South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Durban, 2nd day March 7, 2009

Pace is back

Dale Steyn is the world's No. 1-ranked fast man and Mitchell Johnson is second on the list and on day two in Durban they showed that a fast-bowling community screaming out for new stars is in good hands

An unstoppable Mitchell Johnson floored South Africa © AFP

Amid all the fuss about the battle between the world's top two Test teams it was easy to forget that the highest-rated fast bowlers on the planet were also going head-to-head in this series. Dale Steyn is the world's No. 1-ranked fast man and Mitchell Johnson is second on the list and on day two in Durban they showed that a fast-bowling community screaming out for new stars is in good hands.

Where once these teams looked to Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, or Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, there are new faces turning smiles into frowns for worried batsmen. In an era when totals have grown ever bigger - see West Indies v England for examples - and pitches are prepared to guarantee Tests last the full five days, there was something refreshing about seeing batsmen squirm against quality bowling in quick and bouncy conditions.

It shouldn't be forgotten that this was the same pitch that Mickey Arthur described less than 24 hours earlier as the best batting surface he had ever seen on day one at Kingsmead. The South African attack bowled poorly on the first day but even so, Arthur declared that: "If those cracks don't open it's probably going to get better and better."

The cracks widened slightly but as a clairvoyant he makes a good coach. The proof of what can be achieved with fast bowling of the highest class was there in the numbers at stumps on the second afternoon, a day on which 13 wickets fell, two men retired hurt having suffered nasty blows and another two were whacked on the helmet.

It wasn't Durban's legendary green mamba conditions - supposedly the sea's tides help fast bowlers - it was simply two venomous creatures attacking with a combination of skill and brute force. Steyn began by collecting three wickets in a nasty spell that helped clean up Australia's innings before Johnson picked off three South Africans and sent two of their toughest warriors to hospital in varying stages of disrepair.

Steyn came out slightly on top on the tour of Australia but Johnson, the Man of the Match last week in Johannesburg, is winning the battle on this trip. Last year in the Caribbean, Johnson lost his new-ball privileges because he was spraying in all directions like an out-of-control garden hose. In South Africa he has been handed the new-ball duties again and he has clearly earned the role through improving his accuracy.

Dale Steyn had the Australians hopping around like bunnies in the morning © Getty Images

Neil McKenzie disappeared third ball when he edged behind and Hashim Amla was lbw two deliveries later to leave South Africa at 0 for 2 in the first over. The most impressive feature of Johnson's opening spell was that he showed a new weapon that could turn him from a good bowler into an outstanding one.

Left-arm fast men have a natural angle across right-handers but they are at their most dangerous when they can swing the ball back in. Johnson has always had trouble with that variation, which was mastered by Wasim Akram and encourages umpires to look more kindly on lbw shouts. The delivery that trapped Amla was the perfect inswinger: it pitched in line and straightened sharply enough that the only question for Asad Rauf was which finger to raise to send Amla on his way.

Johnson proceeded to crush Graeme Smith's right hand with a nasty rising delivery that will give the South African captain a three-week holiday and matching scars after Johnson hit the same spot on his left hand at the SCG in January. Jacques Kallis wore a vicious bouncer on the chin and left the field bleeding and requiring stitches, and the next man in Paul Harris must have felt like hailing a taxi and going AWOL to catch some of Durban's famous waves.

It was a brutal and unyielding effort from Johnson, who was helped out by the unrelenting fast men around him including Peter Siddle, who tested Harris' helmet with a well-directed short one. It was a similar examination to that received by Michael Hussey earlier in the day when he head-butted a Steyn ball away for two leg-byes.

Steyn was the first man to exploit the helpful conditions at Kingsmead after a disappointing opening day on which he lacked zip. Steyn rattled Hussey, who had ground out a fighting 50, and although he didn't get the reward of his wicket he breathed life into an ailing South Africa attack and thoroughly deserved to finish off the tail by drawing two edges in three balls.

There's nothing like watching fast bowling of the highest order and Johnson and Steyn delivered it in Durban. They appear to be at the peak of their powers but have so much time on their side that the bar could keep raising. Now that is a scary prospect for batsmen.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo