My Two Hundred Dinars: South Africa’s Barren Spin Cupboard

Posted on January 2, 2015

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The game of cricket may continue to evolve, but some things rarely change. For instance, the make up of a well balanced side has barely changed over the last 20 years. Opening batsmen, three middle order players and an all rounder (or four middle order batsmen a couple of whom are competent bowlers), wicket keeper, three pace bowlers and a spinner. If you were playing in particular subcontinental venues, two spinners would come into play. On other pitches you may deem it necessary to go with an all-pace bowling attack, but even in these circumstances one or two of the batsmen would be expected to tun over a few overs of the slow stuff.

It is no surprise then that each of the test playing nations have had fairly consistent number one spinners throughout the 20 years I’ve been watching cricket. Whether it was Shane Warne for Australia, Daniel Vettori for New Zealand, Anil Kumble for India or Graeme Swann on our very island, spin has played an important role for all test playing teams. Heck, the top three wicket takers in test cricket history are spinners (Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble). Even lowly Zimbabwe (Paul Strang) and Bangladesh (Mohammad Rafique) have had spin bowlers who would be some of the first names on the team sheet.

One team stick out like a sore thumb in the spin department however. Since their re-introduction to international cricket at the beginning of the 1990s, South Africa have given test debuts to 12 spinners, the latest of whom is bowling against Jermaine Blackwood and Denesh Ramdin of the West Indies as I type this (Simon Harmer). Of these 12, only three have taken more than 100 wickets (Paul Adams, Nicky Boje and Paul Harris), with the last two only scraping that mark with averages way over 35. Adams is far and away the most successful spinner in modern South African cricket, with 134 wickets in 45 matches, but once teams got used to his bizarre action he became less and less effective.

Of the rest, none have come close to 50 wickets (or even 30 tests). Many of them, and no disrespect is meant here, have given the impression of being placeholders, spinners chosen until someone else comes along. Pat Symcox, Robin Peterson, even Boje and Harris have fit this bill to a degree. Their role has merely been containment, dry up the runs at one end so the pacers can make the inroads at the other. When he made his debut in 2011, Imran Tahir was touted as the answer to the problems, but his test career has been something of a washout, maybe even a failure. Sure, his short-form pedigree is excellent, but he really hasn’t come to the table in tests.

Why is this? Well, since re-introduction one thing South Africa haven’t lacked for has been quality fast bowlers. It started with Allan Donald, Fanie De Villiers and Brett Schultz, backed up by Brian McMillan. Then came Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and more. Today we have Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. Steyn is just 32 wickets away from becoming the nation’s most successful test bowler or all time, Morkel has over 200 wickets and Philander has been a revelation since making his debut in 2011. There just hasn’t been any need for a spinner.

It’s also worth referencing back to the note at the beginning of the post about pitches where a spinner hasn’t been required. Many of these have been in South Africa, and why wouldn’t they be? With the strength of their pace attack over the years, why would they need to produce a pitch to assist a spinner? The speed conveyor belt has led to a focus on them, and any potential quality spinners have possibly been sidelined because of it. In the modern side, JP Duminy has arguably been more effective than the front line spinners, and Dean Elgar can handily back him up. Is there any need for a South African spinner to break through?

South Africa are currently the strongest test side on the planet, and this is without a top quality spinner. There isn’t going to be another side dominate cricket as Australia did, but South Africa are the closest the sport currently has to a team that is just as potent away from home as they are at home. If they had a wicket-taking spinner, lord only knows how good they could. Dane Piedt took eight on debut, albeit against Zimbabwe, and Harmer has three here, albeit against West Indies. It is the only piece of their puzzle missing.

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