Morkel and Steyn exact a carefully planned revenge
Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel must remember Kolkata 2010 the same way the United States remembers Vietnam. That's where they thought they had a chance to defeat an opposition that looked beatable, and that's where they misjudged badly. They were wounded from all fronts, their morale was broken and in the end, they lost the battle.
After their victory in Nagpur a week earlier, South Africa had an ideal opportunity to win the series in the subcontinent. That never happened. They collapsed to 296 on a turning track at Eden Gardens and conceded a massive 643/6 to lose by an innings and 57 runs. Dale Steyn bowled thirty overs and Morne Morkel 26, both conceding 115 runs apiece. Virender Sehwag, in particular, treated the pair as though they were nothing more than cheap rag dolls. Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman followed, although in less manic fashion, and then MS Dhoni joined the party. Steyn and Morkel were left hurting. On Thursday, at SuperSport Park in Centurion, they exacted a carefully planned revenge.
"It's the most important thing not to forget your aggression," Morkel said after the first day when a mixture of that attacking instinct and ingenious strategy helped South Africa seize the advantage.
The match was being billed as a contest between South Africa's bowlers and India's batsmen, in particular the openers on both sides, and it did not disappoint. Steyn versus Sehwag was considered the heavyweight fight but it lasted just three balls. The first two were regulation Steyn balls, shaping away outside off and Sehwag dutifully left them. In his next over, Steyn began with a similar delivery, moving away just a touch. Sehwag could not resist.
He didn't care that Hashim Amla was positioned at short third-man for in case he gave in to the temptation. The urge to hit on the up was too tempting and Sehwag went for it. In doing so, he scooped it off the outside edge to Amla giving South Africa immediate reward, even though they were prepared to wait. "We knew we would have to stay calm and patient and that he would give it away," Morkel said.
The middleweight clash lasted a few more rounds. Morkel was unrelenting as he banged in short balls by the half-dozen to Gautam Gambhir, but mixed them up well. He topped 151 kph at times and sent the ball whizzing around Gambhir's ears in the first over. In the second over he bowled to Gambhir the real crux of the strategy emerged. Two short balls, followed up by a fuller one, and then another. When Morkel, elegant as a giraffe, reached down to save four off his own bowling from the second fuller ball, it was as though he was prophesising his own victory.
He almost had his man in the next over when a nasty bouncer took something on the way through to Mark Boucher. Umpire Steve Davis thought it shaved something other than the glove. Morkel did not relent and gave Gambhir no scoring opportunities as the pattern of short, short, full continued. Gambhir survived Morkel's first spell but just as he was relaxing, Morkel returned from the other end and continued the same trend. Two more short balls, and then Gambhir perished to the follow-up. He was too late on the full ball and the outside edge was comfortably taken by Paul Harris at first slip.
The way Steyn and Morkel varied their lengths was crucial to their success. "They weren't sure whether to go forward or back," Morkel said. Steyn used the seam movement in exemplary fashion, particularly as he got the ball to go away from Rahul Dravid and in to Gambhir. Morkel's height allowed him to extract the spongy bounce but he managed to mix the short balls with a range of deliveries that landed on a good length and ones that were full enough to tease the batsmen's toes. It was that assortment that got Dravid out as he was hit on the pads by a delivery that stayed lower than expected.
Steyn came out spitting venom after tea. The over he bowled to Tendulkar immediately after the break covered an entire spectrum. It contained a delivery that moved away, one that straightened, one that moved in, a bouncer and an over-pitched ball. In the next over, Steyn left Laxman aghast by getting right through him and pegging back his middle stump. He also got rid of Tendulkar, who was looking strong in the battle against Lonwabo Tsotsobe, with a ball that straightened.
South Africa's opening bowlers, who have been labelled the most fearsome in world cricket, out-thought the Indians with their follow-up balls. The straighter or fuller deliveries were proving to be the wicket-taking ones but they didn't forget that the ball India have always been vulnerable against on tour was the short one.
The pair has always been revered because of their styles complementing each other and Morkel said they aimed to exploit the variety to their advantage. "Myself and Dale are different bowlers. I'm six foot five but he is a bit shorter. I need to use my strength which is my bounce. I don't get a lot of swing and shape off the wicket, but Dale does."
While they were dismantling the Indian line-up, some luck also went their way. Suresh Raina, who was considered a target for short balls, ended up edging a length delivery from Jacques Kallis to third slip. After his dismissal a recovery seemed imminent. Even the South African bowlers expected it. "They have a quality top six or seven and we were lucky that Harbhajan was run out today," Morkel said. Harbhajan appeared confident before he was caught short of his crease by an underarm throw from Mark Boucher.
South Africa will be aware that is still plenty of movement left in the pitch, but an Indian attack without Zaheer Khan is a far less scary prospect than one with him. Morkel has some advice for his batsmen when they get they turn out tomorrow. "You need to leave well. It nips about but it's a touch slow." First, South Africa have one more wicket to claim but they must sense that the end is close with a debutant and a captain struggling for form at the crease. Then the revenge will be complete.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent