By Design or Fluke? South Africa’s conveyor belt of fast bowlers

By The Way - Weekly Columns


Since readmission to the test arena in 1991 it’s fair to say South Africa has had its share of controversy; the quota system, the whole Hansie Cronje affair as well as ignominious or unlucky exits at World Cups. Whilst those things should not be forgotten there is something that South Africa should be proud of since coming back into the test arena and that is the superb fast bowlers that they seem to be able to just churn out naturally. I am not for one moment comparing their fast bowling resources over the past 25 years or so to the West Indies conveyor belt of the 70s to the mid-90s. However, I would argue that South Africa’s ability to produce these fine fast bowlers is underrated and undertalked about it in my book, and I don’t think any nation, since South Africa’s readmission in 1991, has consistently produced the fast bowling talent that they have. Don’t get me wrong the other test playing nations have produced world class fast bowlers in that time but I don’t think any of them have done it on a more consistent basis. South Africa even produced the best allrounder since Garry Sobers in Jacques Kallis as well. Specifically, in this story however I am talking about South Africa’s fast bowlers since readmission and how they fare against their counterparts from other countries in the same timeframe. I don’t plan to answer why; I’d like to open it up for debate as much as anything as I’ve wondered about this for a few years. I’ll accept that since South Africa’s readmission, Sri Lanka and Australia had a spin genius each that took the majority of their wickets so doesn’t leave much for too many other seamers to take wickets and some of the test playing nations (India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) don’t play on pitches conducive to fast bowling, but it’s still a topic that has interested me greatly. However even if you look at every other test playing nation in terms of seamers who’ve taken 300+ wickets in their entire history no nation has produced more than 4, whilst South Africa have produced 5 just in the 26 years since their readmission in Shaun Pollock (421), Dale Steyn (419), Makhaya Ntini (390), Allan Donald (330) and Morne Morkel (309). Vernon Philander (age permitting) and Kagiso Rabada are well on their way to joining them as well. Jacques Kallis finished his test career just 8 wickets short of the 300 mark as well. It’s not just the amount of 300+ wicket takers they’ve produced but statistically they’re all up there with the very best. Since their return to the test arena in 1992, for bowlers that have taken 100+ wickets, South Africa have 5 (Philander, Rabada, Donald, Steyn and Pollock) in the top 8 best bowling averages. As well as that, with the same criteria, South Africa have 4 (Rabada, Steyn, Donald and Philander) in the top 6 best strike rates. Kagiso Rabada as things stand has a strike rate below 40. Only one other bowler with 100+ wickets has a strike rate below 40 and that was George Lohmann in the late 19th century on wickets not as good as the ones today of course. So what is the reason for South Africa’s conveyor belt of fast bowlers? Is it do with pitches? Conditions? There’s also the fact that South Africa have been good travellers in the past 10-15 years with 5 wins out of their 6 tours to England and Australia which rules out any argument that they only do it on their own patch. Could it be that perhaps? Are South Africa’s seam bowlers merely more flexible in foreign conditions in general than their counterparts from other countries? Could it be a fitness issue as well? To have 5 bowlers to have taken 300+ test wickets and in the same time frame no nation has produced more than 3 bowlers to take that amount of wickets, suggests that South Africa is not only producing these fine bowlers but can keep them fit as well.