"Fast bowling is sometimes about building pressure, not getting wickets."
South Africa's head coach Ottis Gibson, who hails from Barbados, a place once considered the gold mine of pace bowling, spoke the aforementioned words during his stint as England bowling coach. There is perhaps no coach in the world currently who understands fast bowling better than Gibson. There is also perhaps no other country which has as rich a pace bowling culture as South Africa at the moment. When the two were put together, sparks were bound to fly, and fly it did.
In the recently-concluded three-match Test series against Pakistan, South African pacers picked up 59 wickets (of a possible 60) at an average of 20.16 and a strike rate of 33.1, easily out-bowling Pakistan's own pace battery. The fact that they did this without the availability of first-choice pace attack for the first Test further shows how good South Africa were. Since Gibson took over as head coach, South Africa have been consistently out-bowling opposition sides. Five consecutive home Test series wins have unfolded on the back of a potent pace attack which has demolished visiting teams.
Conditions in South Africa have always suited pace bowling but post 2015, fallacies in their batting line-up and indecision over best spin option pegged the Test side back a touch. There were also frequent injuries to fast bowlers which affected their results.
So, when Ottis Gibson took charge before the home series against Bangladesh in 2017, there was a widespread belief that he should be able to turn around South Africa's fortunes. After all, having played in South Africa, he understood the political demands and transformation policies of the country. That he had more than decent experience in coaching also helped.
Gibson's instant focus was on spicing up the fast bowling instead of shoring up the weaknesses in other departments. His methodology was simple. "Coming from the Caribbean, I believe that fast bowling is the bedrock. Most of the teams that dominated world cricket have always had strong fast-bowling stocks. Cricket in South Africa, even in the 90s when I came, has always been built on fast bowling. That's what I was raised up on. If you have four fast bowlers of the quality we have here, then it would be silly not to use them," Gibson says.
By exploiting Proteas' strength to its maximum, Gibson ensured that the side's strongest area was sharpened enough to win them matches consistently. But it wasn't all about motivating the existing pace attack or bringing in the best bowlers from firs-class cricket. It was about reconditioning the fast bowling culture from grass root levels.
A fast bowling programme was launched in 2017-18, wherein he involved leading franchises and high-performance coaches with an aim to strengthen the pool of quick bowlers available to the Test team. Everything from workloads to actions to conditioning of bowlers were managed.
What has unfurled as a result is a more fit, motivated fast bowling unit and a regular supply of fast bowling talent ripe to be plucked from first-class cricket. If consistent injuries plagued South Africa's chances in the years before Gibson came in, the situation has got immensely better since he took over. It isn't that injuries haven't been happening. It is the fact that replacements have stepped up admirably that deserves praise.
No Test side has had a better performing pace attack in the time frame Gibson has been with South Africa. They have taken 231 wickets in 15 matches at an average of 19.39 and strike rate of 37.7 in this time frame with as many as 12 five-wicket hauls in an innings and three ten-wicket hauls in a match. That none of the other teams even come close to these numbers is a testimony to South Africa's meteoric rise in pace bowling department.
Kyle Abbott had just taken a Kolpak deal when Gibson joined and during his tenure Morne Morkel also decided to walk away, hanging up his boots and taking up a Kolpak deal. But the remedy for such impromptu departures were already in place and guys like Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier made the metamorphosis seamless.
The return of Dale Steyn also bolstered the South African attack but what is noticeable is how the pacer has grown younger in Gibson's tenure. By boosting Steyn's confidence and not burdening him with unrealistic expectations, the former Windies player ensured Steyn stays on top of his game. In the Pakistan series, Steyn delivered some telling spells time and again, despite staying in the shadows of a buoyant Olivier and a spicy Kagiso Rabada.
Gibson's focus on fast bowlers have been backed up by national selection convener, Linda Zondi, and the entire panel. The selections have been consistent and the panel has also been not hesitant in pushing talented guns to jump the pecking order. Lungi Ngidi's rise across formats and Wiaan Mulder's promotion to the ODI side prior to injury are examples in this regard.
Guys like Olivier, who had a very average Test career until Gibson took over, Dane Paterson and Andile Phehlukwayo were consistently in and around the Test side, and the benefit of having a pack of bowlers on the bench is showing. Olivier finished the Pakistan series with 24 wickets, the best by a South African seamer at home in a Test series of three matches, and a Man of the Series award. That he wasn't even in contention until Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi were out injured shows how well Gibson's fast bowling programme is working.
Even the outstanding Rabada has grown in stature since Gibson took over. His 81 wickets have come at an average of 18.02 and a strike rate of 33.8. Add in Steyn, Philander and Olivier to the mix and you have a pace attack that could challenge the Windies of 1970s.
What is more fearsome is that the talent pool goes way deeper than that. Ngidi and Mulder are nursing injuries and should be available for selection soon. All-rounders Chris Morris, Dwaine Pretorius and Phehlukwayo are waiting in the wings. Paterson is in the Test squad already and is ready to step up as and when the need arises after a superb first-class season where he picked up 33 wickets for Cape Cobras in 6 matches at an average of 22.75. Beuran Hendricks (31 wickets in 7 matches in the 4-day franchise competition in 2018/19), Anrich Nortje (24 wickets in 5 matches) and Tladi Bokako (21 wickets in 6 matches) are also awaiting turns.
Lutho Sipamla, who had a great Mzansi Super League, Junior Dala and Sisanda Magala have also been earmarked for greater things by the head coach. There is a compelling rise in the talent pool and it has been the force behind South Africa's stupendous record in Tests since Gibson took over despite the loss of couple of big bowlers to Kolpak deals. That AB de Villiers has retired and the senior batsmen have struggled for consistency further and yet results haven't been affected shows how the ruthless pace attack under Gibson have carried South Africa.
The skipper, Faf du Plessis, mirrors Gibson's views about the pace attack. "Our confidence in our bowling unit is very high, purely because they're doing well, they're getting wickets and they're winning Test matches. A confident bowling attack for me trumps everything," Faf said after South Africa sealed series post a win in the second Test against Pakistan.
The challenge is to replicate this success outside home where they have played just one series in Gibson's tenure. But given the culture that has been developed, the kind of fast bowlers that have been evolving and the constant nurturing provided by a fast bowling-minded head coach, it would be a surprise if results are not replicated away from home.