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

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  • Harsh on January 7, 2011, 4:22 GMT

    One of the great spells of sustained fast bowling I have seen which brilliantly combine pace,,swing and seam in addition to control.Steyn reminded me of Holding and Lillee.With more luck,he may have ripped the heart of the Indian batting ,and with with abit of more luck would have captured te prize wicket of Tendulkar much earlier.

  • Rohan on January 6, 2011, 17:41 GMT

    Muhammad Faisal Khan Durrani send azhar ali , umar amin and adnan akmal to me fr batting tips, i play in my backyard everyday, i can bat better than them...

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2011, 20:54 GMT

    let steyn prove his abilities in asian wait for the world. after that we can call him the best bowler in the world. the more from steyn from other SA & indian bowlers is his accuracy, nothing more. Dont predict a fast bowler in swing pitches like one in australia and sa. we would love to see lasith mallinga in this pitch. but credit to indian bowlers too. now we see lots of bouncers from indian bowling attack. sure our bowling dept. is developing very much under zaheer. And is growth is fast. but one should not forget line and length. THE TRUE FIGHT IS TOMORROW. HOW INDIAN BATS MANS GOING TO FACE THE SA BOWLERS. CAN INDIA WIN? YES SURE INDIA WILL, IF SEWAG AND SACHIN CLICKED. the only 2 best bats mans technically qualified in this pitch are sachin & jaques kallis.

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2011, 19:58 GMT

    I dont know how old is this author, but he should go back and watch Imran vs India in 1982-83 series, when the ball was going bananas, so much so that Gandapa Vishwanath was bowled while leaving the ball, Vishwanath was a star unlike Pujara. Then he should also watch the two Ws over the years and will not say that he never saw it before. He just is creaating sensation and that's all, by saying he never saw this spell before. I think he did not even saw the two Balls Shoaib bowled to Stars like Dravid and Tendulkar back to back and got them castled. The difference is those spells would kill the batsmen instantly unlike this spell, and thats why it was a prolonged spell. But, as a Pakistani I grew up watching our bolwers doing this day in day out, so no surprise for us. Maybe for an Indian it is,

  • Subash on January 5, 2011, 19:36 GMT

    Take a bow Steyn. Great piece of fast bowling. Steyn is #1 fast in the world w/o a shadow of doubt. I hope Zaheer and Sreesanth can take a tip from the master. I have no question that Steyn will rip through the Indian order tomorrow to win the series for RSA. I am happy to see that our guys fought hard after the debacle in centurion. It never looked like India would take 20 wickets in a match, but they have done it twice. Great Test match and good luck to both the teams. I hope it doesn;t rain. go India

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2011, 18:51 GMT

    Danis Lillie,Garner,Holding,Wasim,Waqer,Walse,Mcgrath,Donald,steyn?? Steyn rocks. He may well go beyond everyone as murali and warne did in spin bowling.

  • Saurav on January 5, 2011, 18:38 GMT

    I love to see the bowling spell of Steyn and his art of taking wickets , even if its my home tean India is on the recieving end.......... Really Best fast bowler of last decade............................

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2011, 18:02 GMT

    This has been an awesome, simply awesome test !!

    Essentially only 2 sessions out of 12 so far have gone for one team - one for India (SRT/Harbhajan partnership) and one for SA (Kallis/Boucher partnership)

    All other sessions have been tightly contested - it has been tremendous to watch.

    Cricket at its best

  • Raghu on January 5, 2011, 17:58 GMT

    Donald, Akram, McGrath, ........ I would see Steyn in the list...

  • El on January 5, 2011, 17:44 GMT

    If one hasn't seen a spell like that in last 10 years its only because there aren't many great fast bowlers left. Wasim, Waqar, Ambrose used to do it on like a regular basis.

    Not that I blame Aakash, he barely played at the highest level and you rarely see spells like that at the local state level.

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