February 11, 2013

The four horsemen of the apocalypse

The fast bowlers who form South Africa's attack are all right-armers, but each poses a different challenge to the batsman

Even though they must mean something, the ICC rankings have often failed to represent the real footing of a team. England, for instance, are ranked No. 2 in ODIs in spite of not having won a one-day series in India since 1984; India got to No. 1 in Tests having mostly played in subcontinental conditions.

But the current No. 1 in Tests, South Africa, are just as dominant on the field as they are on paper. They have an impeccable home record and an enviable away record.

Good Test teams can be built around batsmen who will score runs in heaps to give their bowlers a chance, but great ones are built around quality bowlers, because winning a Test match demands taking 20 wickets.

The current South African bowling attack ticks all the boxes, except the one that calls for a quality spinner, a factor that might hurt them when they tour the subcontinent next.

Their pace attack itself is far from one-dimensional. Each of their four fast bowlers is radically different from the other three, and poses different challenges for the batsman.

Dale Steyn
He runs in fast and bowls even faster, but that's not what worries a top-order batsman facing Steyn. If he was just bowling fast, it would be a lot easier to handle him than it actually is. The likes of Shaun Tait, Tino Best and Nantie Hayward also generated similar speeds but were not half as effective. As a batsman, once you get the hang of the pace, you start moving a little early to get into the right positions before the ball reaches you. You also lower your backlift or start its downswing a little early. It's not that pace won't rattle you or won't get you out every now and then, but it won't be as lethal as when it is accompanied by swing. A genuinely quick bowler who can also swing the ball prodigiously is rare, and that's why Steyn is so successful.

A little secret about his modus operandi is that he drops his pace by about 10-15% when the ball is new, because, for the most part, a bowler can control the swing with the new ball only when he's bowling at about 85% of his top speed. If he bowls faster, he will either compromise on swing or lose some control over his line and length. Over the years, Steyn has mastered the art of lowering his pace just a tad to swing batsmen out.

But he also knows when to step it up - a trick many bowlers tend to forget in the pursuit of accuracy, or because they are reluctant to push the envelope again. The moment the Kookaburra gets old and stops swinging, Steyn steps up the pace, and he doesn't hesitate to bowl a barrage of bouncers to push the batsman back before slipping in a full one much quicker.

When facing Philander, the batsman is never sure about which deliveries to play and which to leave, and while the length drags him forward, it's never full enough to drive

Morne Morkel
When batting against Steyn's swing, the most common mistake a batsman makes is to play down the wrong line, but with Morkel the tough bit is gauging the length. His towering height and very high arm action make the batsman uncertain of the length Morkel is bowling, because the moment the batsman has to look up - at a slightly higher than normal eye level - he begins to think everything is pitched short.

Morkel also generates disconcerting bounce on most surfaces, which compounds the batsman's problems. Even if the batsman convinces himself to go forward, because of the steep bounce the ball will hit high on the bat, if not the gloves. And if the batsman is rooted to the crease or is deep inside it, the full balls will likely find the outside edge. And Morkel is smart enough to bowl a fair sprinkling of full deliveries.

If handling the bounce isn't tough enough, Morkel also gets lateral movement off the surface. Since he's a hit-the-deck-hard bowler, he's always able to extract a bit more off the surface, especially once the ball gets old.

Playing Steyn and Morkel in tandem makes a batsman's job a lot tougher, for the challenges thrown from either end are radically different from each other.

Vernon Philander
Given a choice, most batsmen would prefer to play Philander instead of Steyn or Morkel. But looks can be deceptive. Philander's masterful control over his line (always around the fourth or fifth stump) and length (always bringing the batsman forward) makes him an outstanding bowler. The batsman is never sure about which deliveries to play and which to leave, and while the length drags him forward, it's never full enough to drive.

Philander also has the rare ability to move the ball off the surface, but not by means of conventional offcutters or legcutters. When he bowls, the seam is not scrambled, even after pitching. For a batsman it's a nightmare, because no matter how much you've got the movement covered, the ball still beats the bat, for it just keeps moving.

Jacques Kallis
Kallis, the release bowler for Steyn, Morkel and Philander, is as wily an allrounder as you will ever get. While he has lost a bit of pace, he has got smarter in the bargain. He doesn't try to routinely bounce batsmen out anymore (to compensate for his relative lack of pace he would have to dig it in a lot shorter), but he hasn't ruled out the delivery completely either: he knows that even if it's easier to pick, it still needs some skill to play well. The bouncer also helps make his full-length deliveries more effective. It's always better if the batsman is a little wary of taking a long stride down the pitch.

Kallis has also mastered the art of operating at 75% without becoming ineffective. We generally tend to acknowledge changes of pace only when the difference is stark (a spinner bowling an arm ball or a fast bowler bowling a slower one), but little do we realise that subtle changes of pace by a fast bowler are equally effective, if not more.

