South Africa v India, 3rd Test, Cape Town January 5, 2011

A spell from hell

Dale Steyn's bowling was like a dream which made those watching feel it wasn't from the real game but on Play Station 4

One has seen Dale Steyn bowling in the mid-140s before, and effectively at that. One has also seen him swing the ball prodigiously in the air. But what we witnessed on Day 3 of the Newlands Test was inconceivable, phenomenal: it was that rare spell of fast bowling I'd never seen or faced hitherto, not even at the club level with those dodgy two-piece balls that swing a great deal. It was like a dream which, at one point of time when the broadcaster showed the replays of all the balls together, made those watching feel it wasn't from the real game but on Play Station 4. The ball was not just swinging, it was dancing to Dale's tunes.

I truly believe that playing the swinging ball is a lot about guesswork. There's no way to ascertain that the ball will swing X inches in the air and move X inches after pitching. Hence playing one efficiently involves an educated guess, based on the experience of playing the swinging ball over the years, about how to put out your bat at a specific place. As a batsman you follow certain time-tested theories to negotiate the swing - for instance, wait for the ball to come and play close to the body, try and play the second line, which effectively means relying on your judgment with regard to where the ball would finish when it reaches you, which may be a foot or two inside or outside the point of delivery.

Batsmen are always better off if they know where their off-stump is, for leaving the ball is as important as breathing is to stay alive. But when someone is in the middle of a spell like the one Steyn was, you can only pray and hope to be lucky, for luck will supersede method on these occasions. Take for instance the ball that dismissed Cheteshwar Pujara. It started from or even slightly outside the leg stump. Now you're taught all your life that if out-swingers go too far inside, the ball will follow its path instead of bending towards off. Just like you can easily leave the balls pitching way outside off-stump, even if the ball is coming in a long way, for the ball wouldn't come back beyond a point.

Going by the book, Pujara could have easily turned his bat hoping for the ball to follow its usual path, but this spell was unusual and required an extraordinary tactic. The ball wasn't following the rule but the orders of its operator. Pujara should have wiped out what he had learnt all these years and kept the bat straight while saying a little prayer to ensure that the ball hit the bat and not the pads and stumps. It's like convincing yourself that some day, when an apple falls from the tree, it will start flying instead of hitting the ground because gravitational force wouldn't work. It was a spell in which you'd struggle even if you were informed in advance of the amount of swing.

This one spell from Steyn has got to go down in history for its almost supernatural worth and shock value. While I have already conceded to not having played or watched such a spell, the closest would be Brett Lee's opening surge in the 4th Test match at Sydney in 2003-04, for he too was swinging the ball at great pace. But that was a Day 1 track with lots of moisture and the ball didn't challenge the rule as much as it did at Capetown. You could still flick the ball pitched on leg stump.

Such was the clout of Steyn that it took Sachin Tendulkar, with all his steely resolve and technical prowess, to keep him at bay. What a repeat show it promises to be on Day 5 between the best batsman and the best bowler.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here and his Twitter feed here