Proteas’ pace aura suddenly looks tenuous

Kagiso Rabada (Getty Images)
Kagiso Rabada (Getty Images)

Cape Town – Even in the generally depressing World Cup 2019 washup, embattled head coach Ottis Gibson was still talking up the virtues of South Africa’s pace attack.

On arrival back in the country, he sought to soften the blow of the Proteas’ seventh-placed finish -- effectively representing their worst CWC yet -- by bringing up the fact that his wish to field a consistently incisive speed arsenal during the tournament was profoundly thwarted by injury issues.

In many respects he was quite entitled to raise the point, of course: he would not have banked on Dale Steyn exiting the event without bowling a competitive ball, Lungi Ngidi being tormented throughout by fitness woes and trump-card Kagiso Rabada beginning the World Cup, at very least, with a jaded look to his body language, speed readings … and, by extension, statistical returns.

That combination of ills went a long way to explaining why South African quickies, by and large, ended the pre-knockout phase well off the premier levels for excellence.

The record-breaking, market-leading Mitchell Starc (Australia), Bangladeshi surprise packet Mustafizur Rahman, India’s Jasprit Bumrah, New Zealand tearaway Lockie Ferguson, England’s extremely slippery duo of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood, Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir and Shaheen Afridi … all of them eclipsed any single Proteas seamer both for tallies of wickets and strike rates.

But that relative blow to South Africa’s well-established pride on the speed front may now seep beyond just the white-ball landscape into Test cricket as well.

For truth be told, certain danger signs flicker for the short- to medium term across the folds over the Proteas’ perceived (and subjective!) dominance in that department.

If evidence from the World Cup is added to recent developments in the five-day environment, all of England, India, Australia and possibly even New Zealand are going to shift – or already have – ahead of South Africa for increasingly important overall depth, simultaneously ensuring a collective sense of freshness and rotational options, in pace resources.

The Proteas’ next major roster challenge is the taxing three-Test series in India (nominally preceded by three Twenty20 internationals) from early October, also marking their debut in the ICC’s newly-established World Test Championship.

There will naturally have to be a suitably sturdy emphasis on spin in the travelling party, but so spicy and multi-skilled is India’s own fast bowling line-up these days that don’t be too dumbfounded if, on some occasions, the hosts might be prepared to offer up surfaces that give the seamers a proper chance as well.

Besides, it is firmly stamped in Gibson’s DNA to want to ensure he has the pace bases appropriately covered, come what may.

But if he’s already assessing – on the strengthening assumption now that he soldiers on for a bit longer as head coach, slightly aiding Cricket South Africa’s cashflow plight – his pace options for India, the Barbadian will pretty instantly twig that the situation isn’t nearly as stable or well-stocked as he might have hoped for.

For one thing, the natural ravages of the ageing process to once-sublime Test servants Steyn and Vernon Philander (36 and 34 respectively) are there for all to see.

Understandable, deep uncertainty surrounds Steyn’s prospects of resuming, from here, his 93-cap career considering the complexity and ongoing tribulations of his bowling-shoulder injury issues -- even if the vast majority of connoisseurs will still be willing that to happen, primarily on the very sound grounds of class being permanent. (He has also shown before his ability to prosper significantly on unforgiving Subcontinental tracks.)

Nor should the more medium-paced but ever-nagging, in-your-face warrior who is Philander be considered a dead cert for the Indian trek yet … he was almost routinely stalked by niggles in the 2018/19 season and seemed to require a concentrated winter conditioning drive (perhaps that has happened?) to get him back closer into optimal fitness shape for a satisfying twilight phase, if you like, to his prestigious top-flight career.

The much younger, highly talented but heavy-boned Ngidi is another, though, who in an ideal world needed a solid run of first-class bowling activity if he is going to muster the required stamina to maintain intensity throughout an Indian-staged, energy-sapping Test series – not to mention also shake off fully his CWC-period ailments.

But that is unlikely to happen, given that the domestic summer will only be in its infancy when the Proteas set off for the tour, so Ngidi will probably pack his bags still sporting a modest 13 first-class appearances and needing to show all of his wiles and more against India’s battery of free-spirited stroke-players.

Rabada? With a bit of luck, the 24-year-old jewel in the SA pace crown will be properly rested by the time the tour comes along, and ready to lead the charge at venues where, for the most part, he will have to bend his back for strike success.

Proper identification of when – and just as crucially when not – to unleash “KG” during the season as a whole (also featuring England’s full-length safari to our shores) will be critical to both his well-being and statistical returns, and I am not sure CSA properly realise yet the risks associated with overplaying him as one of their key marketing devices in these highly challenging times.

Although the next-in-line crop of fast bowlers like Anrich Nortje and Lutho Sipamla could make their major international breakthroughs in 2019/20, vitally broadening the Proteas pool to select from, it is an infuriating, saddening reality that quality top-flight customers like Kyle Abbott, Marchant de Lange and Duanne Olivier (the bowling find of the season last time out before committing to a Kolpak deal and possible future England selection) are unavailable to the SA cause at a time when international schedules are as jam-packed and demanding on quickies’ bodies as they have ever been.

I am not wholly convinced yet that we are heading toward any marked, new golden era in pace bowling in South Africa.

Indeed, we may only be drifting further away from one, given the worrisome variables as things stand …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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