South Africa v India, 2nd Test, Durban, 1st day December 26, 2013

Steyn's drought hurts South Africa

On an unusually dry Kingsmead surface, South Africa's attack struggle to cope with their talisman's longest-ever wicketless streak

Match Point: 'Disappointed to see Steyn bowl slower'

Dale Steyn began his fifth over the way he may have wanted to start his first. He delivered a snarling bouncer that soared towards M Vijay at almost 146 kph. Having already faced 17 balls and made some assessment of conditions, Vijay ducked under it.

It was as though Steyn had remembered who he was, with that ball. He followed up with another quicker one, pitched up, then one back of a length that jagged back in and hit Vijay on the arm, and then one he could leave alone on bounce. The fifth ball of Steyn's over preyed on the uncertainty caused by the previous four: with Vijay unsure whether to go forward or back, he was struck on the front pad. Steyn aborted his appeal when he realised it was likely going down leg, but he'd made his threat clear.

Why Steyn didn't start like that is anyone's guess. His first four overs were ordinary. His pace was down, he overpitched and he conceded 21 runs. Perhaps, like the rest of the South African attack, he was taken aback by the surface he was given. "It's very dry and a touch on the slow side," Morne Morkel said. "What surprised me is that after the 13th over, the ball already looked like it was 60 overs old. It's the type of wicket that's going to be tough to strike on."

South Africa would have known that much two days ago, when they first laid eyes on the Kingsmead pitch. Once the green mamba of the South African circuit, it has taken on subcontinent characteristics over the last few years. South Africa would not have forgotten this, even though they didn't play a Test here in 2012. Even so, they might have been stunned by just how different this looked from what they consider home conditions.

Steyn should have been the least startled because he has succeeded on decks like this before, Nagpur 2010 a case in point. Then, Steyn's aggression coupled with the reverse swing he got buoyed South Africa and led them to an innings win. Morkel admitted South Africa had been angling for something similar today. "We were hoping the ball would reverse a little more," he said. "We need to find a way to get reverse going."

There was some reverse swing but the Steyn factor was nowhere near what it was in Nagpur and it reflected on South Africa as a whole. Like him, they tried hard. Smith had a fine leg and a deep backward square leg waiting for the pull but it never came.

Morkel was the most threatening. He set the tone with a maiden when he was brought into the attack in the seventh over. He used the short ball well and found extra lift. After Morkel's opening, Steyn hit his rhythm.

Usually, it's the other way round and Steyn is the bowler who dictates the mood. Vernon Philander bristled when that suggestion was put to him at the Wanderers - when Steyn went wicketless in the second innings - and said it was up to every member of the attack to play their part, but you need only to think back to The Oval last year to remember the impact a firing Steyn can have.

In that match, Steyn made it obvious he was irritated. He hung onto the boundary boards in what seemed like discomfort and was spotted engaged in animated conversation with bowling coach Allan Donald. This time too, Donald was on the sidelines offering advice but Steyn was not as heated up as he can be. He jokingly signed a blow-up doll, did his fielding duties, and slowly cranked it up.

After Morkel's first over, Steyn operated in the right channel for the rest of the day. He delivered 12 more overs at speed, with better lengths, and gave away just 28 runs. An unhelpful surface, confident driving from the Indian batsmen and the impenetrable new wall that is Cheteshwar Pujara meant that the intent did not bring success this time. Not for Steyn and not for anyone else.

"We were guilty of maybe attacking a little bit too much. We didn't get balls in the right areas, we were a touch too straight as we searched for wickets," Morkel said. It did not help South Africa that, again, their spinner failed to play his part. Robin Peterson offered a first ball that looked like it could have come from Imran Tahir. It was a full toss.

He didn't get much better as the day wore on, leaving South Africa with what may become a more pressing problem in the future. If their spinner cannot take wickets, he should at least be able to dry up an end. Neither Tahir nor Peterson has looked like doing that in this series but Morkel stressed the attack as whole needed to be econimical. "If we are not getting wickets, we have to make sure they are not scoring," he said.

Frustration, South Africa hope, will bring some reward and there will be some crossed fingers hoping the fortunes swing Steyn's way. He last took a wicket 67 overs ago, in the first innings of the Wanderers Test. It is the longest Steyn has gone without a scalp.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent