South Africa paceman Lungi Ngidi bowls during the third and final Test against India at The Wanderers. Photo: BackpagePix

It is abundantly clear that the planning for the future of the South African cricket team has started already.

A quick glance at the current Test squad and it becomes very clear that there is an emphasis of building the foundations for life after 2019. After all, cricket regimes are not built in a day, so it is interesting to see the South African future take shape.

When you look back at South Africa’s dominant periods, they had a spine of hardened men who held the team together. Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher, Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock formed one spine, while the likes of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn were emerging onto the world stage.

It is no coincidence that the core was made up of the men who score the bulk of the runs in the team, the man who has the best view of a bowler, and a strike bowler or two.

They were the key men on the field, which allowed their influence off the field to be respected.

“You need that core of senior players who have experience. Your younger players look up to them, ask them for advice and look to them in tough situations on the field,” former captain Graeme Smith noted at The Wanderers.

“Senior players also help with the culture of a team, they welcome new blood into the dressing-room, and can share personal experiences on things like travel, playing in different countries and actual cricket,” With time, the likes of (AB) De Villiers, (Hashim) Amla,  (Dale) Steyn, JP Duminy, Vernon Philander and Faf du Plessis became the new core, their international travels and triumphs treasured in a dressing-room that was shifting into a new era.

By then, De Villiers was already recognised as one of the world’s great players, and Amla was a relentless hoover of runs and records. Steyn, fully fit and firing, was a menace to cricketing society; the absolute best bowler in the world.

South Africa could even afford to fidget with finding a gloveman who could be given the job on a long-term basis, similar to that which Boucher had served with distinction. Eventually, of course, the precocious Quinton de Kock started making noises on the domestic scene  even while he was still a schoolboy.

There is the legend of him being a pimpled youngster playing for the Highveld Strikers in a friendly against a county side on pre-season tour. Young de Kock, still burdened by homework and mathematical timetables, strode down the wicket to the very first ball of a match and dispatched an experienced county star over his head for six.

It was only a matter of when he would eventually make his way into the national set-up.

As we stand, South Africa are approaching the next junction in the never-ending story that is international cricket. Quality sides need to constantly reinvent themselves, adding where they are lacking, and snipping away from whence there is excess. As the likes of AB, Amla, Philander and Steyn approach the end of their excellent international careers, the future Proteas are not just budding, but in fact blooming.

Aiden Markram, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Andile Phehlukwayo are all 23 or younger, meaning there are 10 good years from them to come. De Kock is still just 25.

Rabada and De Kock have already touched the top of the world rankings, even while still cosseted by the security of bigger reputations and beefier records around them. That has to make life easier.

“You need winners in your team, players who have been successful in their own right,” Smith noted.

“It is very hard for youngsters to come in and have to take all the responsibility. It’s much easier when they can lean on experience.

“You saw Lungi Ngidi talking about how Vern (Philander) helped him get a particular wicket at Centurion, planning with him from mid-off, and then waiting for him to execute. Some things you can’t get from coaching, and that is where the value of a senior player comes in.”

Philander himself would have picked the brains of those ahead of him in the queue. Even now, the entire SA pace pack sit up and listen when Steyn talks about the art of fast bowling. His role as a senior player, as Smith explained, goes far beyond wickets or runs, which is why it would be folly to just cast him to the scrap heap.

You simply cannot buy experience, especially in the Test arena.

One day, Ngidi or Rabada will stand at mid-off as 30-somethings and talk a tearaway upstart through his first years in international cricket. They will know the value of that guidance because they got the very same early on. It's a culture, and as long as that rhythm remains part and parcel of the dressing-room, it will keep SA cricket competitive. The future is here.

Sunday Tribune

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