The T20 World Cup is ten months away, but South Africa have already conducted successful auditions for their bowling attack thanks to the ongoing second edition of the Mzansi Super League (MSL). Despite the tournament incurring losses of over Rand 100 million (US$ 6.7 million approx.), it gave us the return to form of Dale Steyn and Chris Morris, demonstrated the ageless talent of Imran Tahir, confirmed Tabraiz Shamsi as a white-ball weapon and put Junior Dala and Sisanda Magala forward as candidates for the national squads, after they outbowled Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada in the pool stage.
That there is competition in the domestic set-up will come as a relief for whoever the new national selectors are, more so after the year South Africa have had; 2019 has been forgettable, with five successive Test defeats and a whimpering performance at the World Cup. However, with there being a chance to challenge for an ICC trophy just about every year these days, here are the bowlers that seem capable of delivering redemption for South Africa.
Steyn's red-ball retirement in August to focus exclusively on shorter formats appeared to signal the end of his international career, especially as he hasn't played much white-ball cricket for South Africa in recent years. Since the start of 2018, Steyn has played nine ODIs and two T20Is, and six T20s and was left out of South Africa's squad to play India in October. At the time, Steyn's absence was explained as a fitness concern but the man himself denied that he was injured. Whatever the truth is, Steyn has used the MSL to show that he has skills beyond speed and his experience would be invaluable at next year's T20 World Cup.
Steyn was the tournament's top wicket-taker until the last weekend, when he was overtaken by Tahir. He started with a stunning 3 for 25 in the opener against Jozi Stars, where he dismissed Chris Gayle with a slower ball and took 2 for 10 at the death. Hauls of 2 for 23 and 2 for 25 against Durban Heat included the early dismissals of Alex Hales in both matches but it was Steyn's finish, of 3 for 10 against Tshwane Spartans that marked his best performance in the competition. Steyn took 2 for 4 in his opening spell, which included deceiving Dean Elgar with a slower ball and then claimed the big fish, AB de Villiers, who top-edged in the dying stages of the Spartans innings.
The 15 wickets Steyn took at 15.13 contributed to him now having his best T20 average since 2012. His ability to strike up front and operate at the death could serve a dual purpose for South Africa at the T20 World Cup. The only concern is that Steyn missed the Blitz's penultimate pool match with a side strain, but was expected to play in the final game before it was washed out.
Having lost his national contract in April and made himself unavailable for the India tour, Morris appeared to have taken his career into his own hands, and what a decision that has turned out to be. Morris had strong returns at the IPL (13 wickets in nine matches at 23.53) and the Vitality Blast (12 wickets in 11 matches at 24.75 for Hampshire) and his 10 in the MSL means that he taken more T20 wickets in 2019 than in any other calendar year in his career. But it's not just the wickets that matter in Morris' case, it's the timing of them.
He has been particularly effective at the death for Nelson Mandela Bay Giants. Morris' 1 for 12 in two overs at the end of the match against Jozi Stars ensured the Giants' 167 was enough for victory, so too was his 1 for 5 in the 19th over against Cape Town Blitz, when the Giants had posted 173 and won by 11 runs. Morris enjoyed success against the Blitz twice, taking 2 for 8 in the 17th and 19th overs of the match against them earlier on in the tournament when Blitz batted first and scored 187. For good measure, Morris scored 19 off nine balls in the successful chase.
Morris has displayed greater maturity and willingness to play under pressure, whether batting or bowling, something South Africa always need. He is also a genuine lower-middle-order batsman, something South Africa have been searching for since the days of Lance Klusener.
Dala's figures do not always flatter him and his economy rate of 10.59 at the tournament belies his effectiveness at the end of innings. Dala has the joint-highest number of wickets at the death in the MSL, where seven of his 12 sticks have come at an average of 11.85.
In the Giants' opening game in Port Elizabeth, he conceded only six runs in the final over against Jozi Stars, when they needed 31 to win, and also claimed the wicket of Rassie van der Dussen and showed he can keep things tight throughout the innings with 3 for 19 against the Stars in Johannesburg. His efforts against Cape Town Blitz on his home ground saw him concede just 14 runs and take two wickets at the death to keep the batting team below 200, and he was similarly miserly in the dying stages of the Paarl Rocks innings in Port Elizabeth, where he only gave away two runs and took a wicket in the 18th over.
