Why South Africa has no swing bowlers

Fanie de Villiers senior - there wasn't much he didn't know already

Fanie de Villiers senior - there wasn't much he didn't know already - Credit: Roger Mann

Followers of this column may remember that, one day in 1991, I was reading a cricket magazine and came across the story of a South African cricketer who had undergone back surgery, and who was advised that his professional career was almost certainly over.

I offered Fanie de Villiers a summer in Torquay, and to cut a long story short, he broke records at Torquay Cricket Club, went on to play for South Africa, and, at one stage, became the world’s highest-ranked Test Match bowler.

During our time together, we spent many hours discussing swing bowling, and researching the methods of the great swing bowlers of the past.

While we, also, spent time in the nets together, I could not claim to have actually 'taught' him much that he didn’t already know.

However, in the years that followed, he hosted his own television show and, very often, credited me with 'teaching him so much'.

Although this was a huge exaggeration, it soon came back to haunt me.

In 2000, Jacques Rudolph, the 19-year-old 'future star' of South African cricket, was looking to spend a summer in England, with a specific purpose in mind.

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Before becoming a superb, young left-handed batsman, Jacques had represented his country, at junior level, as a right-handed wrist spin bowler.

He was so highly thought of that he was sent to Australia to be coached by Shane Warne’s world famous coach, Terry Jenner! 

Like so many before him, he had found Jenner’s coaching to be too complex for him, and he had now lost the desire to bowl wrist spin ever again.

The United Cricket Board of South Africa wrote to me telling me that it would sanction Jacques’s summer in England, if I would use it to coach him to bowl ten overs of wrist spin in a Test innings!

Jacques Rudolph aged 19 - I couldn't teach him wrist spin

Jacques Rudolph aged 19 - I couldn't teach him wrist spin - Credit: Roger Mann

So now, the man who didn’t coach Fanie de Villiers to swing the ball, was being asked to teach a future Test Match star a skill which Terry Jenner had failed to do!

The 2001 season promised to be interesting!

Jacques turned out to be a perfect guest, and a wonderful batsman for Paignton Cricket Club, but he really didn’t want to bowl.

We spent a few evenings in the nets together but Jacques had suffered what cricketers call 'The Yips' while working with Jenner, and had lost the ability to turn his wrist and pitch the ball accurately.

He went on to play 48 Test Matches for South Africa, but only took four Test wickets at an average of 108.00. It seemed that I had failed once again!

Ever since we first met, I have stayed in close contact with Fanie, and in 2012, he phoned me to tell me that his eldest son, by his first marriage, was making real progress as a fast bowler.

He ended the conversation by asking if my wife and I would host him for the summer, in 2013, so that I could teach him to actually swing the ball!

In due course 'Little Fanie' arrived. He was 6ft 4ins in his socks, and almost as wide!

'Little Fanie' bowling at Queen's Park, Paignton - he didn't want to learn to swing the ball.

'Little Fanie' bowling at Queen's Park, Paignton - he didn't want to learn to swing the ball. - Credit: Roger Mann

I had enrolled him with Paignton Cricket Club, and it wasn’t long before he was hurling the ball down at Queen’s Park.

Like Jacques, he was an ideal guest, but very hard to coach.

To swing a cricket ball, you must 'float it on the air' not 'bang it into the pitch', and 'Little Fanie' didn’t fancy that... he wanted to terrorise the batsmen!

I asked my friend, Bob Cottam, a former national coach, to help but neither of us could persuade him to adopt the cerebral option. Sadly, I had failed once again!

In 2019, my wife and I visited Fanie in South Africa, and he took us to watch his eldest son, by his second marriage, playing in an area schools match.

A.J. - the heir to the de Villiers throne

A.J. - the heir to the de Villiers throne - Credit: Roger Mann

Ten year old A.J. has inherited the family talent and was 'man of the match'.

Afterwards, Fanie came up to me and asked: “Would you take A.J. to England next summer, and teach him to be a swing bowler?”

I smiled and replied: “I don’t think I’m much good at that!”