Those that got away: South Africa’s bowling attack plagued by defections, retirements

Those that got away: South Africa’s bowling attack plagued by defections, retirements

South Africa's bowling attack was exposed on the first day of the Test series against India on Wednesday. Here's a look at how the Proteas bowling attack looked vastly different on their last tour of India, and where things have gone wrong for them since then.

Simon Harmer and Kyle Abbott are two former South Africa bowlers who were impressive on the tour of India in 2015. Four years later, they are playing brilliantly in the County circuit, while the South Africa team is floundering in India.

If events from Day 1 in Visakhapatnam in the 1st Test between India and South Africa are any indication of how the series will play out, it would seem that the contest will be a tale of the away team’s toothless bowlers being conquered by the home team’s batsmen, who will keep racking up batting records in the process.

Rohit Sharma, for example, ended Day 1 with a batting average of 98.22 at home – a figure reached only by Don Bradman among batsmen who have played a minimum of 10 innings.

As seen in the second session of the day, skipper Faf du Plessis was reduced to waiting for the India openers – Rohit (115*) and Mayank Agarwal (84*) – to commit a mistake. When rain came down to end proceedings for the day with India at 202 for no loss, there was a sense that the weather gods had brought an end to South Africa’s misery.

The Proteas went into the match with two pacers – Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander – and two spinners – Keshav Maharaj and Dane Piedt – with Senuran Muthusamy slotting in as the fifth bowler.


Rabada and Maharaj were the only two who had sub-3 economy rates on Day 1. The Indians went especially after Piedt, giving the off-spinner the charge at every opportunity. Piedt gave away 43 runs in his 7 wicketless overs.

When South Africa toured India the last time, in 2015, the series had been won by India 3-0, but it had been a tale of the touring batsmen being befuddled by the home team’s spin on that occasion. South Africa’s bowlers had given a much better display of themselves.

South Africa bowling attack – Then and now

Philander and Rabada are the two bowlers from the ongoing tour who were part of the 2015 attack as well. That team, however, also had Imran Tahir (14 wickets from 4 matches), Simon Harmer (10 wickets from 2 matches), Morne Morkel (9 wickets from 3 matches) and Kyle Abbott (7 wickets from 2 matches).

It remains to be seen whether Maharaj and Piedt can fill up these big boots in the remaining days of Test cricket that follow in the ongoing series, but the absence of these big names is revealing of where South Africa have gone wrong in their cricket in recent times.

Tahir retired from international cricket after this year’s World Cup at the age of 40.

As for Harmer, Abbott and Morkel, all three have gone the Kolpak route. They are among more than 40 South African players who have taken this route in recent years – a list that includes several cricketers with promising careers, like Rilee Roussouw and Duanne Olivier.

Harmer, who was a thorn in India’s side on the last tour, is now a vital part of the Essex team in England. He had just broken through to the Proteas side when they had toured in 2015, but instead of having become their leading spinner since then, he has completely turned his back on his country. He went the Kolpak way at the age of 27 in 2017, and there has been no looking back for him since then.

“It was not about money. It was about the opportunity. There is zero security in South Africa – that’s the reason players sign Kolpak deals,” Harmer had explained his decision later.

Abbott, who moved away from South Africa and opted to go the Kolpak route after struggling to break into the side, is still one of the most dangerous fast bowlers in the world – but for Hampshire. Last month, Abbott returned match figures of 17/86, the best first class bowling figures in 63 years.

Morkel has taken up a place in the Surrey attack since retiring from international cricket at the age of 33 last year.