2000 was an exciting year for South African cricket. Alongside the intimidating Makhaya Ntini, they had another young black African tearaway in Mfuneko Ngam. The duo played together for the first time – on Ngam’s debut – at Johannesburg against a resolute Black Caps outfit and instantly made an impact. However, career-threatening injuries to Ngam nipped that dream combination in the bud.
Nearly two decades later, the Rainbow Nation is once again in anticipation with two exciting black quicks at their disposal – Kagiso Rabada, the World No 1 Test bowler, and Lungisani Ngidi. Rabada has already stamped his presence in international cricket with a slew of captivating performances while Ngidi made a rather impressive debut in T20Is but injuries halted his arrival into the ODI and Test squads. That he was picked in the Test side, with just one first-class match under his belt since injury, as soon as Dale Steyn injured himself yet again, shows how highly South Africa rate the 21-year-old.
There is a reason why transformation is vigourously advocated in the country. The 2011 census figures in South Africa rate their ethnic groups at the following percentages:
Africans (blacks) at 76.4 per cent, coloured at 8.9 per cent, whites at 9.1 per cent, Asians at 2.5 per cent and others at 0.5 per cent.
The focus of transformation was always on “increasing black African players", whose progress came to a grinding halt since South Africa's readmission into world cricket post apartheid. Against Bangladesh two months ago, they fielded three black African players together - Temba Bavuma, Andile Phehlukwayo and Rabada - for the first time in their Test history.
One can imagine the huge influx of talent South Africa will have in a few years' time if the transformation policy is wisely executed. That this world-beating, No 2 Test line-up was built largely from 9.1 per cent of their population blows your mind.
In a country as diverse as South Africa, the transformation policy is just to ensure that the talent amongst the largest group in the country does not go unnoticed. The implementation hasn't been quite impressive, though, with policies stating that the national team should play four coloured and two black players over the course of a year across formats. It should probably have begun at the grass root level in schools and under-17, under-19 teams before being strictly implemented at the national level.
However, what it has given is a promising, exciting talent that has the whole Rainbow Nation waiting with bated breath. The brouhaha generated since Ngidi's inclusion in the Test squad has been unprecedented to an extent.
#SAvIND I'm watching Lungi Ngidi bowl a couple of jaffers to Dean Elgar at half pace, and I saw Ottis Gibson walk over to Faf du Plessis to have a chat.
— Philasande Sixaba (@psixaba) January 11, 2018
Stuart. Break the news to us fans now. Lungi Ngidi is being selected right? Michael Holding is trying to make this happen as well
— Simmi Areff (@simmiareff) January 11, 2018
There are further reasons for the Proteas to pick Ngidi as Steyn's replacement at Centurion. India have a yellow streak against fast bowlers making their debut in recent times. Several times, over the past few years, the cricketing world has witnessed Indian batting line-ups being blown away by rookie seamers on their debut.
Matt Henry, January 2014
The Kiwi seamer made his ODI debut against India at Wellington in January 2014 and ripped through the Indian line-up, dismissing Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Ambati Rayudu and Bhuvneshwar Kumar to finish with 4/38. India appeared clueless against Henry's seam movement and pace and crumbled to 145/5 in a chase of 304.
Taskin Ahmed, June 2014
The 19-year-old Taskin's record-breaking ODI debut at Dhaka saw him pick 5/28 – his best ODI figures – against India. He became the first Bangladesh bowler to pick up a five-for on ODI debut.
Josh Hazlewood, December 2014
Australian seamer Josh Hazlewood made his Test debut against India at Brisbane in the second Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and decimated the tourists’ middle-order, dismissing Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and MS Dhoni, to finish with 5/68. He had a match haul of 7/142 which eventually proved decisive in a four-wicket victory for the hosts.
Mustafizur Rehman, June 2015
Mustafizur Rehman, better known as 'The Fizz', made his ODI debut after the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and ripped India apart with a figure of 5/50 at Dhaka. India's formidable batting line-up had no answers to Mustafizur's quickish off-cutters and they folded for 228 in a chase of 308.
Jason Behrendoff, October 2017
Behrendoff had a rain-shortened debut in T20Is, against India at Ranchi where the hosts needed 48 in six overs to win. While every other Australian seamer went at over 10-an-over, Behrendoff bowled a solitary over for five runs which ultimately wasn't enough to stop the Indians. But two days later, he returned to slice through India’s top-order with 4/21, removing all of India's top four within five overs of the innings. His terrific spell earned him a Man of the Match in just his second T20I.
Clearly, recent history against debutant fast bowlers isn't the best for India. Their batsmen have surprisingly developed cold feet despite all the technology available these days to analyse new bowlers, which wasn't the case in olden days.
But this isn't the only factor which favours Ngidi's inclusion. India would do well to remember that South Africa's debutant fast bowlers have done a sensational job on debut.
Vernon Philander, November 2011
The miserly Philander who demolished India at Cape Town a few days back made a rather celebrated debut at the very same ground seven years ago against the visiting Australian side. He was effective in the first innings with 3/63 but came into his present-day self, bowling a nagging line and length in the second innings when his 5/15 bowled the Aussies out for a stunning 47.
Marchant de Lange, December 2011
A fast bowler with a short run-up, but searing pace, de Lange made his Test debut against Sri Lanka in 2011 at Durban and destroyed the visitors with the then best figures by a debutant in South African history - 7/81, but played just one more Test before injuries took a toll on his career.
Kyle Abbott, February 2013
Abbott, the latest player among the Kolpak exodus group, made a sensational debut against Pakistan at Centurion - the venue of the second Test against India starting on Saturday - in 2013. His 7/29 eclipsed de Lange’s record and till he made his decision to leave the country, he was among South Africa's finest exponents of outswingers after Steyn.
Kagiso Rabada, July 2015
A young Rabada made a mesmerising debut in ODIs against Bangladesh at Dhaka, picking up a hat-trick and registering the best ever figures by a debutant in ODIs (a mind-blowing 6/16) to bowl the hosts out for 160.
Ngidi's inclusion was further boosted by a rather “bowling-minded” head coach, Ottis Gibson, who succeeded Russell Domingo after the England tour. Gibson, England's bowling coach prior to this assignment, has been rather vocal in his support for four pace bowlers.
“When you’re playing at home you play to your strengths and at the moment we have some high quality fast bowlers," Gibson revealed. “You saw some good fast bowlers on both sides and from my understanding of Centurion, it’s a pitch with some pace and bounce and that will probably be the make-up of the team going forward.”
He was seen in a rather animated discussion with skipper, Faf du Plessis a day before the second Test, as Ngidi and Duanne Olivier bowled at the openers, Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram, in the Centurion nets. Ngidi, according to a reporter from South Africa, was seen constantly beating Elgar’s bat during the session.
"I’m a very fast bowling-minded coach and I guess we’ll always have to find a balance with whether or not we can get four fast bowlers in the team, first of all. If not, then we will try and look to shape the team in other ways. Ultimately, and especially in this series and for the rest of the summer, we’ll be looking to see how best we can fit four fast bowlers into whatever formula we come up with,” Gibson said a few days back.
Four years since Abbott's headline-hogging debut, Centurion is preparing itself to witness another debut – that of Ngidi. The lanky seamer’s ability to set the pace gun on fire with his searing 145-150kmph rockets puts him in prime position to make a debut.
At 21, Ngidi has played just nine first-class games but already has three five-wicket hauls in his career. He picked up a match haul of 9/83 on his first-class comeback match last month, four months after returning from a back injury. If the young seamer gets a maiden cap at Centurion, he might well have a few Indian batsmen hopping and dancing.