variant] and I've been part of the set-up since."
Last September, Parnell was the fourth-most expensive player at the SA20 auction, sold to Pretoria Capitals for 5.6 million rand (approx US$295,000). For someone from the Eastern Cape coast, who has made Cape Town his home, heading inland was its own culture shock.
He was also asked to captain. "When the auction happened, Pretoria was last on the list in terms of thinking that's where I am going to go," he laughed. "And then just before the SA20 started, I got called and asked if I would be interested in captaining. I said yes because it was kind of like a no-brainer, but it was out of the blue."
Though they had few standout names in their batting ranks - Phil Salt quickly became one - Capitals had a powerhouse bowling line-up that included Anrich Nortje, Josh Little and Adil Rashid. They finished top of the table at the end of the group stage and were losing finalists at the end of the first season.
Parnell's stocks as a leader grew. In a career move few would have predicted, he went on to captain Seattle Orcas in the inaugural MLC season, where they reached the final, and Northern Superchargers in the Hundred.
Of late, he has developed a special affinity for strategy in league cricket. "T20 is such a cool format. It's not just as simple as run up and bowl or hit the ball out of the park. There's a lot involved, especially in setting up teams. It's something I have really enjoyed," he said. "In all the different leagues, you can have the best team but if you don't gel well as a team, as a management group, as every single person involved, you are not going to win. What makes a successful franchise in every league is that they have really good local players and those are the guys that chip in and win you the competition."
In March this year Parnell was re-contracted by CSA, and a few weeks later, picked up an IPL deal with Royal Challengers Bangalore as a replacement for Reece Topley. He took 3 for 41 on his IPL comeback and played seven of the franchise's 14 matches.
"The last time I played in the IPL was in 2014, where you'd get a score of 200 every six or seven games," he said. "Now, teams are scoring 200 almost every other game and you're also seeing those scores being chased down. So batting-wise, the skill level has gone up. It's as close to international cricket as you can get - more than any other league. It's so tough and so fierce and the level of competition is very high."
Given the Benjamin Button-ing of his career, is the door still open for a Test comeback? "It's not closed. You can still see through it," he said. "But the goalposts have shifted. With the fifty-over World Cup and T20 World Cup next year, I felt like that's a better possibility to win an ICC event but also, in terms of the longevity of my career. Physically it is a toll on the body."
And we'd do well to remember that Parnell is not 19 anymore. He has gone from a teenager to a father and now plays the game with fewer expectations and more maturity than before. He believes that has been the secret to his success so far. "It's about understanding there is more to life than playing cricket.
"As a younger player, playing for South Africa is the ultimate thing, or playing in the IPL is the ultimate thing. Playing in all these leagues is amazing. But when you have kids, it puts a different spin on life," he said. "Cricket is a game. I still go out and try my best but when I'm done playing, no one is going to think of me. The game is going to move on. There are going to be other superstars coming through. As a player you are just part of the conveyor belt, but when you are on it, you have to enjoy it."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket