Swinging with Dale Steyn
South Africa's bowling attack has previously been criticised for its medium-paced sameness, but when the captain, Graeme Smith, looked around for someone to take wickets during their emphatic series win over New Zealand, he didn't need to even consider Makhaya Ntini or Andre Nel, or whether maybe it was time for the spinner, Paul Harris, to have a go, or even wish for the presence of his leading wicket-taker, Shaun Pollock.
Of the 37 New Zealand wickets to fall in the 2-0 hammering, 20 were captured by Dale Steyn alone. Smith has made no effort to disguise what Steyn means for the team. "Dale has bowled superbly well. He's bowled with pace, good control, he's got swing and he's been able to strike at different times for us," Smith said after the 24-year-old had taken career-best figures of 6 for 49 to destroy New Zealand on the third afternoon of the second Test.
South Africa went into the series with high hopes that Steyn and Harris would continue the impressive form they had shown during the series win in Pakistan in October. But such was Steyn's incredible success that there was precious little for Harris to do - he bowled just nine overs in the series.
Prior to this season Steyn was not considered a first-choice player in the team, but he is now in the top ten of the ICC's Test bowling rankings and firmly ensconced as Ntini's new-ball partner. It is the veteran Pollock whose place in the pecking order is now unclear, given that he has not played in South Africa's last four Tests and that there are other pace bowlers such as Morne Morkel, Charl Langeveldt, Friedel de Wet, Monde Zondeki and Lonwabo Tsotsobe knocking on the door as well.
Smith's view is that South Africa's three most hostile bowlers should make up the attack along with Harris and allrounder Jacques Kallis. "I thought the attack was superb. They bowled very well," he said. "We've got three bowlers of over 140kph and they're going to be a handful whenever there are cracks or movement in the pitch. We're able to create chances throughout the innings and that means the batsmen are always under pressure."
When Steyn first appeared on the international stage - against England in 2004-05 - his return of eight wickets in three Tests at an average of 52 was disappointing. But fast bowlers are also required to learn their trade, and he had played just seven first-class matches when he made his international debut.
Steyn went into this season with 41 first-class matches under his belt, including spells with Essex in 2005 and Warwickshire this year. With that experience has come maturity and greater control, and a more thoughtful approach to tactics that accounts for his sudden surge to prominence.
|South Africa's success will have serious ramifications for Pollock's future in Test cricket. He may have 416 wickets in 107 Tests but his accuracy does not seem to have a place in South Africa's new, direct modus operandi|
Steyn has always been considered an out-and-out strike bowler and Smith has been happy to set attacking fields and concede a few runs if it means wickets are being taken. And the fact that Steyn combines two elements long needed in the South African pace attack - genuine, blistering pace and swing - means he is likely to be their key bowler in Test cricket for some time to come.
South Africa's success in Pakistan and against New Zealand will have serious ramifications, though, for Pollock's future in Test cricket. He may have 416 wickets in 107 Tests, but Pollock's accuracy and frustrating-the-batsmen-into-mistakes line of attack does not seem to have a place in South Africa's new, direct modus operandi.
Ntini, despite a quiet start to the summer and an element of one-dimensionality, still poses plenty of questions with his extra bounce and angle of delivery, especially to left-handers, while the in-your-face aggression of Nel is straight from the captain's own guidebook on how to play cricket.
The services of Harris were hardly required, but South Africa, under a new selection convenor, Joubert Strydom, seem to have made a commitment to playing the spinner in all matches, and he will certainly be called on more against stronger batting sides than New Zealand, and later in the summer when the pitches are less biased towards the fast bowlers.
While South Africa's attack was rampant in polishing off New Zealand in just 183.4 overs in the series, a note of caution should perhaps be issued. The New Zealand top order is notoriously fickle, and they were handicapped by not having played Test cricket for nearly a year. Also, South African coach Mickey Arthur was not exactly thrilled with the two pitches they played on - both of them featured inconsistent bounce and offered seam movement throughout. Surfaces like these can make bowlers forget how to do their job on good batting wickets.
But for now all is bright and cheerful in terms of South Africa's bowling, much like Steyn's persona off the field. Hailing from the mining town of Phalaborwa, about 500km north-east of Johannesburg and bordering the Kruger National Park, his approach exudes a simplicity that probably has much to do with living in the bushveld. He is all smiles off the field - and these days he has plenty of reason for it.