All countries make do without something. Most of the islands of the Caribbean do not produce oil, India does not have a football team that is World Cup worthy (yet) and South Africa struggle for match-winning international spinners.
Currently, their choices lie between Robin Peterson and Imran Tahir, and both could do with some polishing. “They need to be a little bit more consistent,” Paul Harris, the former South Africa left-arm spinner who retired from all forms of the game last season, told ESPNcricinfo.
“They both bowl a few too many bad balls. Robbie needs to work on line and length and hitting his areas all the time and Imran needs to learn to be patient. He also has to get his legspinner to turn so he doesn’t have to rely on his googly as much.”
Peterson is currently the man in possession and Harris thinks he will start against Australia. The three Tests will be played at Centurion, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, venues where Harris feels South Africa will need a specialist spinner, which rules out the possibility of an all-pace attack and Duminy to do the slower bowling duties. Harris would prefer it that way, anyway.
“JP can bowl but it’s not fair to ask him to bowl teams out. He should be able to give you 10 or 12 overs a day but he has to focus on his batting at No. 6,” Harris said. “That’s his main job. He could average 50 in Test cricket for South Africa so he should focus on that.”
At the same time, Harris would like the spinner in South Africa’s side to concentrate foremost on holding up an end because of the prowess of the pacemen. “It’s really important to bowl as few bad balls as you can,” Harris said. But he knows that’s not as simple as it sounds, because he had to do it himself. “It’s about understanding that every time you go out there, you don’t have to take five wickets. It can get frustrating but it’s the job.”
Nicky Boje, who played 43 Tests for South Africa between 2000 and 2006, agrees that it can be “tough to be the only spinner in the side,” because of the sometimes thankless nature of the job but said the rewards can be worthwhile. “Sometimes a spinner only takes one wicket but if you check the context of it, it will usually be quite an important wicket,” he said. “Like the wickets Robbie took against India in the Durban Test, those were crucial.”
Peterson finished with four wickets in the match and even though, as Harris conceded “they came from bad shots,” it’s that kind of luck that a spinner sometimes rides. Peterson also scored an important 61 in that match which, Harris believes, will give him the edge over Tahir in the immediate term, especially in Jacques Kallis’ absence.
But as far as the future goes, South Africa need are still searching for a spinner. Both Peterson and Tahir are 34 years old and there is a lack of promising youngsters on the horizon. Harris has a reason for the lack of spin talent. “I feel a bit sorry for guys who want to become spinners because the pitches usually don’t suit them at all,” Harris said. “I remember when I was at the Titans, at one stage we had wickets being specifically prepared for spinners so Imran and I could learn.”
Harris and Tahir played together for the Titans under Richard Pybus but it’s rare to see two spinners in a first-class game anymore, particularly last summer when first-class pitches were seamer-friendly. “The spinners don’t bowl as much as the quicks. Last season, very few first-class matches went four days, so there wasn’t much opportunity for them,” Harris said. This season, CSA sought to change that with less spicy domestic surfaces, to add to their attempts to encourage spin development.
Last August, for example, Boje accompanied six spinners to a training camp in Bangalore. They were joined by six batsmen, who made the trip to develop their skills on slower, turning tracks. “It was really about learning the conditions,” Boje said. “The guys were getting a lot of overs under their belt and bowling for between four and five hours a day. They don’t do that in South Africa, so from an experience point of view, it was valuable.”
All six of them have played some franchise cricket with one of them surging to the front of the queue as far as national selection is concerned. Warriors’ offspinner Simon Harmer played in the unofficial Tests against Australia A and India A in the winter that passed. He bowled South Africa A to victory against their Australian counterparts in the second match, with an innings haul of 8 for 87.
Boje is heartened to see the progress Harmer has made and Harris believes he could be a prospect in the years to come. “I like the look of him but he needs to mature a bit more,” he told ESPNcricinfo. “He doesn’t bowl many bad balls, he gets a bit of rip and he also catches very well.”
Harmer is currently second on the first-class wicket-taking chart. In the four matches played so far he has claimed 17 scalps at 37.47, and is three wickets behind Cobras’ left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks. Last season, he was the highest wicket-taking spinner and was picked to play for South Africa A. “I think he can do a holding and a wicket-taking role but it will take time,” Harris said. “But South Africa have a bit of that.”