Chadd Sayers looked good at the Wanderers.
The atmosphere over the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg bore a sombre look. The Australian cricket team, rocked by the ball-tampering saga had been through the painful images of their skipper Steven Smith break down in the public eye, accepting and repenting his mistakes. With the world around questioning the importance of the Baggy Green in the lives of the Aussie cricketers, Tim Paine and his side had a tough job ahead of them in the fourth Test of the series.
Forget winning, the main priority would have been to set foot on the field and in their own ways, try to change the general perception that revolved around the Australian players. Ever since, the motto of “play hard” had been their guiding force, but a marked change seemed to have swept over the unusually quiet side after the national anthems. Paine led the way in what is an uncustomary pre-match handshake for the Australians and sans any chatter, a sense of eeriness had engulfed The Wanderers.
It was under these circumstances that Chadd Sayers made his Test debut. He had waited a long, long time to get there and it was only a last-moment injury to Mitchell Starc that pushed his foray into the national side. On other days, thee Test debutant would have been handed the Baggy Green amidst much hype and fanfare, and even though the events panned out like always – with Adam Voges handing over the cap – Sayers knew deep down that ideally, he would have liked the situation to have not been so grim.
But, he was not complaining. The warhorse in the Sheffield Shield, with 246 wickets in 60 games at a stunning average of 24.11 has been in the limelight as much for his almost-there Test debuts like he has been for his phenomenal performances in the domestic arena. In his second season as a 24-year-old, Sayers emerged with 48 wickets at an average of 18.52 and his ability to swing the ball late against the right-handers impressed one and all. He topped the Shield bowling charts that year and not surprisingly, Cricket Australia awarded him with the Neil Dansie Medal that is given to the South Australian player of the season.
With the 2013 Ashes upfront, Sayers could not have been blamed for expecting a call-up in the national side for the marquee event. However, the selectors did not go ahead with him and back then, Sayers considered it as an incentive to work harder and grab a spot in the next series that came. It was not until the 2016-17 season that he was back up and again in the reckoning, with 62 wickets for the Redbacks.
Though he was selected in the tour to New Zealand and came within touching distance of a debut in the series against South Africa and later against Pakistan the same year, patience soon started giving way to frustration, when he realised that Jackson Bird was the preferred bowler in the Australian scheme of things. After being overlooked for the ongoing tour to South Africa, in which Bird and Jhye Richardson were chosen to accompany the Mitchell Starc-Pat Cummins-Josh Hazlewood trio, Sayers finally lost his perseverance and lashed out at selection chairman Trevor Hohns.
What made it harder to digest was the fact that he had come close to realising his dream in the day-night Ashes Test at Adelaide which ended with another heartbreak as he was drafted out of the side in the latter half of the series. From a close Ashes call-up to being completely ignored for South Africa, Sayers never had it easy.
“Not being in the touring party and being dropped from the squad, I was involved in The Ashes, was also disappointing but not to have had a chance to find out why is hard to take. I’d like to know where I stand in Cricket Australia’s eyes and where I can get in their side. It’s quite hard to take at the moment.”
However, call it destiny but Bird’s injury ahead of the tour to the Rainbow Nation was what led the way to a call-up and the fact that Hohns soon dialled him up after a wicketless domestic game made the situation even more ironical. The hatchet was soon buried and even though he was realistic in his chances of participating in the playing eleven, the opportunity to learn for Vernon Philander kept him excited.
With the South African tracks aiding seamers, Sayers’ consistent and stump-to-stump bowling with movements through the air and off the pitch was always going to be an asset but his first few spells in international cricket left one wanting for more. Without any variations and with almost no short balls that greeted the batsmen, predictability reigned large and his slow medium pace hardly troubled the South Africans.
Instead of bowling wide of the crease or across the seam, Sayers looked flat and earned the wrath of Shane Warne and Graeme Smith in the commentary box. Though he bowled with the average speed as Philander has been bowling in the series – that of 127.5kmph – he received more swing and more seam than the Proteas bowler. However, Sayers had been bowling almost 30% wider to the right-handed batsmen which caused his ineffectiveness.
But he returned on Day 1 to send back AB de Villiers and Kagiso Rabada and for the 30-year-old, who had long been waiting in the curtains for his time in the spotlight, this could have just been it.