South Africa’s pace depth is simply scary

Ronan O'Connell Columnist

By Ronan O'Connell, Ronan O'Connell is a Roar Expert

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    Australia’s four-Test tour of South Africa kicks off on Thursday with their sole warm-up match. So what lessons for Australia emerged from the Proteas’ recent home series against Test number one team India?

    SA’s pace bowling depth is even better than Australia’s
    As if the quartet of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada wasn’t frightening enough, the Proteas unearthed a new potential spearhead against India, in Lungi Ngidi.

    The 21-year-old made his Test debut having played only a paltry nine first-class matches, yet had an immediate impact, taking 6-39 in the second innings to lead his side to a 135-run win.

    Ngidi was the quickest bowler in that Test, consistently operating above 140kmh and pushing the speed gun as high as 150kmh. The powerfully-built youngster is not just sharp, he also earns disconcerting lift thanks to his 193cm frame.

    He was particularly impressive with the old ball, earning reverse swing on occasions, and getting it to leap off the surface even when it had gone soft.

    Ngidi looks like the kind of quick who batsmen can never relax against because of his ability to produce the unexpected.

    SA’s middle-to-lower order is a weakness
    With all-time greats AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, skipper Faf du Plessis, and in-form openers Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram in the home side’s top five, it will be hard yakka for the Australian bowlers to break through.

    But once they do, the game could really open up.

    The Proteas may well play five bowlers, just as they did in all three Tests against India, which leaves them with a seriously out-of-form Quentin de Kock at six, followed by the tail.

    The Aussies have seen the best of De Kock, who was superb on their last tour Down Under, making 281 runs at 56. But that De Kock was almost unrecognisable to the version who floundered against India.

    In the young keeper-batsman’s last eight Tests, he has averaged just 14 with the bat and appears to have lost sense of his off stump, regularly poking at deliveries which could be left alone.

    Once the tourists get past him they could encounter five bowlers and, as they showed during the Ashes, Australia’s intimidating quicks are adept at scything through tails.

    Which only makes their battle with the top five all the more pivotal.

    South Africa's Quinton de Kock

    South Africa’s Quinton de Kock. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

    Philander is the biggest bowling threat
    South Africa have may have four genuinely fast and intimidating Test quicks – Steyn, Rabada, Morkel and Ngidi – yet it is the comparatively innocuous-looking Philander Australia should be most concerned about.

    With the prospect of juicy pitches, Philander may well his side’s most important bowler. As we saw in the last Ashes in England, and in Hobart in 2016, on green pitches, precision always trumps pace.

    No bowler in world cricket lands more deliveries in testing areas than Philander. That’s why he can terrorise batting line-ups despite bowling at a gentle pace and being just 176cm tall.

    Philander took 15 wickets at 15 in the three Tests against India, taking his home record in Tests to an astonishing 113 wickets at 18.

    He is a nightmare match-up for rookie Test opener Cameron Bancroft, who has a major weakness in his defence against pitched-up, straight deliveries.

    South Africa's Vernon Philander tall

    South Africa’s Vernon Philander. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

    Keshav Maharaj is not on the same level as Nathan Lyon
    South Africa’s left-arm spinner has made a very impressive start to his Test career, taking 57 wickets at 27 from his 16 matches. Those are elite statistics over a 16-match period for a veteran, let alone a rookie.

    Yet those numbers flatter Maharaj. He is a solid spinner, no doubt, but remains a class below Australia’s Lyon.

    Playing against India is arguably the biggest challenge for any modern Test spinner and, while Lyon excelled on the subcontinent last year, Maharaj flopped against them at home.

    During Australia’s four Tests in India, Lyon matched the performance of the world’s number one ranked Test off-spinner Ravi Ashwin. Maharaj, meanwhile, in two Tests against India took 1-125 and going at 3.5 runs per over. Compare that to Ashwin, who took seven wickets at 30 and gave up only 2.8 runs per over.

    Whereas the Indian batsmen frequently were beaten in the flight by Lyon last year, they had no such troubles reading the length of Maharaj.

