South Africa spin a tale of turn


“There’s more than one way to spin… a tale, as well as a ball.” © Getty

What does South African spin bowling have in common with the Titanic? Both sank in 1912. The wreck of the giant ship was found off the coast of Newfoundland in 1985, but spin remained submerged under fast bowling on the sharp tip of Africa. Until, perhaps, now.

Bert Vogler, Aubrey Faulkner, Reggie Schwarz and Gordon White took 50 wickets at an average of 19.06 in the 11 Tests they played together for South Africa from January 1906 to March 1910. All were wrist spinners. By August 1912, when White played his last Test at the Oval, their international careers were over.

With that, any serious consideration that spin could win matches for South Africa, particularly at home, disappeared without a trace. Hugh Tayfield, who took 170 wickets in 37 Tests from December 1949 to August 1960, was an exception. That likely wouldn’t have been the case had South Africa not chosen solely white Test teams until 1992.

In the 1970s and 80s, Lefty Adams claimed 122 wickets at 15.47 in 27 first-class matches for the brown version of Western Province. By then the international fight against apartheid had led to South Africa’s expulsion from the international arena – which might not have happened had the then Springboks picked players of Adams’ hue. So Alan Kourie, who took 421 wickets in 127 first-class games for the white Transvaal team in much the same era as Adams, also never got a look in. Adams and Kourie were left-arm masters of flight, guile and mind games, rather than turn. Not so Denys Hobson, a leg-break and googly wizard for the white Western Province side who took 374 wickets in 175 first-class matches, also in the 1970s and 80s.

But there were exponentially more fine fast bowlers where that handful of superb slow poisoners came from, and they were central to the idea of winning cricket matches in South Africa. Eras have changed but the lineage is unbroken: since re-admission, the baton has been passed from Allan Donald to Makhaya Ntini to Dale Steyn to Kagiso Rabada, and many others. Krom Hendricks, Dik Abed, Ben Malamba and Vincent Barnes would have been among more who would have been given their places in the parade were it not for an establishment that refused to accept their blackness and brownness.

And here we are, 109 years after the Titanic and South African spin bowling vanished, and Temba Bavuma’s squad for their ODI series in Ireland includes four frontline slow bowlers: Tabraiz Shamsi, Keshav Maharaj, George Linde and Bjorn Fortuin. That’s still fewer than the number of quicks in the ranks, but only by one if we don’t count the seaming allrounders, which we shouldn’t do.

Maybe it’s not what it looks like. In these pandemic times, squads are bigger – South Africa’s numbers 20 – and the visitors have come directly from the slow surfaces of the Caribbean. And they may be unsure of Irish conditions having last played there in July 2007. But it’s surely worth wondering whether South African attitudes towards the value of spin have changed.

Shamsi said in an audio file released on Friday that conditions for the three-match series in Malahide, which starts on Sunday, might make the question moot for now: “It definitely has a lot more in it for the fast bowlers compared to the Caribbean. We had a good training session [on Thursday], and the boys spoke about the good seam movement the pitch is offering.”

Consequently, Shamsi, who went to West Indies as the top-ranked spinner in T20Is and lived up to that billing by taking seven wickets at an average of 11.42 and an economy rate of 4.00 in the five games, expected to shoulder different responsibilities against Ireland: “My role might be more minimal than it was in the West Indies. But I’m comfortable with that. I’ve realised there are two ways of winning matches for the team. It’s not just about ‘Shammo’ taking wickets all the time. I have to adjust my game – maybe try and hold the game.”

Did the Irish think South Africa and spin were on better terms or was their slew of slow bowlers a matter of circumstance? “They’ve got quite a big squad and they’ve just come from the Caribbean, where historically it’s been quite spin-friendly,” Andrew Balbirnie, the home side’s captain, told an online press conference on Friday. “But they have plenty of options. They’ve got a really impressive squad and they’re just on the back of a two-series [Test and T20I] win in the Caribbean, so they’re full of confidence and they’ve got an abundance of bowlers to pick from. I don’t think they’ve played in Malahide before and they haven’t been to Ireland since 2007, so there may be a bit of uncertainty about what they’re going to get.”

Would coming from West Indian pitches be a help or a hindrance for the South Africans? “It can work both ways,” Balbirnie said. “They’ve had a long time there, and they’ve found form. They’ll be confident no matter what conditions you put in front of them. They’re a team who play all around the world quite regularly, so they adapt pretty well and pretty quickly.”

Did he fancy a bit of Shamsi? “He’s a good bowler, but they’re all good bowlers. I don’t need to keep harping on about how good a team they are. I think everyone knows.”

Just like everyone knows when the Titanic sank, and that its last port of call was in Ireland: at what was then Queenstown and is now Cobh, on the south coast of County Cork. Like Shamsi said, there’s more than one way to spin… a tale, as well as a ball.

© Cricbuzz



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Publish date : 2021-07-09 16:50:34

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