Cape Town - The once-renowned quality and breadth of South Africa’s pace resources in Test cricket just took another shuddering blow.
Monday’s revelation that Dale Steyn has pulled the plug on the five-day game after a dazzling, 93-cap career stretching back to December 2004, simply accelerates a trend of the Proteas nowadays shedding fast bowlers from their arsenal at a superior rate than they are producing ones of proven calibre in the arena.
A personal preference - almost certainly widely shared? - would have been for the pedigreed Phalaborwa Express to soldier on in the format he admitted himself, in his official stepdown statement, is “the best version of this game”.
Instead the 36-year-old softens the blow to his legion of admirers by stressing that the decision enhances his longevity, enabling him to continue serving South Africa’s dual white-ball cause for as long as his deep-rooted passion (and naturally fitness) for cricket endures.
That he is all-time Test great at his trade is quite beyond doubt, both statistically (in categories almost too numerous to list) and in blissful memories of that dreamily smooth action and his ability to generate prodigious out-swing to the right-hander, often off the proverbial penny, at extraordinarily brisk speed.
A natural charisma, sometimes vivid body language when at his most lethal and motivated, and all-round “man of the people” reputation only add to the appeal surrounding him.
It is also desperately hard, and would be uncalled for, to question Steyn’s decision to switch focus exclusively to the limited-overs landscape.
No doubt at least partly influenced by medical matters related to the right shoulder that has significantly curtailed his broadest activity for the last two or three years, he clearly realises that shorter bursts will better prolong his presence.
Prioritising Tests henceforth, instead, would have landed him in an unwanted predicament, too: South Africa play a skimpy four home matches in the format in 2019/20, and also fewer Tests than any of major rivals India, Australia or England in the first two-year cycle of the new ICC World Test Championship.
That’s not necessarily enough for an ageing customer to keep the juices flowing sufficiently in one specialist arena, especially as the sands inevitably continue to trickle on him calendar-wise.
He thoroughly deserves, also, to exploit any further lucrative, late-career opportunities on the worldwide T20 league treadmill while he still can, after a decade and a half of overwhelming loyalty to the Proteas much more specifically.
It is not as though Steyn is reputationally motivated by money: he is renowned for his adherence to that increasingly challenged notion of the best things in life being free, as he relishes little more than a dog-accompanied walk on a mountainside, the feeling of salt water on his face or to get involved in conservational and anti-animal cruelty-related causes.
More immediately in the wake of Steyn’s Test retirement, the Proteas brains trust – albeit currently with conspicuous vacancy signs for virtually the entire panel – have to mull over now the permanent surrender of the country’s all-time leading wicket-taker (439, at sublime average 22.95 and strike rate 42) from their onward plans for the format.
They cannot be said to be dealing, regrettably, with an embarrassment of proven riches.
By extension, this may only aggravate the already undesirable heavy-workload situation – across the formats -- surrounding current main “go to” speedster Kagiso Rabada, even as the first major assignment of a post-Steyn era, three Tests in India, may examine South Africa’s spin capabilities rather more.
While young guns on the pace front like Anrich Nortje and Lutho Sipamla do lurk promisingly enough, their combined Test experience at present amounts to exactly zero.
In short, we don’t yet know whether this pair, among others, will cut it in the longest form, despite some early blooding in each instance in limited-overs internationals.
It is at a time like this when the loss, after his stirring exploits last summer, of someone like Duanne Olivier to foreign climes comes back to haunt uncomfortably.
Olivier, in a promising two-year period to early 2019, snared 48 wickets at 19.25 before turning his back on the Proteas and signing Kolpak terms in England.
Like Steyn, he has shown the ability to prosper even on the flattest of sun-baked surfaces and generate reverse-swing later into contests, into the bargain.
But he is lost to the SA cause, joining an expanding list of strike bowlers to have done so in fairly recent times and placing great strain on remaining depth of resources for rotational and sometimes injury-related needs.
That phenomenon includes, among others, Kyle Abbott (11 Tests, 39 wickets at 22.71 and shape away from the bat to a not dissimilar degree to Steyn), that sturdy slingshot Marchant de Lange (nine wickets in two Tests, and still only a relatively young 28) and another brawny, aggressive if not too subtle specimen in Hardus Viljoen.
Unpredictable left-arm seamer and once Steyn’s international new-ball partner Wayne Parnell, 30, also plies his trade largely for faraway Worcestershire and in various T20 leagues these days.
All of this leaves a more thinly-stocked cupboard of instantly viable Proteas Test options back home nowadays, with premier present asset Rabada backed up only in reasonably regular service to the badge by the likes of Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi.
Some future reservations surround both: Philander, the nagging, patience-examining genius at his best is now 34 and, certainly last season, increasingly prone to frustrating little sequences of layoff disruptions through injury.
Ngidi, meanwhile, has already been in worrisome, fairly pronounced injury wars of his own despite his relatively tender 23 years and four encouraging enough prior Test appearances, with a feeling existing in some circles that he is some way off being able to properly last out, for instance, the physical rigours of a four-Test series.
The champagne figure now sadly having become the “Steyn Removed” - as opposed to renowned “Remover” - for Test purposes, it might just be a while before we see another truly golden era of tiptop three- or even four-pronged Proteas pace attacks in the richest landscape of them all ...
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