At the moment, one would be hard-pressed to find a better Test bowling line-up in the world than South Africa. If there is a down side, however, it means that any slip-up comes under much greater scrutiny. By ANT SIMS.
When South Africa toured to England in 2012, there was a fair amount of debate about which side had the better bowling attack. Of course, the English experts initially believed it was the English who held the upper hand. That tune changed after the first Test when, despite a slightly slow start to the first Test, the Proteas pace attack came back and fired on all cylinders.
At the end of that tour, some loyal stragglers still insisted England was the better bowling unit. But now, anyone who has watched the Proteas’ pace aces over the last months would surely have been converted.
Forget their tendency to dismiss sides for sub 50, or the fact that they managed to dismiss opponents for less than 50 three times in two seasons – the first time since 1889 that any team has managed it. Forget that Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel make their bowling look so effortless or that, even if a bowler has a bad start, he can bounce back and slot right into an already fierce line-up. Forget that South Africa has the luxury of Jacques Kallis and doesn’t really have a front-line spinner.
These are all impressive elements on their own, but add to that the fact that South Africa’s current crop of bowlers seem to have the surgical precision and the composed aggression many sides can only dream of, and you can only conclude that South Africa has landed bum-first in the butter.
The talent was evident again over the last weekend, when a Steyn-inspired burst saw Pakistan tumble to 49 all out in their first innings, while the spearhead finished with figures of 8.1-6-8-6. There is a special kind of rhythm amongst the bowlers: if Steyn is having a bad day, Philander is there to back him up and vice versa. If they’re both struggling a bit, Morkel or Kallis can step in and help the recovery.
So refined was the bowling on Friday that the Proteas managed 47 consecutive dot balls between them in the first innings. After such a docile start, Pakistan coach Dav Whatmore echoed some of the sentiments of New Zealand when they were dismantled in similar fashion, bowled out for 45 last month.
Whatmore said he had never seen such ferocity from fast bowlers before. He perhaps wasn’t watching Philander against New Zealand a few weeks back, but it nonetheless is high praise for the South African attack.
“Most of our batsmen got out to terrific balls,” said Whatmore. “I’m very disappointed with the result, but you really need to give credit to the opposition. It wasn’t an easy wicket by any means, but the way they bowled was incredible.”
In that attack, Steyn is the one who stands out. He reached 300 Test wickets against New Zealand, becoming the third-fastest bowler to do so in Test cricket. And out of the players with 300 or more Test scalps, Steyn’s strike rate is best at a wicket every 41 balls.
He apparently has the ability to let the ball do whatever he wants, no matter what conditions he finds himself in, and despite his ferocious on-field antics, he is never one to grab the glory. He’ll always give his fellow bowlers credit, and it was no different this time around.
“When it is coming out nicely, then speed becomes less important because you just let the ball do the work. A couple of years ago I was conscious of strike rates and always wanted to take wickets to lead the attack. This attack is led by everyone,” said Steyn.
“Morne Morkel has opened the bowling on a number of occasions, and Vernon has stepped in… Jacques Kallis is a legend in his own right and we have had some good spinners. We are enjoying our cricket and that helps you to be successful. As long as the team is winning, that is the most important thing.”
He’s right, of course. Stand-out performances can inspire a side to something quite spectacular, but every single player needs to pull his weight, and amongst the Proteas at the moment, everybody generally does.
The downside to it all, of course – if you can be so heartless to find a downside – is that the expectations set by such spectacular thrashings can be quite high, and if the bowlers slip just a little, the backlash will be fierce.
They didn’t quite slip up on Sunday, but Philander did get a wicket off a no ball, granting Asad Shafiq a second life. It was his first no ball in over 250 deliveries, and while most of those balls would have been peaches, South Africa’s bowling attack will never be allowed to escape scrutiny or criticism even if their faults are minor.
That’s why it’s important to remember that greatness should not be measured by what a team or an individual has accomplished, but rather by the opposition they’ve had to overcome to reach their goals.
From where they sit now, the opposition in Shafiq, Misbah-ul-Haq and the looming bad weather combine to pose a stiff challenge, but for a team so great, it should be just another stepping stone as they continue their rise and rise to becoming one of the most memorable sides in history. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Dale Steyn celebrates after taking the wicket of Pakistan’s Mohammad Hafeez during the second day of their first test cricket match in Johannesburg, February 2, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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