    If the pitches are as moist as the ones India received, Maharaj is unlikely to have an impact.

    Ronan O
    Ronan O'Connell

    Ronan O'Connell has been a journalist for well over 13 years, including nine at daily newspapers in WA. He now traverses the world as a travel photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 30 magazines and newspapers including CNN, BBC, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, The Irish Examiner and The Australian Financial Review. Check out his work and follow him on Twitter @ronanoco

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    The Crowd Says (71)

    • February 16th 2018 @ 7:58am
      Jeff dustby said | February 16th 2018 @ 7:58am | ! Report

      SA are a much greater challenge than the Ashes yet that’s all aussies care about

      • February 16th 2018 @ 9:05am
        Fergus said | February 16th 2018 @ 9:05am | ! Report

        That’s not true. It’s true that to the casual cricket fan home series are all they care about as they can

        1) attend the matches
        2) watch them on free to air tv
        3) have large exposure and ease of access to news due to the medias comprehensive coverage of the home summer.

        But a lot of fans will keep abreast of how Australia is going overseas even if it’s just checking who won or lost, showing that they do indeed care. They might not watch it or attend the games as that’s trickier to do and requires a significant amount of effort but they care enough to take time out of their day that could be used for something else. Also no one likes watching there team get smashed, Australia of recent times (they’re getting better though) has had a tendency to get smashed overseas, which may be one of the reason for the indifference you perceive (i’d much rather read about horrible incompetency of Australia then watch it).

      • Roar Guru

        February 16th 2018 @ 10:01am
        JamesH said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:01am | ! Report

        Spoken like someone who doesn’t actually know much about Aussie cricket fans and just assumes we’re all stereotypical loudmouth bogans. Thanks.

        I’m just as interested in this series as I was in the Ashes.

        • February 16th 2018 @ 10:48am
          jameswm said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:48am | ! Report

          But it’s on in a different time zone, and not at a time when most of us are on holidays.

          And is not against our traditional enemy.

          Hence the lower level of interest.

        • February 16th 2018 @ 1:27pm
          jeff dustby said | February 16th 2018 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

          James – thanks for assuming I think everyone is a bogan

      • Roar Guru

        February 16th 2018 @ 12:25pm
        Matt H said | February 16th 2018 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

        Garbage. 2 out of last three tours to South Africa have been classics that all decent cricket follower would know about (and the third wasn’t far behind). South Africa have traditionally been one of our highest interest opponents.

        • February 16th 2018 @ 1:26pm
          jeff dustby said | February 16th 2018 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

          You watch the amount of coverage and public interest this gets compared to one to England ?

          You will find I am correct and just because you do, doesn’t mean the overwhelming majority care

          • February 16th 2018 @ 11:19pm
            Mitcher said | February 16th 2018 @ 11:19pm | ! Report

            Yet you’re the one bringing up the Ashes as the first item of business on an article praising the Aus SA series. You’re either a stirrer or a complete donkey.

    • February 16th 2018 @ 9:21am
      twodogs said | February 16th 2018 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      In conditions equal, I’d dare say our pace battery would be just as challenging as SA’s. Given Starc and Cummins can top the speed gun also, there’s gonna be a good show on offer. Hazelwood may be every bit as good as the Philanderer.

      • Roar Guru

        February 16th 2018 @ 12:26pm
        Matt H said | February 16th 2018 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

        Philander at home is as good as it gets. As much as I love Hazlewood, he has not been as effective away from home, even last Ashes in England, where you would have thought he would excel. He is a bit older and wiser now, so I hope you are right and Hazlewood really gets into them. But Philander is a proven match winner at home, time and time again.

        • February 16th 2018 @ 5:14pm
          Bakkies said | February 16th 2018 @ 5:14pm | ! Report

          As much as people said Hazlewood bowled poorly in England he still picked up 16 wickets at 25 in four tests. That includes bowling on that road at Lords. Better return than Pidge’s first series there.

          In India he took more wickets than the other quicks. None of them averaged below 30 for the series.

          In NZ he was playing the strike bowler role as Starc didn’t play and Pattinson broke down.

