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Feature

New-look Olivier carries same old threat for South Africa

Duanne Olivier may be slower, fuller and blonder than he was three years ago, but he remains just as effective to South Africa

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
03-Jan-2022
Duanne Olivier had quite an unbelievable day upon his return to the South African Test side  •  AFP via Getty Images

Duanne Olivier had quite an unbelievable day upon his return to the South African Test side  •  AFP via Getty Images

Duanne Olivier is back. Or is he?
The last time this bowler who calls himself Olivier played a Test at the Wanderers, in January 2019 against Pakistan, almost half of his deliveries were short of a good length and fewer than 10% were full. He was the quickest of South Africa's four seamers and the most successful.
Now, an Olivier has turned up, in January 2022 against India, and while just over half his deliveries were short of a good length, almost 15% were full. He was the slowest of South Africa's quartet, but could still count himself among the successful. Olivier took three wickets, including two in two balls that gave South Africa an early advantage after a meandering first hour of the second Test.
He's back, but he's not the same Olivier that left, and that's not just because of the blonde highlights. This is Olivier 2.0.
On re-selection, Olivier promised he was less concerned with being an "enforcer" (code for wanting to threaten batters with body blows above the waist) and more interested in finding the best way to operate on each surface.
At the Wanderers, historically a fast-bowlers' paradise, while the instinct is to bowl short, it has been proven that fuller lengths are more likely to get wickets. Olivier knows this. Since returning to the South African domestic set-up, Olivier has joined Lions, who are based at the Wanderers. They've played three of their four first-class matches of the season, so far, at this ground and Olivier has taken 24 of his 28 wickets here. Most of them came from bowling fuller than he usually would. "It's a bit of a risk and reward playoff," he told ESPNcricinfo earlier in the season. "If you bowl a bit fuller, you might get hit for a few boundaries, but you're testing the batter's technique. You're not just allowing him to leave and get himself in."
Still, Olivier could not resist starting with a bouncer as he marked his return to Test cricket. Mayank Agarwal ducked under it with ease. Olivier adjusted later in the over but overcompensated and bowled it too full. Agarwal cashed in with a cover drive that went for four and then sent a low full toss through mid-off. Olivier was back and finding his feet.
In his next over, he got closer to the outside edge but could not tempt KL Rahul into playing. In the next one, he beat Rahul and even though he had dismissed him with movement away from off stump but the bat had flicked the pad as the ball carried through. And in the next over, to keep India's openers guessing, Olivier sent a well-directed short ball in Rahul's direction and Dean Elgar thought he may have broken through but the ball came off Rahul's shoulder. That was the surprise delivery and Olivier went back to bowling full. Rahul found the boundary twice.
It took Lungi Ngidi's impressive opening spell to plant the seeds of doubt in the Indian batters' minds. In his first 12 balls, Ngidi found Rahul's outside edge once, but the chance fell short of third slip, and beat it four times. In his next over, he tested Agarwal, who left successfully against Ngidi but nicked off to Marco Jansen.
Ngidi only bowled four overs, which cost just three runs before Olivier returned, with a plan. He kept Rahul on the back foot with an over of short balls, and tried the same against Cheteshwar Pujara, then mixed it up with a few fuller and then settled on his plan to use the bounce to prise out India's struggling No.3. Pujara tried to defend a short ball but it ballooned off the shoulder of his bat to Temba Bavuma at point. His next delivery was fuller but still short of a good length and Ajinkya Rahane went fishing. He was caught at gully to give Olivier his 50th Test wicket, three years after his 48th.
That makes Olivier the joint-third-quickest South African, in match terms, to reach 50 Test wickets. He is in his 11th Test; Vernon Philander took seven and Peter Pollock, nine. But in balls terms, Olivier is the second-best of all time. Philander bowled 1240 balls to take 50 wickets; Olivier has bowled 1486. That means he takes a wicket roughly every 30 balls, or once in five overs. As things stand, no Test bowler with at least a half-century of wickets is more incisive.
In big-picture terms, it does not get much more impressive than that but Olivier was quick to point out that not everything about his performance was perfect. "Sometimes, I was a bit floaty," he noted. "And it's okay. As a person, you try to get better. There were certain patches which were very good and certain patches that weren't very good."
There is also a question around his speed. Most of Olivier's deliveries clocked in at around 130kph on the speed gun, at least 10kph lower than when he left and was hitting the 140kph regularly. "I don't know what's going on with the speed gun," Olivier said, laughing.
The answer is nothing. Enquiries were made earlier in the day when Olivier appeared to be bowling quicker to the naked eye even though the television graphics had him in the mid-120s. The same speed gun had the other bowlers in the 140s, but, even though he may have hinted at it, it doesn't actually really bother Olivier. "I've never looked at the speed gun to see if I am hitting my straps or not," he said.
Instead, Olivier relies on the way he feels and Monday was particularly challenging in that regard. "It felt like a debut. I was very nervous today," he said. "And I have a new skill: I'm trying to bowl fuller, so I am still trying to do that at pace."
He believes he will get quicker as the series goes on, but thinks the important thing is actually to get more consistent. And that applies to South Africa's attack as a whole. Their lines were markedly better here than they were at Centurion, where 42% of balls bowled by the seamers were left alone in the first two sessions. At the Wanderers, India only left 33% of the time in the same period. "The message was simple: try and make them play more," Olivier confirmed. "So we have improved and we want to improve more."
South Africa 2.0 (or are we at 6.0 or somewhere there now?) is also a work in progress but they've started 2022 on the right footing. They picked a team with the bowling personnel that suited the situation and they opened the door to someone who thought his international career had ended three years ago. So yes, Oliver is back. The new Olivier.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent