Essex & South Africa: a long connection


Essex and South Africa may be separated by well over 5,000 miles and have a sea, two entire continents, and the Equator between them, but through the cricketing histories of both, a strong relationship has developed.

Once Dean Elgar takes to the field for his Eagles debut in a little under three months’ time, no fewer than nine internationally-capped Proteas will have pulled on an Essex shirt since Lee Irvine became the first in 1968.

That will put the country in third place on the list of overseas nations to have supplied the most capped players to the Eagles, behind only Australia (14) and New Zealand (10).

In honour of Elgar’s arrival, this is a look back into history at some of Essex’s most storied South African signings.

Simon Harmer

Essex have had their fair share of instrumental overseas signings, from Keith Boyce to the Flower brothers with Allan Border and Mark Waugh mixed in for good measure.

However, the exploits of a right-arm off-spinner from Pretoria for the Eagles over the past seven seasons have perhaps surpassed even those legends of the world game.

Simon Harmer took 92 all-format wickets in his debut season in 2017, 74 of which were in the red-ball arena at an average of just 19.31, as his wizardry led the Eagles to their first County Championship title in 25 years.

He has hardly looked back since, and in 2019, he was again pivotal, picking up 107 scalps in all formats and hitting the winning runs as captain in the T20 final, as Essex completed an unprecedented Championship-Blast double.

The 34-year-old is tied down at Chelmsford for at least another two years, giving him ample opportunity to add even more wickets to the 569 he has already totalled in Essex colours.

Ken McEwan

Up to the point of Harmer making his ongoing charge to be called Essex’s best South African import, the title would likely have gone to bullish batter McEwan, who played for the club between 1974 and 1985.

Hailing from the small town of Bedford in the centre of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, 125 miles north of Gqeberha (formerly known as Port Elizabeth), he was coached by future England captain Tony Greig in his youth.

While never internationally capped, he remained an eye-catching player, and he made the most of being able to represent Essex continuously for over a decade, totalling 556 appearances.

Having struck 26,439 runs, which included 65 centuries, for Essex, McEwan opted to return to his homeland and called time on his stint with the club after turning 33, but not before giving the Chelmsford faithful a parting gift.

In his last outing, at home to Yorkshire in September 1985, he top-scored with 62 to help seal a dramatic two-wicket win and see Essex to their second consecutive Sunday League trophy.

Hashim Amla

Instantly recognisable from his flowing beard, Hashim Amla retired from all formats 12 months ago after a 23-year career that saw him establish himself as one of his country’s greatest-ever batters.

Calm and composed at the crease and praised for his range of shots paired with impressive focus, he holds the highest individual Test score by a South African after amassing 311 against England at the Oval in 2012.

It was three years prior, however, that the then-26-year-old Amla spent a short stint at Essex in July 2009, playing three County Championship and two Pro40 matches and averaging an enormous 90.50 across both formats.

His debut came at home to Glamorgan in the former competition, and he made an instant impact with a monstrous 181 in the second innings, underlining his concentration as his innings lasted almost seven hours.

The Durban-born batter went on to ton up twice more in his other four matches, notching a Nelson of 111 against Sussex in his 40-over debut, before signing off with another Championship century of 118 against Leicestershire.

Dale Steyn

While not many people would question Amla’s standing as one of South Africa’s greatest batters, perhaps even fewer would dare to argue against the fearsome Dale Steyn being worthy of the same status with the ball.

Born in the town of Phalaborwa in Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost province, his express pace terrorised batters worldwide during his peak, during which he spent five years as the world’s number one-ranked bowler.

Like Amla, it was just before he hit that peak that Steyn signed for Essex, doing so for six weeks in 2005 – five months after his Test debut – during which he played in six Championship and three List A games.

His Essex bow, which came in the Championship at home to Leicestershire, brought the then-21-year-old three wickets, with two of his first scalps in English cricket being compatriots Hylton Ackerman and Claude Henderson.

Steyn would go on to pick up a total of 18 wickets across the nine games he played, before ending his stint with a swashbuckling 82 with the bat as a nightwatchman in his final game against Durham.

André Nel

Cut from a similarly competitive cloth to Steyn, fast bowler André Nel became renowned for his full-throated approach on the field, a trait he brought with him throughout his three separate stints at Chelmsford.

Anyone capable of dismissing Brian Lara once would deserve recognition, so the fact that Nel managed it eight times in Test cricket brought attention, and he signed for his first Essex spell at the peak of his powers, aged 28.

Hailing from Germiston, a city on the eastern outskirts of Johannesburg, Nel’s life in Essex could hardly have got off to a better start as he took a wicket with his very first ball, bowling Somerset opener Matt Wood in Colchester.

He again removed Wood, for a pair, in the visitors’ second innings, and went on to pick up six wickets during his first short spell, returning for a much longer period of time in 2007 and then again in 2008.

In all, Nel claimed 35 all-format wickets for the Eagles, and following his retirement as a player, he returned to Chelmsford as Assistant Head Coach and Bowling Coach for three years between 2019 and 2021.