The four horsemen of the apocalypse
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.
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 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.
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.
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.