South Africa in England 2012 August 22, 2012

The cream of the crop

The contest between the attacks that was supposed to dictate the terms of the series never materialised because England's bowlers could not hold a candle to South Africa's

We would be forgiven for underestimating the importance of ice-cream in the emergence of South Africa as the world's top ranked Test team, but the sweet, snowy stuff does help to explain what we have seen unfold in England these past few weeks.

Like other aspects of a series that has pushed buttons in unexpected ways, we have social media to thank for this revelation.

It was close to midnight on Saturday when Dale Steyn tweeted: "Late night McFlurry ... check the chaos in here!" The message was accompanied by a photograph of Steyn looking bemused as he surveyed the lengthy queue he was surprised to encounter at that time of night in a McDonald's in London.

Steyn was not alone on his midnight mission, as was made plain in his next tweet posted a few minutes later: "2 McFlurries ... 1 for me and 1 for Morne Morkel."

In these few lines of admittedly unserious communication lurks the kernel of why the South African attack has been able to fix what was far from broken but which was in need of attention.

For one thing, Steyn was out and about at an hour when previous incarnations of South African fast bowlers would have been tucked up in bed dreaming about the next day's cricket. That he was in search of nothing more intoxicating than frozen confectionary is another point of departure from the past.

On midnights past, the denizens who dared to bowl fast for South Africa would spend a fair chunk of the dark hours searching out dangers of touring like drink and damsels. That Steyn and Morkel were not, and were happy to advertise the fact - significant in a team that has tended to confuse stereotypes with strengths - should not be taken lightly.

Nevermind that Steyn had succeeded in luring as contrasting a character as Morkel to share his calorific craziness. Steyn has a chronic sweet tooth. Only his superb fitness and conditioning allows him avoid the damage that the moleheaps of sugar he pumps into his body would otherwise cause.

Morkel is known to seek out the more wholesome options on restaurant and hotel menus, and his girlfriend is a dietician given to tweeting helpful hints to the health conscious. But there he was, giving in to the urge, moderately, that almost all of us feel for something we want to eat rather than need to eat.

At another level, Steyn is the evil comic genius of the South African team; a man who is entirely capable of pulling your leg and the trigger on an utterly serious notion at precisely the same time. Morkel is, without trying to be nasty, Forest Gump. For him, the world is a place of wickets and wonders.

And there they were, the genius joker and the genial giant, at midnight in a McDonald's during the most important match of their careers so far, being human.

South Africa's bowlers have been given a long overdue licence to be who they are, and that goes for when they are tearing in to the crease with nostrils flared as well as when they are not.

That, of course, holds true for all of their players. But bowlers, the engines of any team, tend to be the freer spirits in most teams. They are likely to benefit most from the South African team management's philosophy of treating the men under their authority like grownups: no curfews, no rules about alcohol, and no need for persona in lieu of personality.

So Vernon Philander, who is closer in the good ways to an old-fashioned fast bowler - complete with sneer, strut and snappy repartee, as in "stats don't lie" - is allowed to be exactly that: an old-fashioned fast bowler despite the fact that he is just 10 Tests into a career that will include many more.

At the other end of the scale, the untouchably great Jacques Kallis is less bothered by this tangle of intangibles than any other member of the South African squad.

Which could help explain where there has not as yet been a major difference in his bowling output in the 10 Tests South Africa have played since Gary Kirsten's appointment as coach last June.

In that time, Kallis has bowled 167.5 overs and taken 11 wickets. In the 10 Tests he played before Kirsten came on board, he sent down 171.1 overs and claimed 10 scalps. But there has been, since Kirsten set about asking his players to be who they are - not who they thought they should be - a discernible surge in Kallis' enthusiasm for bowling. He has hit speeds above 140kph more often, and his vigour for fetching from memory deliveries that will beat even the best batsmen appears renewed. If even the colossus of Kallis can be moved by what is happening in the South African team, what price a comparative mortal like Imran Tahir?

Much was made of his selection to the Test squad, and much has been made of his relative lack of success in his 10 Test matches. Tahir is not the average South African cricket aficionado's idea of a Test spinner - he tries to get batsmen out before he tries to stop them from scoring runs; he doesn't fuss too much about how many runs he gives away in the process, and he does it all with the kind of flair that would get people beaten up in plenty of Jo'burg bars.

But Tahir would seem to occupy a special place in the heart and mind of Graeme Smith. In the second Test at the Wanderers in November, with eight Australian wickets down and five required for victory, Smith made the breathtaking decision to thrust Tahir into the fray. And he came close to obliging, hitting Pat Cummins' pad an inch outside the line with a googly that satisfied all the other lbw requirements.

At Lord's on Monday, England were eight wickets down but careering towards what would have been an improbable triumph when Smith opted to give Tahir another over with the old ball even though the new nut was due. That prompted a hearty cheer from the crowd, who had delighted in Tahir being hammered for 35 runs in five overs.

But they were silenced while Rod Tucker, the third umpire, deliberated whether Matt Prior had grounded his heel behind the crease before AB de Villiers had broken the wicket with the fourth ball of that over. Not for the first time in the match, Tucker decided to go against the evidence and rule in England's favour.

So, given a mite more luck, pitches more conducive to spin and better umpiring, Tahir would not be seen as the weak link in the South African attack.

It is an attack that, curiously, does not harbour a designated holding bowler. They all attack: Steyn with pace and swing, Morkel with bounce, Philander with sniping seam movement, Kallis with blinding bolts of pace, sweeping swing, and booming bounce, and Tahir with tenacity and a devious googly.

But, in the same way that The Doors are among rock's greatest bands despite the absence from their line-up of a bass guitarist, South Africa don't seem to need someone to dry up the runs. Smith prefers to do so by spreading the field, and in any event taking wickets is the most effective way to keep the opposition's run-rate down.

However, they haven't always been riders on the storm. Steyn's patience in England - in the first match of the tour against Somerset in Taunton he showed no adverse reaction to swinging the ball past the bat with almost comical frequency - was not there in New Zealand in March, when he tetched under questioning about his relative lack of wickets.

Also in Middle Earth, Morkel was left alone to bowl himself back to confidence and by the time he arrived in England he fairly bristled with the stuff.

And now, welded into a unit of contrasting threats that is vastly different from the sameness of the South African attacks that used to rely on perseverance and discipline to take most of their wickets, they have conquered England.

The contest between the attacks that was supposed to dictate the terms of the series never materialised because England's bowlers could not hold a candle to South Africa's. Would any of England's fast bowlers be able to unseat their counterparts in the South African attack? Would any of South Africa's not be able to walk into the England line-up?

Does ice-cream melt in the freezer?

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa

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