New Zealand v South Africa, 3rd Test, Wellington, 4th day March 26, 2012

'This attack gives me freedom' - Philander

The way the South Africa attack went about their work and applied pressure aggressively, without any let up through the first two sessions on Monday in Wellington, was a measure of how tough Test cricket could be

There are very few accurate measures of how tough Test cricket really is. Sometimes it can be assessed by the man who prevails on a green top or a dust bowl, or the one who bends his back on a surface as flat as a highway. On Monday, a measure of it was the way the South Africa attack went about their work and applied pressure aggressively, without any let up through the first two sessions.

Comparisons have already started with 1970s' West Indies quartet of Croft, Garner, Holding and Marshall. They may be premature - after all South Africa's attack has played together in this format for a period that has not even totalled half a year - but they may also soon be proved true. The attack showed more than a glimpse of that kind of form at the Basin Reserve.

It reflects, to use one of Vernon Philander's favourite words, obviously, in the collapse they effected when New Zealand lost 6 for 56 in 15 overs. The damage they did before that, though, in rattling the top order and refusing to allow any of New Zealand's batsmen the chance to capitalise on a start, is probably more complimentary of their skill.

Dale Steyn bowled an opening spell that could only have come out of the hands of the world's top ranked Test bowler. He swung the ball at pace, beat the bat and found edges, although they did not go to hand. Morne Morkel backed him up with bounce from the other end. He roughed the batsmen up, twice appealing for catches off balls that came off uncomfortable areas - Daniel Flynn was the hip and Martin Guptill was close to the rib.

Morkel made sure the batsmen knew he would come at them and if he did, it would be painful. Eventually, he felled one when he hit Ross Taylor's on the forearm near the wrist. The New Zealand captain was in so much pain that he only managed to stay at the crease for one more ball and scans revealed that Taylor's forearm is now broken.

Just as New Zealand thought they could have a breather, the second wave came on. Flynn lasted only two balls before giving way to Vernon Philander's usual mix of good line and slight away movement. Marchant de Lange is still learning but he continued the assault with raw pace and threatening lengths, as all of South Africa's attack banged in the short ball against a New Zealand line-up they believed to be vulnerable.

Occasionally, they allowed some slack and JP Duminy came on to give the quicks a rest. Graeme Smith rotated his bowlers well, so that none of the seamers tired and all of them had gas in the tank when they were brought back on. The onslaught was allowed to roll on, no matter who had the ball in hand. Against such sustained pressure, batsmen of any quality would feel worked into a corner and eventually may give way. New Zealand eventually did. "They're at you the whole time, it's a quality attack and there are no freebies out there," Flynn said. "I think you'd find a lot of people would probably say they are the best seam-bowling attack going around in world cricket at the moment."

For that statement to come out after facing the attack on flat and fairly placid pitch in conditions that suit batting over bowling, in testament to South Africa's prowess. Flynn said he would be hard-pressed to single one of them out as the most difficult to face but named the attributes of two who made it challenging. "Morkel gets that extra bit of bounce. Philander just hits consistent areas and he is consistently asking questions," Flynn said. "They all complement each other well and they all come at you in a different way."

Smith has expressed his delight with the options available to him in the bowling department and the quality of the attack at his disposal. Philander added to that with an affirmation that the balance allows each bowler to operate at their optimum. "This attack gives me the freedom to do what I need to do," he said. "We've got guys who can keep it tight. They keep a hold on the game and give me the chance to strike all the time and to put my skills on show. It's a special squad and a special bowling unit that we have. It's all coming together."

Philander has been the most profitable of the South Africa bowlers, becoming the fastest ever to 50 Test wickets for South Africa and the fastest overall in the last 116 years. His success, though extraordinarily, is not unexpected and comes on the back of two exceptional domestic seasons. His recipe for success consists mostly of keeping it simple, and being disciplined in his lines and lengths. "Bowling form is like batting form. If things go for you, make sure you keep doing it," Philander said. "That's what I'm doing. Obviously bowling form is on my side. Hopefully I can extend this run for as long as possible."

The bowlers will have another chance to show off their ability when South Africa declare and go in search of a win. That will mean bowling New Zealand out in less than a day. Does Philander think South Africa can do it? "I would like to think so," he said. "The bowlers are confident but how the wicket plays and how we take our chances will play a part."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent