Dale Steyn is 32 and injuries are creeping up on him. Morne Morkel is 31 and will surely be a fading influence too as time goes on. Meanwhile, Vernon Philander is not far from his 31st birthday and has a potentially difficult rehab in front of him after snapping ankle ligaments late last year.
No wonder South Africa are excited about the emergence of the 20-year-old Kagiso Rabada, who has natural pace, a fluid action and has arrived on the world stage with an almighty bang during the home Test series defeat to England.
Rabada first attracted wider attention in February 2014 at the U19 World Cup. He was one of the top performers in the South Africa squad who won the tournament, and during it he took 6-25 against Australia. Last year, he took 6-16 on his one-day international debut in Dhaka against a Bangladesh side who were good enough to hit and back claim the series. They were the best figures by an ODI debutant and his haul included a hat-trick for good measure.
By then, Allan Donald was among those waxing lyrical about the young man who had been versed in the nuances of the sport at a noted Johannesburg breeding ground for top-class cricketers, St Stithians College.
Donald said: “I am blown away by the knowledge he has got at 19. He wants it badly. He is a great athlete, he has got immaculate work ethic and he has got some gas. He is built like a racehorse, a thoroughbred and that’s exciting.”
Rabada unsurprisingly struggled on India’s featherbed wickets in his first three Tests, but has come of age against England – although he did not start it with a bang. With one eye already on controlling his workload, South Africa’s selectors did not even pick him for the first Test at Durban.
He took four expensive wickets on the flat Cape Town track, but improved considerably to grab 5-78 in the first innings in Johannesburg, and then there was Centurion. Rabada took 7-112 and 6-32 to emerge with 13 match-winning wickets. Only twice previously has a South African taken so many in a Test.
Analysis of our ball-tracking data which is instantly recorded and fed into the CricViz archive to inform all our future predictions has produced some interesting statistics regarding Rabada.
Let’s start with pace, because this is Rabada’s primary asset – and bearing in mind he probably has a few years to go before he reaches his ultimate speed level this will probably remain his greatest quality through his career.
Only 16 deliveries in a Test that lasted five days and featured seven seam bowlers were sent down in excess of 90mph (144.84kph). Rabada bowled 10 of them and the seven fastest of all, with a best of 93.28mph. Morne Morkel bowled the other six and had a good match too with five wickets all told.
The statistics firmly suggest that this was a wicket that rewarded out-and-out pace. Ben Stokes, England’s most successful bowler in the match, was the only one of the tourists’ bowlers to even threaten the 90mph threshhold. Those that kissed the surface and looked for the pitch to outwit the batsmen, such as Stuart Broad (well down on his Johannesburg speeds), Chris Woakes and Kyle Abbott, had modest matches.
Interestingly, James Anderson was much quicker on the fourth morning than he had been on the first – and that must have been a factor in him picking up the wickets of Stephen Cook and AB de Villiers in the same over as England briefly threatened to gain a foothold in the Test.
But let’s get back to Rabada, because he’s the one we’re really interested in. How much does he move the ball in the air and off the pitch? The answer is not a lot compared to others, but clearly it’s enough to take wickets.
Having worked on the CricViz model since last October, the level of deviation which appears to be significant factor on influencing edges and uncertainty among batsmen is two degrees.
If he does move the ball much, Rabada favours outswing to a right-hander (or inswing to a left-hander). He swung 11 deliveries in the match this way by two degrees more and only one (out of 238 legal deliveries) went the other way by the same margin. He did not achieve three degrees of swing in either direction at all.
By contrast, there were 102 outswingers at two degrees-plus by other seamers in the match of which nine went in excess of three degrees. There were also 100 such inswingers of which two (one bowled by Stokes and one by Anderson) came in by more than four degrees. It’s a similar story when we look at deviation off the pitch. In total, 20 balls seamed in by more than two degrees, only one of which was bowled by Rabada. Seventeen balls seamed away by more than two degrees, of which two were bowled by Rabada.
And to focus on an individual delivery, the wicket-taking ball to Joe Root in the first innings, arguably the most important of Rabada’s 13 strikes, barely moved at all. Root was caught behind for 76, the wicket heralding a collapse which turned the game squarely in favour of South Africa.
So how did the bowler do it? Well it was quick enough at over 87mph, it was in that familiar line just outside off stump which can so often cause problems and it was nice and full. Did it move much? No, just 0.83 degrees in the air and 0.45 off the pitch. But Root, one of the world’s best batsmen, nicked off anyway. As the cricinfo commentary observed: “…beautiful line, takes the edge – gottim! Rabada gallops off in celebration, he’s taken out England’s key man! The gazelle bests the lion, full enough to make him play and he just got the ball to curve away.”
Pace, consistency, a beautifully-honed action and intelligence too. Rabada’s got so much, he barely needs swing and seam movement in addition – though the ability to morph into a gazelle from time to time must help.