          The West Indies tour he was far and away the best quick.

    • February 16th 2018 @ 9:39am
      Paul said | February 16th 2018 @ 9:39am | ! Report

      Ronan, I can agree Ngidi is a good prospect but I question whether he’s been made to look good by the pitches SA has produced, at least one of which has been rated “below average”. Sure he’s a good prospect but he’s been made to look better on bowler friendly decks. It’ll be interesting to see how he goes in March. For sure he wouldn’t have looked too flash if his first Test was on the last MCG pitch used in the Ashes.

      Also not sure about your claim SA has “pace bowling depth even better than Australia’s”. Steyn is running on one leg and Morkel is about done at Test level.Both will be retiring sooner rather than later which leaves Philander, Ngidi and Rabada. If Rabada does anything stupid in the Tests, and history suggests he will, your theory about their pace bowling depth will be tested.

      • February 16th 2018 @ 10:17am
        Brian said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:17am | ! Report

        I agree on Ngidi. During the tests they were comparing Rabada and Ngidi’s technique and showing how much faster and more fluid Rabada’s was. Ngidi might improve but for now I doubt he will play. I suspect Steyn will be on 2 legs and fired up as well. He’s had 2 months for a 4 week injury and one would think he is very familiar with his body at this stage of his career.

        I don’t think there is much between the attacks but South Africa have a slightly more options fom where runs might come. If the pitches are green who will make runs? Smith will make some runs anywhere and Warner might hit form but the Saffers top 5 look more likely at this early stage, assuming Du Plessis is fit that is.

        • February 17th 2018 @ 3:01pm
          TheCunningLinguistic said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:01pm | ! Report

          I think Shaun Marsh will have a very good series. He’s in form and traditionally likes the types of decks available in SA. He is still prone to nicking in the first few overs, so Philander will be a challenge, but if he gets through that, he could make some serious hay!

      • Columnist

        February 16th 2018 @ 10:47am
        Ronan O'Connell said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:47am | ! Report

        “I can agree Ngidi is a good prospect but I question whether he’s been made to look good by the pitches SA has produced.”

        Ngidi’s 6-39 on debut was taken on easily the most batting-friendly pitch of the series vs India, at Centurion.

        • February 16th 2018 @ 11:09am
          Paul said | February 16th 2018 @ 11:09am | ! Report

          That says little about the other pitches where two games lasted just over 2 days another finished inside 4. I also note the SA side had a huge whinge about it because it wasn’t completely in favour of the fast bowlers.

    • Roar Guru

      February 16th 2018 @ 9:56am
      Ryan H said | February 16th 2018 @ 9:56am | ! Report

      It’s a battle of two world-class pace bowling attacks, and it has the makings of a classic series.

      And it won’t matter if the two teams are rolling each other for low-ish totals, because it will probably make for even more exciting cricket. Comments that have suggested it will be like test cricket on steroids, might prove to be pretty accurate

      • Columnist

        February 16th 2018 @ 10:50am
        Ronan O'Connell said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:50am | ! Report

        I agree Ryan, this series is shaping as the best Pace v Pace battle we’ve seen in Tests since Australia’s last tour of SA four years ago when it was Johnson/Harris/Siddle/Pattinson vs Steyn/Philander/Morkel

        • Roar Guru

          February 16th 2018 @ 12:28pm
          Matt H said | February 16th 2018 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

          And what a series that was. Harris finishing the series off using sheer willpower when his knee was gone is a moment I will never forget.

    • February 16th 2018 @ 10:03am
      marfu said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:03am | ! Report

      Thanks Ronan. I think we have had a reasonable depth of quicks too which has been majorly affected by injuries. Yes a fit Philander could be a handful as we have shown a bit of vulnerability on decks conducive to his style. Maybe facing Sayers in the nets will help our bats improve in time.

    • Roar Guru

      February 16th 2018 @ 10:32am
      Fox said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:32am | ! Report

      Maharaj is not as good as Lyon Ronan – agreed

      But…Australia do not play spin like the Indians either and I doubt SA will produce pitches that favour Lyon on day 4 and 5 – why amplify the one advantage in the bowling the Aussies have?

