Edward de Bono, the father of lateral thinking, created the term “po” to describe an idea which moves thinking forward to a new place from where new ideas or solutions may be found. It’s probably not stretching things too far to suggest South African cricket is having a few po moments of its own, especially when it comes to spinners.
Omar Henry has had a long and successful journey through South African cricket: first as a player of colour he broke down barriers during Apartheid, as a fine left-arm spinner and a dangerous lower-order batsman he was highly respected both here and overseas, where he famously played for Scotland. He was already 40 when official international cricket returned, but he was still good enough to become the first non-white to play for South Africa.
After he retired in 1994, Henry turned to coaching and then became the convenor of the national selectors before entering the boardroom as the CEO of Boland cricket.
He has now returned to coaching and was helping out on Tuesday at the national academy at the centre of excellence at the University Of Pretoria, and he told The Citizen that the sight of three frontline spinners playing for South Africa in the West Indies triangular had been thrilling if scarcely believable.
Henry was keeping a beady eye on the spinners at the national academy nets and he had an interesting assistant in current Test spinner Dane Piedt, who was also bowling a few overs.
Piedt is one of the South African spinners who is not involved in limited-overs cricket or T20 competitions (perhaps he should be?), and with Test cricket starting again in August with two home games against New Zealand, he is needing practice, especially since the Cape weather is really not conducive to any sort of outdoor activity at the moment.
“It’s the end of the world in Cape Town at the moment! The weather channel says there’s an 85% chance of rain but it’s more like 105%. So I needed to come up here and get some work in before the SA A side goes to Zimbabwe and Australia,” the 26-year-old said after taking a break from the serious stuff.
The idea of a current player coaching up-and-coming stars who could be competing with him for places in teams is another example of forward-thinking, and it was wonderful to see the many different generations that academy head Shukri Conrad has roped in to help at the academy. Vincent Barnes was a prolific bowler of the 1980s, while Henry and Jimmy Cook were there from South Africa’s early years back in international cricket, as were Shaun Pollock and Gary Kirsten from the next era, more recent players like Andre Nel and Greg Smith, and then current stars Piedt and Stephen Cook.
For Piedt, doing some coaching was an eye-opening experience.
“I told Shukri that I actually learn a lot about my own game watching these youngsters. I remember the things that I used to do, what my weaknesses are, so it helps a lot just to focus on your own game. Guys like Robin Peterson, Claude Henderson and Paul Adams passed on to me what they knew about bowling and now I’m passing on the little I’ve learnt to these guys, which is exciting,” Piedt said.
Much of the off-season talk in South African cricket has been around playing pink ball day/nighters in Australia and how our players are going to prepare for a totally new challenge. De Bono would be proud of the positive attitude with which the Proteas are tackling this leap into the unknown.
“I’ve never played with a pink ball before, so it’s unknown territory, but the game is changing so rapidly these days and we need to keep up. When the SA A side meets up on July 2 we’re going to try and get a couple of pink balls into the nets to work out how they are different, devise strategies for it.
“I watched that Test between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide and Nathan Lyon and Mark Craig were getting quite a bit of spin, even with the ball swinging all over the place. Apparently there are a lot of differences and you tend to see it, lose it and then pick it up again in the field,” Piedt said.
Piedt has taken 22 wickets in his five Tests in a career that was interrupted for over a year by a serious shoulder injury after his eight-wicket debut against Zimbabwe in Harare. He is the incumbent spinner after playing in three of the four Tests against England last summer and he feels he ticked the box when it came to consistency.
“The big thing for me was getting that consistency, being able to land the ball in the same place and build pressure. Taking three for 38 in 18 overs in the second innings in Cape Town really helped my confidence and then I felt I came into my own in the last Test at Centurion. And then the Tests just stopped!
“But England have a very strong batting line-up and I felt I was expensive early on. I want to put the two together, go for two/2.5 runs-per-over and also take wickets. I want to implement the parts of my game where I feel strong, like being aggressive. I was pleased with 10 wickets in the series on good surfaces,” Piedt said.
For the moment, the South African selectors are only seeing Piedt as a long-format player, but who knows what might happen in the future.
Few would have predicted the current success of Tabraiz Shamsi, who has proven an able deputy for the unstoppable Imran Tahir, while Aaron Phangiso also fulfils a valuable role and the likes of Eddie Leie and Simon Harmer are also waiting in the wings.