Steyn says he's got his intensity back
A foreigner would be forgiven for thinking that every South African summer starts the same way: on the first day of the first Test, it rains. For the past five seasons, whether in Port Elizabeth against West Indies, Bloemfontein against Bangladesh, Centurion against India and England or Cape Town against Australia, rain has interrupted play.
After 105 minutes of persistent drizzle and with plenty of overhead cloud, it was a no-brainer what the captain who won the toss should do and Graeme Smith promptly did it. Green patches short of a length on the pitch, moisture glistening like diamonds in the dawn and a new opening pair that consisted of a fired-up Dale Steyn and debutant Vernon Philander, all told South Africa that they were doing the right thing.
In the fifth over of the day, when Steyn removed Shane Watson with one of his classical away swingers, South Africa's decision was rubber stamped. Michael Clarke quipped that he would have batted, but when Australia teetered at 13 for 2, he may have been silently pleased that he was not the one who made the choice to put them in.
Clarke maintained that he would have opted for his men to take first guard, saying it would have sent a message of intent on a difficult pitch, but South Africa had no such noble aims. In helpful conditions, with more spice sprinkled on the pitch than in your average local curry, South Africa always wanted to bowl.
Steyn and Philander's new-ball spell of swing and seam complimented by Morne Morkel's use of bounce posed questions to which Australia sometimes had no answer. They weren't always disciplined though, bowling a fair share of mediocre and even poor deliveries. At times, Philander overpitched, Steyn went short and wide, Morkel was too full, but the conditions were good enough to allow them to back Australia into a corner, despite the many mistakes.
Inconsistency was not too much of a concern because of the rewards, but Steyn agreed that South Africa conceded needlessly at time. "We went at a little more than we wanted to with the run-rate but if you asked us at the start of the day if we wanted eight wickets, we would have taken it," he said.
Steyn's four-wicket haul was his most impressive showing of the season and indicated that he had finally found the rhythm he appeared to lack during the one-day series. "I didn't have the intensity during the one-dayers as much as I had it now," he said. "When you come off a big break, the only way to get bowling fit is by bowling lots of overs and I didn't have that opportunity."
His post-lunch spell, in which he removed Ricky Ponting lbw on review with a ball that Steyn was initially "really bummed about because I thought he hit it," and a particularly engaging duel with Australia captain Michael Clarke, confirmed his status as the world's top-ranked Test bowler. It is not something he thinks about too often though. "Those rankings are a bit funny, to be honest," Steyn said. "It does nothing for you when you walk out onto the field. You've still got to bowl the ball. I don't have a halo over my head saying I am No.1 and the batters respect that, they don't really care."
Whether it provides additional motivation for Steyn or not, he was more focused than he had been in a long time, and it served him well as he spearheaded the attack. Steyn also had kind words for his new-ball partner, Philander. "He is a home-town boy here and he opens the bowling for the Cobras, so he knows what it's like to bowl in these conditions. He stepped up to the challenge on his debut and got a few sticks, which is good for him."
Legspinner Imran Tahir had a less successful debut and only bowled six, unconvincing overs. It was not the start he was looking for but Steyn said he expects Tahir to play a key role later in the match. "The last couple of Tests we played here boiled down to the last day and to us needing a genuine spinner to do the job for us," he said. "I'm not saying Harro [Paul Harris] wasn't the genuine spinner, just that I think Imran's time will come."
While the day belonged to South Africa's bowlers, wicketkeeper Mark Boucher enjoyed his own moment in the sun, albeit one as brief as the moment when the sun peeped out through the clouds. Philander's first Test wicket was also Boucher's 500th Test catch (of which two have been taken when he represented the World XI).
After serving South African cricket for an almost a decade, Boucher is now thought to be under pressure for his place, but Steyn said the achievement confirmed that any such speculation is unfounded.
"If anybody ever rated him down, he is coming out again and showing what he is worth on the field and how valuable he is," Steyn said. "He is just streetwise and street smart and when you need somebody, he is the kind of guy that you can turn around and look to. There might be other talented players out there, but there is never going to be another Mark Boucher."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent