Duanne Olivier came back into the Proteas side like Cinderella, overlooked and hidden away in the 4-Day Series until injuries to two of the established pacemen opened up space for his return to the deadliest bowling attack in Test history, writes SIMON LEWIS.
The Mzansi Super League has done amazing things to lift the profiles of a bucketload of highly talented cricketers around South Africa, and Duanne Olivier is at the top of that pile. Olivier headed the bowling stakes in the MSL with 20 wickets in nine innings to help drive the Jozi Stars to the title. He finished ahead of the second-placed Tshwane Spartans pair of Lutho Sipamla and Jeevan Mendis, both on 16 wickets.
That performance put him front and centre in the shop window, so it was an easy move for the selectors to draft him back into the Test side with Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi, both out injured. Added to this was Olivier’s red-ball form for the Knights, where he had taken 27 wickets (ave 18.88) in six matches in the first half of the series prior to the first Test at Centurion, leaving him fourth on the wicket-taking list for the season.
What followed has been one of the most incredible bowling performances in South African Test history, with Olivier taking the most wickets ever for South Africa in a Test series against Pakistan. And he will surely add to that tally in the fourth innings at the Wanderers.
That’s an astonishing achievement for a bowler who was sixth or seventh in line of the country’s premier bowlers, albeit that the pitches have been good for any bowler willing to put some back into it. And Olivier has bent his back this series.
The greatest strike rate in Test history
South Africa’s depth in pace is highlighted by one stunning statistic: our two best bowlers are currently topping the list of Test strike rates for bowlers. This means, how many balls do they need to take a wicket? And that is the real barometer for a great fast bowler, in particular. Dennis Lillee – ooh, terrifying, vicious. But a wicket only every 52.0 balls in Tests! His evil pace partner Jeff Thomson? A wicket every 52.6 balls. Plenty of broken bones in between, but wickets relatively slow to come by for both those long-haired Aussie legends!
Dale Steyn should be regarded as top of the Strike Rate pile by virtue of having maintained his incredible strike rate over such an extended period, and across a wide range of countries and pitch conditions. This is the factor that, to my mind, puts Steyn very, very high up on the list of greatest Test cricketers of all time. Say what you want, but cricket is about runs and wickets … and taking wickets quickly as a pace bowler is what Test cricket is all about. That’s why they call the speed merchants ‘strike’ bowlers – because they strike quickly.
On the current list, Kagiso Rabada (S/R 38.5) is actually ahead of Steyn (42.1), as they occupy positions three and six respectively, with South African Bert Vogler (S/R 43.1) in seventh spot. Allan Donald is 22nd on the list (S/R 47.0), while Vernon Philander is in 28th place (S/R 48.7), which shows just how dominating our bowling has always been in Test cricket.
This list is, of course, slanted because four of the top six bowlers played in different eras, often when Test scores were very low because of wickets that were uncovered and inferior, with batsmen enjoying protection only on their legs and in their groin area – no helmets, thigh guards, inner thigh guards, wrist guards and so on, and they possessed vastly inferior techniques and bats compared to the batsmen of today.
Leading bowling strike rates in Test history
|Kagiso Rabada||South Africa||2015-2019||6359||165||38.5|
|Shane Bond||New Zealand||2001-2009||3372||87||38.7|
|Dale Steyn||South Africa||2004-2019||18152||431||42.1|
|Bert Vogler||South Africa||1906-1911||2764||64||43.1|
Qualification: 2000 deliveries in Test cricket. Source: Cricinfo
New Zealand’s Shane Bond is in fourth spot on the list, but his career was relatively short and he played almost half of his Tests against struggling Bangladesh, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Sri Lankan batting lineups (see table at end of this article).
What I’m trying to say is, that to my mind, South Africa currently have the two best strike bowlers in the history of Test cricket in Steyn and Rabada – but there’s more to the story. Consider that Philander is in 28th place, and you have three of the best strike bowlers in Test history playing in the same side at the same time.
If we remove anyone from the list who played Test cricket before World War I (1914-1918), Rabada would be in first place, Steyn in third spot and Philander in 15th place. This is an embarrassment of riches that is quite astonishing. No wonder David Warner convinced Cameron Bancroft to play ‘hide the sandpaper’.
Amazingly, the tale is still not done. As of Sunday morning, Duanne Olivier has taken a wicket every 27.47 balls in Test cricket, an astronomical return, which is six-and-a-half balls fewer than number one on the list, George Lohmann (34.1). It is also 11 balls quicker than Kagiso Rabada (38.5), which is quite mind-boggling.
Olivier has only sent down 1044 balls in Test cricket, so he has to play another six or seven Tests before he gets into the official list of best strike rates in Test cricket, and at this early stage of his career it is possible that one or two big opposition innings could cause him to drop quite rapidly down the list … but right now he is the man in possession of the record, and that’s something to celebrate.
Duanne Olivier’s Test career strike rate progression
Time heals all statistics
A stat such as this can, of course, be somewhat fleeting. Some readers might claim that Olivier has benefited from bowling to weaker opposition, or on bowler-friendly wickets, but he bowled well against England in terms of strike rate, and against the ‘weaker’ Bangladesh side that was thrashed by the Proteas, Olivier didn’t ‘cash in’ against them, as the rest of the Proteas bowlers snapped up their wickets too quickly. If anything, the Bangladesh Tests hurt his strike rate somewhat!
Pakistan’s dynamic Mohammad Abbas recently slipped into the list after he sent down his 2000th ball in Test cricket during the recent Test series against Australia and New Zealand in the UAE, and he is now in the No 13 spot on the list. His strike rate actually dropped down to 40.10 at one point, putting him fifth on the list for a short while, but with the Proteas putting in good batting shifts at Newlands and part of the first innings at the Wanderers, Abbas’ strike rate has already dropped down to a wicket every 45.1 balls out of 100.
At this stage of Abbas and Olivier’s Test careers their strike rates can rise and fall dramatically from one Test to another, but right now at this moment, I think it’s a pretty special place for Olivier to be in – and a wonderful space for the Proteas. So let’s soak up the good news and embrace the wonder of his achievement.
After all, for the Proteas to reclaim top spot in the Test rankings (and to claim the ultimate white ball crown at Lord’s later this year) we don’t just need them to be scoring runs and taking wickets, we also need them to believe in themselves as the champions of the world. For that to happen, it will be a huge boost if the might of the South African public are right behind them – and for us to believe in them, we need to recognise and celebrate these moments when our champions rise to the top.
Arise, Sir Duanne … but keep on bending your back, bru!
Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
FOR THE RECORD
Shane Bond’s Test wickets