Steyn record lights up bowlers' day out
South Africa 127 for 5 (Bavuma 38*, Steyn 13*, Amir 2-26) trail Pakistan181 (Babar 71, Olivier 6-37, Rabada 3-59) by 54 runs
The Boxing Day Test match moved rapidly forward on a frenetic first day in Centurion, South Africa and Pakistan's seam attacks trading blows on a surface that offered encouragement for the quicks. After the early celebrations for Dale Steyn's ascent to the top of South Africa's Test bowling records, Duanne Olivier starred with a career-best 6 for 37 and Babar Azam's fluent 71 in his first innings on South African soil was the only innings of substance as the visitors folded for 181.
Whatever advantage South Africa had gained with the ball was swiftly put in perspective when Pakistan's bowlers cut a swathe through the top order. A 69-run stand between Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma repaired the innings somewhat, but a deficit of 54 remained when stumps were called with the match in the balance.
The hype on Wednesday morning had been focused around Steyn's attempt at surpassing Shaun Pollock's 421 Test dismissals - one that has been drawn out over the past year as Steyn fought his way back to full fitness. But once the game was under way, the wait wasn't long and with his 19th delivery Steyn found the outside edge of Fakhar Zaman's bat to move to 422 and break a record that has stood for a decade.
Steyn's emotion at the milestone was clearly evident. There were no crazy eyes, and no chainsaw celebration, but he was embraced by his team-mates and raised aloft by Kagiso Rabada as Tina Turner's Simply The Best was belted out over the ground's PA system. As he had promised, Steyn didn't waste too much time settling and getting back to his mark to focus on taking the next wicket. He didn't get another, but Olivier's efforts rattled Pakistan thereafter.
Olivier came on as the change bowler after the first hour and soon struck in consecutive overs to start Pakistan's wobble. His first dismissal was fortuitous, the ball ricocheting off Shan Masood's thigh pad and then glove and onto the stumps, but there was nothing lucky about the in-dipper that trapped Asad Shafiq in front of his stumps in Olivier's next over.
After lunch, Olivier dug one in at Azhar Ali to force a skewed edge that de Bruyn snaffled brilliantly, diving to his right from third slip, and half the visiting line-up was back in the change-room with just 86 on the board. Sarfraz Ahmed could not last the first over he faced, poking tentatively at a back-of-a-length delivery from Olivier to send an inside edge onto his stumps, and Mohammad Amir was given a thorough working-over before Olivier slipped a full one through his defences to collect his fifth.
Olivier's speeds matched those of his illustrious team-mates throughout: he operated consistently in the 140s and bowled as fast as 146kph as he vexed the tail, Amir being struck a stinging blow that immediately brought up a purple bruise on the little finger of his right hand before he had his stumps disturbed.
Pakistan were seven down before reaching 100 yet on the board when Amir fell, but vitally Babar was still at the crease and he rose to the situation to shepherd what remained of the tail. Babar was the only visiting batsman to play the pull with any authority, and also took Steyn on in thrilling fashion in the afternoon.
Babar's riposte to Steyn's return to the attack for a third spell in the 39th over was a flurry of attacking strokes that mixed venomous intent with a silken touch. Babar generally kept the ball along the turf with controlled aggression, but there was remarkable freedom in his strokeplay as he spanked Steyn out of the attack with 10 fours in four overs.
Invigorated by the battle with an increasingly wide-eyed Steyn, Babar raced to a 58-ball fifty, surviving a desperate review for caught behind when the ball had only flicked his trouser pocket. After Steyn had been removed from the attack, it was Rabada who finally got the better of Babar, a rare poor shot resulting in an edge to Faf du Plessis at first slip. Hasan Ali swung gamely for his 21 not out, but Shaheen Afridi feathered an edge to give Olivier his sixth wicket and bring the innings to an end.
At that point, it was advantage South Africa, but a touch of variable bounce as early as the second session would not have escaped the attention of Pakistan's bowlers and Hasan and Amir bristled in their new-ball spells. Hasan nipped one off the seam to trap Aiden Markram in front in the sixth over after tea, but it was the combination of Amir and Afridi that pressed the game forward.
Amir's return for a second burst brought immediate reward, the ball flying off the leading edge of Hashim Amla's bat to be caught by Babar at gully. Afridi then found the edge of Dean Elgar's bat even as he tried to shoulder arms, and with his very next delivery got one to spit off a length, taking the shoulder of du Plessis' bat as the South African captain fell for a golden duck.
South Africa were in serious strife at 43 for 4, and Bavuma and de Bruyn had to contend with a cauldron of pressure in the middle. They responded in fine style, gritting out the early exchanges before the runs started to come and the pressure eased. Their concentration was unfazed by a short stoppage for a passing shower, and de Bruyn greeted Yasir Shah's introduction with a pull for six when the legspinner dropped short.
Bavuma added back-to-back fours of his own off Yasir, the second of which brought up the fifty stand, and then shimmied down the track, slapping a drive through cover to bring up the team's 100. Yasir leaked 24 from his first four overs, and Sarfraz once again turned to Amir in fading afternoon light.
He broke through once again almost straightaway, catching de Bruyn in two minds at the crease to find the edge, and parity was restored once more with South Africa's innings in the balance at 112 for 5. The focus returned to Steyn, now with bat in hand after being shunted ahead of Quinton de Kock as nightwatchman. He sliced two streaky boundaries, but survived to fight another day alongside Bavuma, who was unbeaten on 38.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town