South Africa’s off-field struggles that saw CEO of Cricket South Africa Thabang Moroe suspended from his role dominated much of the build-up of the ongoing series against England.
And while South Africa lost five of the six Tests they contested in 2019, a feature of the England series so far has been the impressive way in which their less experienced players have fared. Rassie van der Dussen and Dwaine Pretorious both put in handy contributions in the Centurion Test while Anrich Nortje recovered well after an inconsistent spell to take five wickets across the Test.
It was the performance of Nortje that highlighted a wider trend in South African cricket over recent years – the instant success of their fast bowlers in Test cricket. In each of the last five winters, a quick bowler has broken into the South African Test XI and made an instant impact.
Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Abbott, Lungi Ngidi, Duanne Olivier and Nortje all have broken into the South African line-up and looked immediately at home. While Abbott and Olivier had debuted in previous years, it wasn’t until the 2016/17 and 2018/19 seasons respectively that the duo nailed down their spots in the side before each taking up Kolpak deals in England.
Prior to the aforementioned quintet, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander had been near permanent fixtures in the South African attack for much of the decade. Going further back, world-class fast bowling has been a constant feature of South African sides since their readmission into international cricket in 1992 with the likes of Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini all taking more than 325 wickets in across their Test careers.
On the most recent Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, South African journalist Daniel Gallan suggested that it was the active outdoor lifestyle of South Africans and their wider sporting interests that might have something to do with their seemingly never-ending production line of quick bowlers.
“It’s the wickets, it’s the outdoor lifestyle, I think that plays a role. The one thing I found out living in England for a year is that you get sports fans but you get people who are very specific in the sport that they are fans of. You have hardcore cricket guys, hardcore rugby guys, hardcore football guys but there isn’t a lot of crossover. Whereas in South Africa if you’re a sports fan or you play sport, there’s a lot of cross-code going on. That multi-sport discipline creates a better natural athlete. You throw that in with good outdoor weather, where kids could be climbing trees from a young age, playing lots of sport at primary school and at high school, I think it creates a better athlete.
“Bouncy wickets, captains who trust the fast bowler and I think something that is a bit more subtle is that South Africans, like Australians, play cricket in a hyper-macho way. Being a fast bowler is seen as being the alpha male of the side, it’s quite aspirational wanting to grow up to be a fast bowler.
“If you’re quite a gifted athlete as a youngster, you’re not necessarily turned to rugby or football. Being a cricketer is something that you could pursue so the game of cricket don’t necessarily lose its best athletes.”
You can listen to the full episode of the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast on the Podcast App or Spotify