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Cricket news - Time for South Africa's Class of 2014 to toughen it out
Shortly before the 2014 under-19 World Cup in the UAE, Ray Jennings experienced a Eureka moment. The South African under-19 coach, no stranger to flights of fancy, decided to "borrow" a cup from the trophy cabinet at Cricket South Africa's Centre of Excellence at the University of Pretoria.
The under-19 squad were camping at the Centre before departing for the UAE, and they posed for photographs with the mock trophy. Jennings even had posters made from the shoot. They said, "One Team, One Goal" in swaggering capitals, and showed the entire squad and their support staff smiling beneath the shade of some nearby pine trees.
Examine the photograph carefully and you can spot those who have since become familiar faces. Bang in the middle of the frame is Aiden Markram, captain of the national under-19s. Lying in front of him, with his hand on the cup's stem, is Kagiso Rabada. On Rabada's shoulder, beaming, is Lungi Ngidi, who missed the under-19 World Cup through injury.
Five-and-a-half years later and all of them have graduated to bigger things. Come Wednesday's first Test against India in Vishakhapatnam and the "Class of 2014" have a major role to play as the Proteas begin to put daylight between themselves and a disappointing 2019 World Cup.
With Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn having walked into the sunset, the Vishakhapatnam Test begins a new and challenging chapter, for neither Markram nor Ngidi have played a Test in India and neither has the Proteas' new interim team director, Enoch Nkwe.
The chirpy off-spinner, Dane Piedt (if he plays) has played only one, taking a first innings four for 117 in Delhi in December 2015, so there will be anxieties, combined with the knowledge that last time they were there, the Proteas were walloped 3-0.
This said, there have been encouraging signs that someone like Markram, say, is beginning to customise his game for sub-continental conditions. He scored 161 against India A in Mysore a week ago and he might just be beginning to solve the mysteries of playing on low, turning wickets. "It was nice to spend some time in the middle," he said on Friday after a brisk 100 against a Board President's XI at Vizianagaram, his second ton of the tour. "As a batter it's where you learn the most - it's always beneficial being out in the middle."
Such benefits continued for Temba Bavuma, not out on 55 when the rain came down on Friday. A perky player, this is a big tour for Bavuma. He's well-liked, and is a gun fielder, but has a Test record that has yet to convince the dissenters, who liken him to a new-generation JP Duminy. He looked sublimely accomplished in the recently-completed T20 series, so the tide might be beginning to turn. Long may he be at one with his mojo.
It will be interesting to see how the South African side balances for the Test. If the Proteas pick six batters (Dean Elgar, Markram, Theunis de Bruyn, Faf du Plessis, Bavuma and Zubayr Hamza), with Quinton de Kock at seven, it leaves space for only four bowlers, with Rabada, Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj likely certainties.
Such juggling would mean a straight shoot-out between Piedt and Ngidi for the fourth bowler spot, with arguments for both, and pick-up bowling roles for both Markram (offies) and Elgar (cheeky left-arm all-sorts). Piedt took five wickets in Mysore, which comes off the back of a splendid Sunfoil Series in 2018/19 for his franchise, the Cobras, when he took 54 wickets.
No wallflower, Piedt has the full bag of tricks. He can also be lippy, which could be just what the South Africans need as they spend long sessions in Vishakhapatnam, sometimes called the "City of Destiny". Now 29, could this tour be Piedt's encounter with his cricketing fate? We will know soon enough.
As far as Markram and Rabada are concerned, the "Class of 2014" story didn't end under a clutch of pines. Markram, for example, was the beneficiary of one of Jennings's famous hunches. He hadn't been chosen to play for his under-19 provincial team and, quite literally, was whipped off the beach in late 2012 so Jennings could take a look.
He was absorbed into national training squads through 2013 and even taken on tour to India (his performance mediocre) before Jennings dropped a real humdinger: he made him captain. Some in the system shook their heads.
Rabada's route to the top was more of a smooth clip along the high-performance superhighway. He and Jennings knocked heads while the under-19 squad was in India in 2013. By the time they were posing for photographs on the verge, however, Rabada was one of Jennings's inner sanctum. He and Markram played important roles in the UAE, both off the field and on.
Although Rabada played four years of first team cricket at the elite St Stithians College in northern Johannesburg, he never took a five-fer. As a youngster, he arrived as a batsman, a Brian Lara wannabee with a fetching cover-drive he played more often than he should have.
As he became stronger, so his school coaches concentrated on his bowling. The wildness was harnessed, the no-ball problem brought under control. Over time he developed into a special athlete. There is no hyperbole in saying that when taking six for 25 - in a game televised back home - he terrorised Australia in the under-19 World Cup semi-final.
Five-fers back home at school were rewarded with a tree being planted in the players' name around the St Stithians first XI oval. Rabada left school without a tree, so when he'd played South Africa into the final in 2014, he woke up his old cricket master in the middle of the night.
"We're behind you time-wise Kagiso. It's 3am here, buddy," said Wim Jansen, his long-suffering cricket coach.
"Sorry, Sir, I'm just phoning about my tree."
"Which tree would that be?"
"To ask if I can have one after my six wickets against Australia?"
Rabada played a substantial part in the South African under-19s winning the 2014 World Cup, but he wasn't the only one. Markram won Player of the Tournament, following his 120 not out against Zimbabwe in the group match, with 66 not out against Pakistan in the final.
As it was, South Africa won by six wickets with nearly eight overs to spare. There was clearly merit in the idea of the squad taking photos of themselves with the trophy early.
Six years later, the nation's cricket fans desperately need some good news after the ODI team's lowly seventh place finish in the 2019 World Cup. It is backs-to-the-wall stuff in other respects, too, because the players (through their union) are in a spat with the administrators that is only going to get worse. Such rear-guard actions tend to bring the best out of the South Africans, who know only too well that there's dire need for some good cricketing news.
Rabada's three Tests in India in 2015/16 saw him take only two wickets (although he did take Virat Kohli's with his first) and he returns this time round a smarter performer. A sponge for technical advice and anecdote, Rabada is not far off his prime.
He and Markram need to toughen it out when it counts over the coming weeks. Only then will their cricketing education be truly complete.
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