February 26, 2014

Steyn's spell from hell

No other bowler in the world today could have won the match in Port Elizabeth so suddenly and with such effect

Dale Steyn: unleashing fury in moments of desperation © Associated Press

"Think I'd rather face a starving lion while dressed as a lightly barbecued zebra thigh than Dale Steyn when it's reversing." - tweet from @pavilionopinion

Those mad eyes and them fists pumping; that skin stretched tight across a crazed face and those veins bursting from their forearms; that mighty bear hug from an ecstatic and emotional captain all told Australia one thing: Dale Steyn and Graeme Smith will ensure that South Africa do not lie down to die.

There was nothing in the St George's Park pitch, nothing. It was a pitch so dead that the air appeared to have been sucked from the ball. Exceptional cricket was required to transcend the damn thing, cricket glimpsed here and there through the mist of time and only ever in the Test match arena where the human drama is a greater spectacle than six hits and steepling catches. If the cabal who now want to run the game cannot see that the single-most important commodity in cricket's list of tradeable assets is the Test match game, they will, in time, bring it to its knees.

No other bowler in the world today could have won the match in Port Elizabeth so suddenly and with such effect. Mitchell Johnson's ineffectiveness is proof of that. In the first innings there was something of Curtly Ambrose in Morne Morkel's pinpoint brutality but Morkel is unable to sustain his performance and remains vulnerable to counter-attack in a way that Ambose never was. In Steyn there is something of Malcolm Marshall, not least in the fury that is unleashed in moments of desperation. There are aesthetic similarities - that sprint to the wicket and the fast arm that releases the ball from a perfect wrist position - along with the ability to swing the ball at an alarming pace but it is the desire that stands out. Winning is everything.

You sense that in Smith too. It is a common theme among champions. For a week after the heavy defeat at Centurion, Smith had to field questions about his team's humiliation - for that is what it was. Proud, strong men hate that. They hate the idea of weakness, whether mental or physical, and in this case it was both. His own feathers had been ruffled by an inglorious first-innings dismissal before a freak catch in the second that told him the gods had switched their allegiance. Questions, questions, and off-tape answers. All the while, the South African captain was working out a way to win back the gods.

Even Marshall could not use an old ball with such venom and effect. Of modern practioners, only Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis could bring such chaos and collapse

It seemed he had failed, such were the frustrations as the match progressed. It was as if the circle of life must move on. His two cheap dismissals, numerous dropped catches by those around him, absurd DRS mistakes and elusive form from the joker in his pack. On top of all this was a family injury that kept him awake through the whole first night of the match. Only adrenalin and desire kept him going as that kind and gentle face masked the driven mind of the man within.

When JP Duminy trapped David Warner in front of leg stump, the match changed for Smith. A decision went his way at last with an unlikely wicket-taker claiming a rampant opponent. The ball was softening and scuffing; the two batsmen at the wicket - Chris Rogers and Alex Doolan - could be controlled; his joker was champing at the bit. First Smith held the game up, drying the run flow, agitating the Australian dressing room who sensed the change of emphasis. Then, on the back of the wickets of Doolan and Shaun Marsh, he unleashed hell.

Even Marshall could not use an old ball with such venom and effect. Of modern practioners, only Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis could bring such chaos and collapse. At 145kph, the ball travels some two thirds of its journey to the batsman before darting in or out like a tracking missile in search of its target. The one that angles in is the hardest to play. If you miss it, it hits you, or destroys the stumps behind you. Ask Steve Smith and Brad Haddin, two in-form Australians. When it swerves away your hands and bat instinctively go with it, a kind of knee-jerk to the suddenness of the movement, and if you catch it, invariably it is only with a small part of the blade. Ask Michael Clarke.

In that burst of 3 for 11, Steyn won the match. In total nine wickets fell for 62, which is next to nothing in the context of the match. Of these, Steyn captured four and, through the principle of cause and effect, instigated most of the others. The ghosts of Wasim and Waqar chuckled their approval around St George's Park. With the joy of swing, Steyn now did to Australia what Johnson had done to South Africa with sheer speed. Whoosh, gone, game over. High quality and truly fast bowling is cricket's holy grail.

Steyn's place in the pantheon is already assured. Performances such as these simply confirm a gift given to very few - the gift of match-winning. Comparisons are misleading, particularly over time, but references to what has gone before are relevant in judging what we are seeing now. Dale Steyn is up there with anyone. Meanwhile, his captain is tough as teak. To Cape Town now for a splendid climax. Long live the fast bowler.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK