Paced to perfection from Steyn
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"He maintained mastery of orthodox outswing and inswing from a neutral position without telegraphing his intent. He was lithe, with a wickedly fast arm that elevated him to express status. Only in inches was he lacking - but he even turned that to his advantage with a bouncer as malicious as they come, skidding on to the batsman." Mike Selvey could have been writing about Dale Steyn, and not Malcolm Denzil Marshall, who took his final Test wicket, Graham Gooch, when the boy from Phalaborwa was all of eight years old.
Pound for pound, Marshall was probably the greatest fast bowler of all time. Doubters need only look at the tour of India in 1983, when his 33 wickets at 18.81 came against a batting core - Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri and Kapil Dev - that finished with 81 centuries between them. Steyn is no facsimile of the Bajan titan. His action is far more classical and side-on, where Marshall was more open-chested. But like his predecessor, Steyn can bowl furiously quick, and hoop the ball both ways. When he nips it back off the seam as well, he's nigh on unplayable.
The masterclass in Nagpur had everything, conventional swing with the new ball that got him the wickets of Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar and a blistering reverse-swing whirlwind after tea that saw India lose their last six wickets for 12. Steyn's figures for that passage of play were 3.4-2-3-5. At the WACA in its pace-and-bounce heyday, it would have been eye-catching. On a relatively placid Nagpur pitch, it was mindboggling.
Ignore Virender Sehwag, a batting iconoclast. The other Indian batsmen faced 62 balls from Steyn, scoring 17 runs. That would suggest that he frustrated the opposition out. Far from it. Each man was worked out in a certain way. Vijay had already been troubled enough by the outswinger when Steyn summoned up the sort of incoming delivery that had detonated the stumps of Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell in the recent home series. Tendulkar had driven an outswinger for four in his previous over, but one pitched slightly shorter and a couple of inches closer to middle stump suckered him into another drive that only found the edge. It was straight out of said-the-spider-to-the-fly.
Even as he finished with 7 for 51, Steyn spoke with special fondness of the Tendulkar dismissal. "That one, and Vijay just before him," he said almost bashfully. "I worked him [Vijay] out quite nicely with two balls that went away and then bringing one back in which he left. That kind of stuff just doesn't happen out in the middle. We've really planned it.
"As a quick bowler, you know that if you pitch the ball up, you'll get driven," he said of the trap set for Tendulkar. "But when you pitch it up, you have a chance of finding the edge of the bat. I didn't mind being hit for four down the ground or being nicked through the slips. 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."
Circumstances too played a part with the ball splitting open after 55 overs, by which time India had progressed to 212 for 4. Paul Harris and JP Duminy bowled a couple of overs with the replacement before tea, and then the fun commenced. "Corrie [van Zyl] sat us down at tea and said that the session after lunch wasn't good enough," said Steyn. "We didn't get the wickets that we wanted. We had the ball changed and once it started to reverse and we got one or two lucky dismissals, it just started a roll."
He certainly isn't the first South African quick to wreak havoc in Indian conditions. Even though he never delivered the sort of headline spell that Steyn managed on Monday, the great Allan Donald took 17 wickets at a paltry 16.11 in his four Tests in India. Lance Klusener once took eight in an innings at the Eden Gardens, but Steyn hadn't asked for notes from either before embarking on this latest Indian adventure. "To be honest, I haven't spoken to anyone like Allan," he said. "But one thing that does happen in our side is that information gets passed on. When those guys leave, they pass it on to the remaining guys. Information on these wickets and how to bowl in these conditions will remain in our team. It's up to the players in the side to actually go out there and execute the plans."
The biggest part of that plan was reverse swing, something that Steyn had stressed even in the build-up to the series. "You're not going to get a lot of sideways movement off the wicket because there's not a lot of grass on them," he said with a smile. "You've got to rely on getting the ball to do something through the air. I said before that a ball bowled at 145k, whether it's in Jo'burg or Nagpur, is still 145ks in the air. The plan was to hit the deck hard, with pace."
India's extra-long tail was especially clueless against the kind of reverse swing that Waqar Younis once perfected. But just as lethal were the inswingers he bowled with the hard new ball. "It's something I've been working a lot with in the nets," he said. "I don't want to reveal all my secrets. You work on these things and then it's nice to see guys shoulder arms and then the ball cannons into the stumps. I got Bell like that in Johannesburg and that was where it started from. It's a skill that you have to have in your armoury as a pace bowler."
Sehwag took 34 off the 38 balls he faced from Steyn in the first innings, but was altogether more shaky the second time. When he flailed one to slip, South Africa's job of going one-up in the series was nearly half done. Emboldened by Steyn's post-tea burst, Graeme Smith hadn't gone the safety-first route and batted again. "Some of the guys wanted to know if we should go out and bat again and really take the game away from India," said Steyn. "Or whether the bowlers had enough energy to come out there and bowl for another 25 overs. It was a quick chat and it worked out quite nicely. We wanted to pick up two to three wickets and we were able to get two."
Five years ago, Jason Gillespie produced one of the finest fast-bowling performances (9 for 80) seen on Indian soil as Australia romped to a 342-run victory at the old stadium across town. That though was a rather more helpful surface, with tufts of grass seldom seen on the subcontinent. Without that assistance, Steyn did what Marshall had done so memorably at Kanpur in the opening Test of that '83 series, blitzing the batsmen with subtle movement at high pace. Steyn is hardly an imposing physical specimen, and it was an Indian bowler that Sunil Gavaskar recalled when asked about Marshall Law at Green Park. "He actually bowls more like Kapil, especially that outswinger. But he's about 10k quicker."
On largely lifeless pitches, that extra hustle makes all the difference. Unless Tendulkar produces the kind of once-in-a-lifetime innings that VVS Laxman played in the Garden of Eden, India will be out of chips and on the street long before this match enters a fifth day.