The presence of the world’s highest-ranked Test bowler-Kagiso Rabada and one of the greatest fast bowlers to have ever played the game — Dale Steyn — meant that the third paceman in the South African playing XI — Duanne Olivier evaded the spotlight. As the Boxing Day Test match got underway in Centurion, the media glare was on Steyn’s tryst with the milestone and Hashim Amla’s extended dry spell with the bat.
But at the end of the second day’s play, it is Olivier’s eleven wicket haul that has grabbed the headlines and put the Proteas on track to win the Test match. If it was the unheralded Ajaz Patel and Will Somerville of New Zealand who spelled the doom for Pakistan in the last series, it was the turn of yet another unsung performer to carry on the demolition job.
The 26-year-old Olivier broke into the playing XI after yet another bowling hero of South Africa — Vernon Philander — was ruled out due to a hairline fracture in his thumb. But then Olivier’s career has been all about waiting in the wings and dramatic SOS from the selectors. Patience has been the key to his success and the gentle giant has remained unfazed by the limited international opportunities. Many attribute his doggedness to playing cricket in his home ground in Bloemfontein, which has one of the flattest decks in South Africa. During the domestic season where he plays for the Knights, he has a reputation of not only bowling at a fiery pace but is also known for his lethal reverse swing. In Centurion, he tormented the Pakistan batsmen with his short-pitched deliveries and nagging length.
Like most South African kids with a passion for outdoor sports, Olivier’s world revolved around rugby and athletics. But an injury forced him to give up the more physically challenging games and he took up cricket. He was initially coached by Johan Cloete, currently an international umpire. He was pursuing a course in accounting but then he decided to give it up to follow cricket more seriously as he caught the eyes of the Knights franchise.
While playing for the Knights, he worked with the legendary Allan Donald who also hails from Bloemfontein. Donald continues to be a big influence on Olivier. he 26-year-old had been in good form in the run-up to the Test match finishing as the leading wicket-taker in the South African T20 league where he played for Jozi Stars. Even in the last First-class fixture a few days ago, he had a seven-wicket haul.
Like most of his cricket career, his entry into the Test arena was also an afterthought from the selectors when South African cricket board failed to convince fast bowler Kyle Abbott from moving to England as a Kolpak player. Olivier, one of the leading wicket-takers in the domestic circuit for that season, was rewarded with the Test cap during the third Test against Sri Lanka. With Rabada and Wayne Parnell leading the pace attack, Olivier played the role of a supporting cast to perfection — bagging five wickets in the match.
On the tour of England in the same year, he was included in the playing XI after Rabada was banned for a match. Olivier did not set the stage on fire but proved to be a crafty bowler nibbling wickets with his skiddy pace. He would go on to play two more Test matches at home against Bangladesh picking a handful of wickets but not creating an impact enough to knock off the likes of Rabada and Philander from their perch. Morne Morkel’s exit coincided with the rapid rise of yet another young fast bowler Lungi Ngidi which also meant Olivier was once again been relegated to the background.
Not in the frame for the series in Sri Lanka, the tearaway pacer decided to ply his trade in the county circuit and made an impression. Playing for Derbyshire, he picked up 31 wickets in seven outings at an average of around 27 in seven matches. His performance in England caught the eye of the other counties and there were murmurs in the South African cricketing circles that Olivier may also join the Kolpak bandwagon. As per Kolpak policy, a cricketer from South Africa is allowed to play for a county side in England as a domestic player without being considered as an overseas player. During the contract period with the county side, he is not eligible to play for South Africa.
The lure of more money in England and the transformation policy which limits the number of white players in the playing XI in the national side have prompted several South African cricketers to forego playing international cricket and move to England. In recent times, South African internationals like Abbott, and Rilee Rossouw have become Kolpak players.
Whether Olivier becomes a Kolpak casualty for South Africa will depend on how the selectors solve the selection headaches. With Philander expected to be fit, will the team management stick to their customary policy of not dropping an injured player after he makes a comeback at the expense of someone who had eleven wickets in the previous game? Or will they bite the bullet and drop Steyn? With the Cape Town wicket, the venue of the second Test traditionally being spin friendly, it is unlikely that the specialist spinner in the line-up Keshav Maharaj will be dropped. This means the battle for the bowling spots will revolve around Steyn, Olivier and Philander with Rabada being an automatic choice. This crucial decision could define the future of Olivier who after the Centurion exploits proved he is ready to step out of the shadows and steal the limelight.