Dala sustained a meniscus injury in the latter stages of the tournament, which forced him out of the Giants' last two matches, and he will not feature in the playoff but should be back later in the summer. He has plenty of time to get himself ready to challenge for a T20 World Cup spot, and with the variation and skill he displayed, he should be a serious contender.
Dala's biggest competition will come from Magala, who boasts the best economy rate at the death in the MSL - 8.28. Magala has controlled the death overs with aplomb and, given the importance of a strangler in T20 cricket, he should come into consideration when the T20 World Cup squad is being debated.
Magala's first squeeze came when he helped defend 27 runs off the final two overs in the tournament opener, then conceded just four runs and took a wicket in the 19th over in Cape Town Blitz's defeat to Paarl Rocks, effectively keeping the Rocks to 170. Magala then took 2 for 9 against Jozi Stars to help the Blitz successfully defend 183 and then claimed 1 for 27 in four overs in the Blitz's victory over Tshwane Spartans, which included defending 21 off the final over. His best returns were 2 for 26 against the Giants, in what was the Blitz's final pool match, where his last two overs yielded 2 for 13.
At the heart of what Magala can do is take pace off the ball, maintain a full length, and attack the stumps. It's simple but effective and he has used the MSL to put his hand up for higher honours.
The 40-year old legspinner's talent for turning a game around on his own is well known and Tahir has had a prolific year in T20s. He is the leading wicket-taker in T20 cricket in 2019, after topping the charts at the IPL, coming second in the CPL and sixth in the Vitality Blast. His six scalps at the MSL so far takes his 2019 total to 78 wickets at 16.02. That's the most for him in a T20 calendar year and at his best average.
As impressive as Tahir's strike rate has been - in 2019, he took a wicket every two-and-a-half overs (14.4) - his economy rate is also worth writing about. In the MSL, Tahir had the lowest economy rate of anyone who bowled more than six overs and conceded runs at a rate of under six an over - 5.68. He also bowled more overs than anyone else - 38.
He only went wicketless once, in the Giants' match that was abandoned after 7.1 overs against Tshanwe Spartans, while his best was 3 for 19 against Jozi Stars. His performance in the final pool match, 2 for 14 against Paarl Rocks, kept the Giants in the hunt for a home final but he was unable to secure it on his own and his team will instead need a playoff to see if they can get there.
It's tough for Shamsi at the international level because South Africa tend to prefer a solitary spinner in the XI and he is always looking over his shoulder to find Tahir. But he has made a case for a rethink there.
Shamsi started the MSL with a stunning performance against Cape Town Blitz, taking 3 for 16 as they were bowled out for 84 and then helped keep Jozi Stars to a middling 129 for 3 by taking 1 for 20 in his four overs against them. His 2 for 26 against the Blitz in the return fixture resulted in reducing them to 69 for 5 in search of 164 [the Blitz didn't get there]. Shamsi was also instrumental in the Rocks leapfrogging the Giants into top spot - first with his 2 for 24 in Port Elizabeth, which included the wickets of the big-hitting Heino Kuhn and Marco Marais, while his 2 for 25 in Paarl had him dismissing Ben Dunk and Ryan ten Doeschate.
Shamsi also adds an entertainment value like no-one else, rivaling Tahir for over-the-top on-field exuberance. Instead of running laps like Tahir, Shamsi has trademarked the phone celebration, which involved using a boot as a mock-phone and calling someone when he takes a wicket, and the new magic trick.
The golden boys of the South African cricket finished joint-sixth and eighth on the wicket charts respectively and may be disappointed that they did not dominate as much as the other bowlers on this list. This assessment is probably harsh on Ngidi, whose team, Tshwane Spartans, were involved in five rained-out fixtures. He also took more than 80% of his wickets with slower balls and showed an ability to bring variation into his game. His nine wickets came at 18.22, while Rabada's eight came at 27.25, and this has raised what could become a concern for South Africa this summer.
Rabada has not looked himself this year in any format as is well off the pace when it comes to the main wicket-takers of 2019. There are some arguments to be made: that he was overbowled early on his career and that too much expectation was heaped on him too soon. Now, he faces another challenge: competition from mates, who are pushing for his place. It may just bring out the best in him.