Reign of Steyn
Best Test Bowling PerformanceDale Steyn
7 for 51 v India, first Test, Nagpur
The revisionists and the ignorant have already had their say. It's possible to read accounts that refer to this game as one played on a bowler-friendly pitch. All we know is that South Africa batted first and scored 558, with Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis adding 340 for the third wicket. At one point, before the Steyn whirlwind wreaked its havoc, India were 212 for 4 in reply, with Virender Sehwag scoring yet another insouciant century.
Make no mistake, this was no WACA or Kingsmead. It was just another Indian pitch, with bowlers having to work incredibly hard for the slightest reward. Steyn's class with the new ball had been apparent in the dismissals of M Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar, but it was a four-over spell after tea on the third evening that made the old-timers reach for the Malcolm Marshall comparisons.
Largely as a result of the Sehwag assault, the ball had to be changed shortly before the interval, and when Steyn came on after tea, the replacement was like a boomerang in his hands. Missing Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman and with a tail as long as a macaque, India lost their last six wickets for just 12. Steyn took 5 for 3 from 3.4 overs.
Even before the series, he had spoken of how pace through the air would be decisive. On pitches where lateral movement is usually the stuff of dreams, it's reverse swing that can crack the safe for its skilled practitioners. Steyn consistently clocked in excess of 140kph and hit the pitch hard. To the tail, he bowled full, getting the ball to arc in to toes and stumps as Waqar Younis once had.
Like the late great Marshall, he isn't physically imposing. He likes a glare but it lacks the menace of an Andy Roberts or Joel Garner. What he does have is pace and exceptional ability to land the ball exactly where he wants to. Sunil Gavaskar, who had been at the receiving end of Marshall Law in Kanpur in 1983, said that Steyn reminded him more of one of his old colleagues. "He actually bowls more like Kapil, especially that outswinger," he said. "But he's about 10k quicker."
The Nagpur masterclass was about so much more than reverse swing, though. Sehwag, who loves to live dangerously, took 34 off the 38 deliveries Steyn bowled to him, but no other Indian batsman could find an answer to the combination of pace and movement. On a pitch that bore no gifts, Steyn moved his victims this way and that before landing the knockout punch.
Vijay had been clueless against the outswinger, fencing tentatively as one ball after another whizzed past the outside edge. The great bowlers, and Steyn is indubitably one, have more than one trick, and the delivery that sent Vijay packing was one that swung in wickedly. Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell had been left perplexed by similar balls on England's tour of South Africa in 2009-10, and Vijay exited the scene with the same bemused look on his face.
Steyn's next project was far more ambitious. Tendulkar was embarking on what was to be the most prolific year of his Test career, and a wonderful drive to an outswinger had suggested that all was well with his game. But in his next over Steyn offered the same bait, only this time closer to middle stump, and a touch shorter. Tendulkar's attempt at an encore only found the outside edge.
Like Glenn McGrath, Steyn doesn't shy away from talking about his methods. So good is he that it doesn't really matter if the batsmen know what to expect. "I worked Vijay out quite nicely with two balls that went away and then brought one back in which he left," he said. "That kind of stuff just doesn't happen out in the middle. We really planned it."
But for the Compleat Angler, there's no satisfaction like landing the big fish. "As a quick bowler, you know that if you pitch the ball up, you'll get driven," he said of the Tendulkar dismissal. "But when you pitch it up, you have a chance of finding the edge of the bat. If he's willing to drive, there's a chance I can get a wicket. That's the risk you take when you pitch up."
On a sunlit Nagpur afternoon, the payoff was 7 for 51, the inspiration for an emphatic innings victory. It might be another three decades before India sees a spell like that again.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo