With Dale Steyn's career in doubt, South Africa have used their next gen against India and both Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi have impressed
When the South Africa team for the (ongoing) Test series against India was announced, cricket fans across the world rejoiced at the inclusion of two names—A.B. de Villiers and Dale Steyn.
This was a full-strength Proteas side, with its nucleus, including Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Faf du Plessis, taking the field in seven Tests against India and Australia.
“It is probably the last time we play together against India and Australia," said skipper du Plessis ahead of the first Test that started on 5 January in Newlands, Cape Town.
The 34-year-old Steyn then hobbled off on the second day, another freak injury cutting short his comeback to international cricket. It raised a pointed question, one that cricket aficionados in South Africa have been dreading for some time: who after Steyn?
In autumn of 2015, Dehradun hosted a junior tournament. The Red Bull Campus Cricket World Finals saw eight of the top college teams from around the world representing their respective countries on an “international" stage. South Africa, represented by the Assupol Tuks, won that tournament.
Walk along the presidential suite of the Supersport Park in Centurion, and the Tuks find mention on a number of occasions. They are the dominant feeder team for the Titans, the resident franchise team at this ground.
In turn, the Titans are the main feeder team for the national side. Their current contracted players representing South Africa in this Test series against India include de Villiers, du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Aiden Markram and Lungi Ngidi.
Those last two names stand out because Markram was the captain of the Assupol Tuks when they lifted the trophy in Dehradun. Ngidi was their opening bowler, and they both featured in the second Test that South Africa won by 135 runs against India at Centurion on Wednesday. The 21-year-old Ngidi was penciled in as Steyn’s direct replacement.
“The success of our team is highly dependent on the fast bowlers we have. That’s why Lungi has been brought into the squad," du Plessis had said before the second Test.
It was a surprise inclusion—until 24 hours before the match, all-rounder Chris Morris was slated to play. On account of the “browner" wicket at Supersport Park, Ngidi made his Test debut on his home ground and bowled together with the world’s No.1 Test bowler—22-year-old Kagiso Rabada.
“The last time we had two black fast bowlers bowling in tandem in Tests was when Makhaya Ntini and Mfuneko Ngam opened the bowling in 2000-01. Since then, it has been a long wait and it holds more than just symbolic value for our cricket," says Neil Manthorp, journalist and commentator.
Cricket here, at times, is mired in skin tone-based conversations. Two pacers coming off the blocks on merit is a boost for the processes laid down in South Africa’s junior cricket structure.
Rabada is an apt representation of this system, perhaps even more than Ngidi. He burst on to the scene in 2014 with six wickets for 25 runs against Australia in the Under-19 World Cup (in the United Arab Emirates) semi-final.
Markram had led that side as well. Ngidi, too, has been a part of the same Under-19 setup with him and Rabada. This had the makings of a new nucleus for their national side. Rabada, though, made it a lot quicker to the senior level than the other two.
“You often see that young fast bowlers can be quick, but also untrained. This is not just in South Africa, but across the world. Then you look at him and wonder aloud. KG (as Rabada is commonly known here) is different. He is calm, controlled and doesn’t make mistakes like other youngsters would," says Lance Klusener, former South African all-rounder and batting coach for Zimbabwe. “He has immaculate control and brilliant skills for such a young bowler. He is going to rewrite some of the record books for sure."
Indian cricket is well-versed with Rabada’s prowess. In that autumn of 2015, South Africa toured India at around the same time as the college tournament. While Ngidi made an impression in the hills, just a little to the south, Rabada made life difficult for M.S. Dhoni in the Kanpur One Day International.
The great finisher struggled against a budding pacer who altered the length of his deliveries with intelligence and didn’t allow Dhoni to smack him. Throughout that series, Rabada kept a tight check on the then Indian skipper as South Africa romped to a 3-2 series win.
“He is an exceptionally intelligent bowler. At the same time, he is willing to listen and learn all the time," says Eric Simmons, former coach for South Africa and former bowling coach for India. “He is humble and shows incredible maturity for a 22-year-old. These are all qualities of a world-class fast bowler in the making, and even at such a young age, he is already quite further along down that road."
Rabada’s father is a doctor and mother, a lawyer. In comparison, Ngidi comes from a less privileged family—his mother is a domestic worker and father, a caretaker. Defying all social constraints, he earned a scholarship at the prestigious Hilton College (in KwaZulu-Natal province) and made it through the ranks.
“The contrast in their backgrounds and development couldn’t be greater. Yet, it has played a significant role in bringing them out to this international stage at the same time, having played together since Under-19 level," says Manthorp.
Simmons adds: “You look at Ngidi, he is built like a tank and can generate great pace. He is only starting out, but can build this stamina so that the captain can call him up whenever he wants. When you talk about Rabada, it is the same stamina that keeps him going. Additionally, he has a unique action that allows him to deliver the ball late, which is a key strength for deceiving batsmen."
From local journalists to commentators to ex-cricketers and coaches, almost everyone finds replacing Steyn inconceivable. Whether you talk about pace or wickets, he is this generation’s best fast bowler.
Now, South Africa’s other regular bowlers, 32-year-old Philander and 33-year-old Morkel, too may not have many years of cricket left in them. According to reports, both have lucrative English county deals lined up, possibly making this home summer their final hurrah.
On Sunday, in the third session of Day 2, as Virat Kohli battled to keep India afloat, Ngidi and Rabada bowled in tandem. It was a sneak peek into the Proteas’ coming years, an image people here have been waiting for long—the future for cricket in South Africa.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.