All these four bowlers belong to the same genre - right-arm fast/medium - but challenge the batsman differently. Steyn troubles with swing and pace; Morkel with bounce and pace; Philander messes with the batsman's judgement of lines and length, and Kallis, in the guise of a release bowler, gets him to drop his guard before slipping in the 100% ball.

South Africa already have a quality batting line-up in Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith, Kallis and AB de Villiers. If they find a top-quality spinner, they will be pretty close to being considered one of the best Test teams of all time.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Casper on February 14, 2013, 5:43 GMT

    "Dale Steyn to me…he is a terrific bowler, the best bowler in the world, he would be a top-class bowler in any era, " Coming from Geoffrey Boycott I think nothing more need to be said

  • Subramani on February 14, 2013, 4:57 GMT

    While the South African attack is one of the greatest I would think the West Indian attack under Clive Lloyd of Roberts,Holding,Marshall and Garner was better. They all had pace,accuracy,variations,and hostility like we have never seen before them or ever after them.They would devastate every team on all kinds of wickets. Tino best who devastated Bangladesh in Bangladesh recently is a poor cousin of those superhumans. The South African attack good as they are was not very incisive in the first two tests they played against Australia recently in Australia. They won the third Test very well though as they are normally known to do. But the point I wish to make is that the West Indian attack that I am referring to never suffered that lack of incisiveness. That is why I rate them truly special. In fact for sheer pace bowling skills I would put Malcolm Marshall a bit ahead of Dale Steyn. He was truly unmatched. Wasim Akram and Richard Hadlee are the others that I have the higest regard for.

  • greig on February 13, 2013, 16:14 GMT

    @Shan156 You right you cant compare this SA attack to the WI attack in the 80s. Because this SA attack is BETTER. More accurate, more relentless and they dont play their matches on uncovered pitches like they did in the 80's. Lets not forget how batsmen friendly pitches are these days to ensure the commercial viability of keeping people at a game for 5 days and T20 Cricket. Chuck in bat technology too.

    Dale Steyn and Philanders strike rates are better than any of those WI bowlers you mention. Dont get stuck in nostalgia and dont spend all your time looking in the history books because you are missing one of the greatest fast bowlers to bowl !!!!

  • Shanmugam on February 13, 2013, 1:01 GMT

    No way can this SA attack be compared to the WI attack of the 80s or even to the 90s when they had Ambrose, Walsh, and Bishop. Marshall, Holding, Roberts, Garner, Croft, Davis, whoa. That was one attack that gave opposition batsmen nightmares. While the current SA attack is good, with Steyn already establishing himself amongst the all-time greats, the rest are still unproven all around the world. While the WI 80s attack was, man-for-man, superior to the SA pacemen now, they also had a superior bench strength. SA fans can claim all they want now that their team is #1 but that doesn't change facts. WI of 80s >> SA now. In fact, so were the Aussies of the noughties.

  • Shanmugam on February 13, 2013, 0:56 GMT

    Philander hasn't played a single test in the sub-continent yet, has he now? How is he then considered one of the great bowlers? This is not to suggest that he won't return with great statistics in the SC but till he has done that, surely he cannot be considered a great?

  • Shanmugam on February 13, 2013, 0:54 GMT

    "England, for instance, are ranked No. 2 in ODIs in spite of not having won a one-day series in India since 1984"

    Severely flawed argument. Aus. were ranked #1 in tests before the 2004-2005 series in India despite not winning a test series in India since 1969-1970. Does it mean that their ranking was not valid? Who would have Aakash claimed as the #1 team then?

  • Aditya on February 13, 2013, 0:22 GMT

    Masterly article as usual by Akash - his timing with words is good as it was with his bat! With such beautifully balanced opinions about everything he ponders on, he is an absolute reader's delight. Ahem, the topic discussed upon, well - everyone knows these are the four aces in RSA's bowling line up and are finished products. However, what is even more frightening is the fact that they still have such talented bowlers of the caliber of McLaren, Tsotsobe, Kleinveldt, Morris, Theron, Parnell, Phangiso (spinner) pushing for spots in the playing eleven. This, in my humble opinion, does make RSA the strongest bowling side currently. Of course, no one can doubt the exceptional batting line up they possess. Since the Jonty days, fielding has been their forte. No wonder, they are ranked as high as they are!

  • Mike on February 12, 2013, 20:00 GMT

    South Africa deserve to be world number 1, they got virtually all their bases covered like any Cricket team should. They play as a team, enjoy playing the game and have hunger for success. They are also one of the few teams that play on sporting wickets which is one of the reasons they're on top while most of the other teams plays way too much T20 on flat wickets which won't get you many skills or experience.

  • Bored on February 12, 2013, 18:53 GMT

    @ Soso_killer- Hehe. Actually have to concede that to you. The world's no. 1 AND 2 sides are primarily South African. :-) But my point was with regards to the discussion in the earlier comments wrt the 'greatest of all time'. And since the Pace attack's being discussed here, I thought the point with regards to bench strength was valid. And as an extension to the bench strength in bowling, was the comment on the bench strength in batting. Hope Ive justified my reasoning there.