Tue, 22 Oct 2019

Cape Town - The landscapes were very different ... geographically a long way apart, too.

Yet a certain symbolism would have been latched onto by many South African cricket observers on Wednesday as Kyle Abbott shattered a variety of long-standing first-class records for Hampshire at Southampton while on the same date the Proteas - in the throes of a really harrowing few months across the formats -- were being pretty close to schooled by India in a Twenty20 match at Mohali.

Any direct comparison would be odious, of course: a four-day County Championship match in England differs in all sorts of ways to a T20 international in India.

But Abbott's quite superlative match haul of 17/86 (9/40 and 8/46) against title-hunting Somerset - beaten by 136 runs -- would nevertheless have sparked resurgent pangs of regret over his decision to give up his career for the South African national team in 2017 and pursue a Kolpak deal at the Rose Bowl.

Now 32, but perhaps having cut around five years of yeoman further service to his country at the time he quit, the bustling, Empangeni-born customer gave, by all accounts, something of a masterclass first in seam and later in reverse-swing bowling against a Somerset side which included Indian Test veteran Murali Vijay (he duly ripped out the opener twice, amidst his broader carnage).

Abbott's match stats represented the best first-class ones anywhere since 1956, when England's off-spinner Jim Laker claimed his iconic 19/90 against Australia in a Test match at Old Trafford. Laker died in 1986, aged 64, and no other bowler has taken more than 17 wickets in a single first-class match.

Wednesday's analysis catapulted Abbott into 11th place for best figures of all time, while leaving him the premier South African, into the happy bargain; he beat off Queenstown-born Bert Vogler, who had claimed 16/38 for Eastern Province against Griqualand West in Johannesburg in very distant 1906/07.

The prior best haul by a South African on our own turf in the post-isolation era, as a matter of interest, had been Robbie Frylinck's 14/62 for the Dolphins against the Lions at Potchefstroom in 2016/17.

Clearly, Abbott has more than enough lustre and know-how to still be a serious asset (had he been available), to the Proteas -- in both Tests, where he averaged 22.71 from 11 matches, and at the white-ball stuff where he might well have pepped up their highly unsatisfactory World Cup with his attributes that are tailor-made for UK conditions.

But he isn't the only currently unavailable South African being missed for national purposes at a challenging time, when several established stars are struggling for best form and an array of youngsters being blooded at either Proteas or SA 'A' level don't yet look the Full Monty, frankly, in either consistency or sufficient class.

Think of someone like Stiaan van Zyl, at a juncture where the Proteas' Test batting arsenal looks leaner for depth than it has ever been previously since the return from isolation.

Just turned 32, the patient Sussex-based left-hander (12 Test caps, 2014-16) simply never had his fair shake in his more fancied role of middle-order player, and was jettisoned largely on the grounds of his failures - including on some unacceptably spiteful Indian turners in 2015 - as a makeshift opener.

He had been averaging almost 50 in -- sadly rare -- opportunities away from the very front of the order, but then took the Kolpak route when further exposure wasn't forthcoming.

Van Zyl is exactly the sort of tenacious, now presumably also more world-wise character who could stabilise the Proteas middle order significantly; he'd been averaging 48 in the County Championship when last I looked.

It's interesting, too, that feisty off-spinner Simon Harmer (five Tests, to end of 2015) seems to go from strength to strength in England for Essex: with the Championship season almost over, he was boasting a glittering 78 wickets at 18.12.

Meanwhile Dane Vilas, the wicketkeeper-batsman who got six Tests scattered across three series, continues to blossom for Lancashire, where his latest tally of four-day runs was a booming 1,018 at almost 85.

Watching the Proteas of the past year or so - encompassing that appalling 0-2 home Test series reverse to Sri Lanka, the World Cup bomb-out, plus the ongoing struggle of the SA 'A' side to assert itself - has been so numbing.

It is almost (at least at times, and certainly if you weigh up the personnel against past rafts of heavyweights) as if the current Proteas are more like a callow SA 'A' team of times not too long ago, and the 'A' team, by extension, more like some sort of "third team" of more prosperous periods.

But when you chew on the international step-downs of former batting maestros AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, in reasonably rapid succession, Morne Morkel quitting the Proteas while at the very peak of his fast-bowling game, plus the mostly Kolpak-related absences of Abbott, Harmer, Van Zyl, Vilas, Rilee Rossouw, Duanne Olivier and others, you also start to sense why.

Let's not get too carried away: success at domestic level abroad isn't always a yardstick to international excellence, and some of the players mentioned haven't capitalised properly on Proteas chances that have been given them.

Yes, too, they were responsible for their own want-away decisions.

But would it be too dramatic to acknowledge, against the backdrop of Abbott's artistry, that almost a whole generation from the SA selection pool has effectively been lost to the cause, causing certain chickens to come home to roost?

*Follow our chief writer: @RobHouwing

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