Sport

The Proteas’ pretty view from the top

By Ant Sims 7 January 2013

South Africa couldn’t have started its cricketing year any better. Wrapping up a Test before tea on day three at Newlands was another seismic wave – and the team seems like juggernaut cruising over the world cricket stage with supreme disdain for anybody in its way. By ANT SIMS.

It must be nice to be able to dictate the terms of battle wherever you go. Despite conditions and various other factors not going your way, still being able to set the tone for what is going to happen.  Whether it’s expected because your opposition is weak or whether it’s simply because you’re that good, it doesn’t matter – the results are the same. 

Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander are becoming quite accustomed to being on the winning side. Philander has tasted defeat just once since entering the Test arena, and Steyn has been on the losing side just 15 times in his 61 Test matches. That’s a pretty impressive record. 

The pair are mischievous pace musketeers, tormenting batsmen across the world with Morne Morkel as their deputy, and it was no different in the first Test against New Zealand this past week.

The two were in high spirits as they strolled into the post-match press conference on Friday, and no wonder – having wrapped up a Test victory by an innings and 27 runs before tea on day three is something rather special. When Steyn was asked just how special it was to be part of the best new ball attack in the world, his blue eyes glistened and he smirked. 

“It’s awesome. A couple of years ago I always wanted to take wickets because of taking wickets at a certain strike rate and leading the attack. But this attack is led by everyone. Morne Morkel has opened the bowling, Vernon has come in and [stepped] up to the plate as if he’s been doing it all of the time. Jacques Kallis is a legend in his own right. This is an incredible team to part of at the moment and on top of my own game, I’m just happy to be amongst some serious cricketers,” Steyn said. 

Philander was equally pleased with the way the team was progressing and the way the players backed each other up.

“It’s a special attack; it’s a special place to be. Each guy knows his role. Some days Dale attacks and I play the holding role and vice versa. I think we understand each other well and we operate well together,” said Philander.

Steyn’s bowling was superb at Newlands. Relentless aggression left New Zealand’s lower order with no answers. It was poetry in motion. A fired-up Steyn who can bang in almost every delivery so perfectly makes for one of the best sights in Test cricket. Every first ball of Steyn’s spell at Newlands seemed to be perfect. Or seamed perfect, if you’re into puns.

When asked why his bowling was so much shorter in the second innings than in the first, Steyn joked that he was probably getting a bit grumpy. But if that’s what grumpy looks like, he should get grumpy more often. 

“New Zealand played much better in the second innings. The pitch had flattened out and they left the ball well, so we needed to create something. They weren’t playing the short ball very well so we knew that would help us,” said Steyn.

South Africa looked just a little bit like they had taken their foot off the gas in the second innings. Three dropped catches in three consecutive overs – two of them Dean Brownlie who went on to score a hundred – and Steyn admits that to an extent they were resting on their laurels, like they kind of expected things to happen.

But that’s a problem they have had before, and yet they have gone from strength to strength. Those tricky moments, those testing moments where they’ve had to go back to the drawing board and go to plan B or C make up one of the reasons they have climbed to the top of the Test rankings.

In Philander, South Africa has found a wizard of subtlety. His destruction is so venomous because he possesses no visceral scream, no air-splitting fist pump, no ferocious pace. Philander is just incredibly accurate, disciplined. A colonel of commanding swing; you never know which way it’ll go.

Philander can throttle the opposition from the get-go, keep his foot on their throats and still get them to agree to a dinner date while they are coughing and spluttering on the floor. His inclusion into the South African squad just over a year ago raised some eyebrows, but since his debut, he’s been stellar.

“I’ve had to go back and do it the hard way. I had to go back to square one and play some hard First Class cricket. I owe it to myself to go out there and perform well,” Philander said.

He proved it again against New Zealand when he dismantled the top order, taking five wickets for seven runs. Read that again. Five wickets. Seven runs. That New Zealand was embarrassed and skittled out for 45 is almost irrelevant in the face of such unforgiving destruction. 

Black Caps’ captain Brendon McCullum called it “one of the best spells of bowling [he had] ever seen”.  And McCullum has seen a lot of bowling – 71 Test matches of bowling, to be exact. 

The Ravensmead Wrecker has a certain swagger about him, a captivating presence which some might confuse for arrogance. When he and his partner-in-chief were asked about the chatter on the field, and what was said to the New Zealand, batsmen he nonchalantly responded: “You don’t have to say much if they’re 45 all out.”

He’s right, of course. South Africa plays the game by its rules now, and over the last year the players have built a formidable Test team. While there have been a few weak links here and there, they have seemingly found the magic formula. A formula which has taken them to the top of the world; and from where they sit, everybody must seem so very small. All in all, it must be a rather nice view. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Jacques Kallis holds the ICC mace on a lap of honour after South Africa defeated England in the third cricket test match at Lord’s in London August 20, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown

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