With Chris Morris effectively retired, Wayne Parnell is the endling of South Africa’s rich lineage of limited-overs all-rounders and he has one more chance to make it big, writes Rohit Sankar.

A month back, Wayne Parnell was dissecting South Africa’s chances at the 2021 T20 World Cup for an online publication. Just days after the end of that campaign, Parnell received a call from the national team selector who queried his interest in returning to international cricket.

A Kolpak expat, Parnell is one among several players to return to the country with the end of the Kolpak era in the wake of Brexit. He is the first, though, to be recalled to the national team, earning a call up for the three-match ODI series against the Netherlands later this month.

Why Parnell, though? Sure, he’s done reasonably well in different white ball competitions around the world as a globetrotter, but a mere glance at the list of Kolpak returnees is bound to make you wonder why he, and not Simon Harmer, Rilee Rossouw, Duanne Olivier, or Kyle Abbott, is the first to claw his way back into the Proteas team.

The answer probably lies in the narrow passageway between South Africa’s affinity for all-rounders and their not so inconspicuous scramble for balance in the limited-overs setup in the post-Kallis era.

Parnell was touted as the next big all-rounder in South Africa’s unremitting pipeline of fast bowling all-rounders in the 90s through to the mid-and late 2000s. Such was the quality of multi-skilled talent coming through this nation that when one left the arena, another inevitably strolled in to walk the path of greatness.

Parnell fit the label of the archetypal South Africa all-rounder to a T. A hat-trick in his fifth first-class match – all victims bowled no less – was soon followed by bigger accolades. Captain of the under-19 side that was beaten in the 2008 Under-19 World Cup final, Parnell was named the CSA under-19 cricketer of the year that year, hyping up his reputation further.

South Africa had seen enough. Parnell could bowl searing spells with the new ball, and bat pretty well. A national contract at the age of 19, just about 15 months after he left school, made him the youngest player at the time to get a CSA contract.

It was all spark and fury initially. A telling new-ball spell in his second ODI wound up the Aussies in Centurion and it seemed to be a sign of things to come. Later in the year, he would take 16 wickets, including two five-fors, across four ODIs against three different teams.

Those remain his only two five-wicket hauls in international cricket. After 65 ODIs, 40 T20Is and six Tests spread across eight years, Parnell’s career has been a topsy turvy ride that can only be described as unfulfiled. Constant injuries and erratic form that almost matched patterns with his varying hair-dos made Parnell a perfect candidate for the ‘what could have been’ story.

When he signed a Kolpak deal in 2018, it felt like South Africa had finally given up on him rather than the other way round. There was no hue and cry, no replacements discussed and no tears shed. Parnell was forgotten.

South Africa’s struggle for balance continued across formats, most notably in ODIs, where they tried squeezing in batting all-rounders, bowling all-rounders, late-order finishers, and spinners. Nothing seemed to work. Between Parnell’s last ODI in 2017 and now, South Africa have had no players in the format averaging over 20 with the bat and less than 30 with the ball. In fact, only three players make the cut-off of 100 or more runs and 10 or more wickets: Andile Phehlukwayo (in the current squad), Kagiso Rabada (not an all-rounder), and Chris Morris (effectively retired).

It’s easy to see why South Africa were tempted by the return of Parnell in a more experienced, mature avatar. His stint with Worcestershire and white-ball numbers across various leagues have been promising. Phehlukwayo is the closest South Africa have gotten to plugging the big all-rounder vacancy, but he is still learning his trade.

Parnell, on the other hand, fits in, now more than ever. With experience behind him, Parnell is no longer worried about competition but focused on his own role. “I found I could play with a lot more freedom,” he said in a recent press conference. “My way of looking at cricket now, is completely different. I know what I can do and I feel comfortable with what I can bring to any team and that’s been my biggest focus over the last couple of years – focusing on myself and not focusing on the next guy.”

“I wouldn’t say I am a completely different player, I am just more experienced,” he adds. At 31, his second coming, as unexpected as it is, is at a time South Africa sorely need him to own his talent and do justice to it. After years of frustration, it wouldn’t take much for Parnell to be written off again. But if he shows he can stay, South Africa might well have solved a riddle that’s pegged them back for years.