      • February 16th 2018 @ 10:51am
        jameswm said | February 16th 2018 @ 10:51am | ! Report

        Smith and SMarsh do play spin as well as the Indians.

        Khawaja and Warner play spin well outside Asia.

        Bancroft is supposed to be good against spin.

        Overall, the Indians play spin better than us. But we play pace better than them.

        • February 16th 2018 @ 11:11am
          Paul said | February 16th 2018 @ 11:11am | ! Report

          do we play the moving ball well, though? Our recent results when the ball has moved around suggest not. In saying that, the SA batsmen weren’t great against the same type of bowling recently either.

          Should be a great contest.

          • February 16th 2018 @ 1:14pm
            jameswm said | February 16th 2018 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

            From memory no one played it that well against India.

            Smith plays the moving ball well, as does SMarsh. They play late. Buck Rogers was a master at it.

            MMarsh has improved. Paine is probably ok.

            Warner can struggle and I worry about Bancroft

            • Roar Guru

              February 16th 2018 @ 1:29pm
              Matt H said | February 16th 2018 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

              Your assessment on Khawaja? I think he’s pretty reasonable against the moving ball as well.

              • February 16th 2018 @ 3:57pm
                Fergus said | February 16th 2018 @ 3:57pm | ! Report

                As long as it’s moving at 140km and not 90km

              • February 16th 2018 @ 4:16pm
                marfu said | February 16th 2018 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

                Fergus – Touche.

              • Roar Guru

                February 16th 2018 @ 4:18pm
                Matt H said | February 16th 2018 @ 4:18pm | ! Report

                Well played Fergus.

              • February 17th 2018 @ 3:04pm
                TheCunningLinguistic said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:04pm | ! Report

                Oh snap, well done Fergus!

        • February 16th 2018 @ 3:54pm
          Rob said | February 16th 2018 @ 3:54pm | ! Report

          Smith and Marsh are not great players of spin. Any bowler taking the ball across Smith is in with a big chance. Bancroft will be gone well before an spinner bowler rolls his arm over. Philander will have a field day with Bancroft unless by some miracle he learns how to play a ball bowled at the top of off stump. Warner is looking tired.

          • February 16th 2018 @ 8:46pm
            Fergus said | February 16th 2018 @ 8:46pm | ! Report

            Your boundless optimism fills my heart with joy

          • February 17th 2018 @ 3:05pm
            TheCunningLinguistic said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

            Your first sentence is bollocks.

            • February 17th 2018 @ 3:51pm
              Rob said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:51pm | ! Report

              Okay Cunning it appears Smith gets out to Spin more regularly than to pace. Maybe Smith is better than some others like Warner and UK but that doesn’t make him a great player of spin IMO. He’s a great bat but not a great player of spin if you looked at the stats or his dismissals? Especially with the ball going across him.
              Yasi Shah has dismissed Smith 6 out of (9) innings
              Hearth. 5 out of (6)(left arm orthodox)
              Taijul Islam. 2 out of (4)(left arm orthodox)
              Jadeja, 4 out of (12) (left arm orthodox)
              Kaneria 2 out of (4)(left arm orthodox)
              M. Ali 3 out of (15) he averages 40 with the ball. Bowling round the wicket?
              Bishoo 1 out of (1) That’s just to prove even a West Indian averaging 35 with the ball is a chance.
              How this one Jomel Warrican (left arm orthodox) 4 Tests for WI. average 76 against Australia. His wickets are Smith, Warner, Shaun Marsh, Burns, Mitch Marsh.
              The young South African Maharaj has already taken Smith’s wicket in a Test.
              What Bollocks?

      • February 16th 2018 @ 1:34pm
        Ouch said | February 16th 2018 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

        The Indians didn’t play the Aussies spinners that well…….in India.

      • February 17th 2018 @ 8:47pm
        Bazza said | February 17th 2018 @ 8:47pm | ! Report

        If the pitch has bounce it will favour Lyon just like sk warne loved bounce.

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