Steyn and Morkel live up to the hype
This series has had plenty of passages of enthralling action, but the confrontation between England's top order and the duel pace threat of Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn was as riveting as it comes. This was what touring South Africa is meant to be all about, the battle between batsmen and fast bowlers which has created some of cricket's great moments of the past.
In Morkel and Steyn, South Africa have the perfect pair for a fearsome pace combination. The height and bounce of Morkel complements the fuller, skiddy approach of Steyn - not that the latter doesn't have a rapid bouncer in his armoury. However, this was the first time that they had operated together in this series with prime effect.
Steyn missed the opening Test and was still searching for rhythm during the Durban clash. By the time he was finding form England's lead was out of sight and Morkel was nursing a sore foot. This week, though, South Africa couldn't afford anything less than starring roles from their two strike bowlers. Their series hopes depended on it.
However, surprisingly, they weren't the first pair to greet England's opening batsmen. Morkel was handed the opening over and continued his hold over Andrew Strauss with the sixth-ball removal of the captain, but at the opposite end it was Friedel de Wet given the honours. With Makhaya Ntini now moved aside there was an opening to share the new ball, but surely it was the prime moment for Morkel and Steyn to harness their powers.
Instead it was de Wet who was given the chance to find some early swing while Morkel concentrated on hitting the splice. He didn't disgrace himself, but didn't offer quite enough wicket-taking potential to justify the move from Graeme Smith. Steyn initially replaced Morkel, but two overs later finally the pair were in tandem.
"The captain felt that with two left-handers, Friedel does bowl well to the left-handers as does Morne, while Dale is unbelievable to the right-handers," Jacques Kallis explained. "It was a little bit of tactical thing and a bit of a surprise to see how England would react."
Once in the action, it didn't take Steyn long to live up to the pre-series hype. His record against England actually needs some work; he currently averages 41.14 against them against his career record 23.92. But with his fourth ball after the drinks break he began correcting that when he induced Jonathan Trott to chop onto his stumps, and two deliveries later he managed something a little special.
It's common knowledge around the world now that the place to target Kevin Pietersen when he first comes to the crease is full and straight. Steyn began with a bouncer, as if to mark his territory, but his next delivery was the stumps. It appeared to come out a touch slower and Pietersen, still a little heavy-footed early on, drove too early and Steyn stuck out his right hand to accept the return catch. For a second, time appeared to stand still before Steyn flung the ball up in celebration.
It left England tottering on 36 for 3 - the morning wicket count was up to seven - and Newlands barely had time to catch breath. Steyn and Morkel then steamed in as Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood tried to right the innings. Collingwood was left doing the limbo to avoid a Morkel bouncer, reminiscent of Robin Smith at his ducking-and-weaving best, but the pair survived until the slightly less threatening de Wet and Jacques Kallis took over.
Battle was rejoined at the start of the afternoon session, and Morkel removed Collingwood leaving Ian Bell to face another working-over. Bell was repeatedly beaten outside off, especially by Morkel who was finding troubling bounce from a good length. The South Africans have said this isn't a typical Newlands pitch and a touch of unevenness is already playing a role. Batting last won't be easy.
Crucially for South Africa, even when Morkel and Steyn weren't in the attack they didn't let England get away. Having Kallis available to play a fuller role was important, especially with Paul Harris not providing control. Towards the close, scoring became slightly easier, however Steyn returned and beat Stuart Broad for pace shortly before the new ball.
"The bowlers came out and really showed what they can do and what they have been doing in the last year or two, rather than the last Test," Kallis said. "The guys have stepped up and delivered the goods, it's the reason why they got picked and have delivered the goods in Australia and in England last time."
The hard, red ball will be in the hands of Steyn and Morkel come the morning. Their first job is to mop up the tail, but the real work will begin when South Africa bowl again and the battle is rejoined with England's top order. Then it will be about landing the knock-out blow.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo