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December 18, 2007
It has taken only a few brief encounters, a couple as brief as a single over, to appreciate that fast bowling will be a prominent factor in West Indies' forthcoming Test series against South Africa. In the opening contest between the teams on Sunday night, a Twenty20 international reduced by rain to a Thirteen13, three developing men of speed, two West Indian, one South African, operated with the kind of control, accuracy and hostility that severely tests a batsman's resolve.
Two innings cricket over five days with no restrictions on how many overs captains can demand is as different from the abbreviated versions as an Olympic marathon is from the 100 metres dash. But the trio that demolished stumps and unsettled opponents on Sunday showed enough form to indicate they will cause problems in any form of the game.
The West Indians, Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards, and the South African, Dale Steyn, have much in common. They are slim, wiry athletes lacking the height and the bulk that is the stereotype of those who practice their trade. Their ability is based principally on rhythm and vigour. They are of similar age and similar experience. Edwards the eldest at 25 and Taylor, 23, made their Test debuts in 2003, Steyn, 24, a year later.
All have had their problems with injury and fluctuations in form. All have taken time to progress towards their peak, Steyn, with the benefit of county cricket with Essex and Warwickshire, far faster than his Caribbean contemporaries. Their potential to be significant influences in the Tests and five ODIs over the coming weeks was obvious, even in their limited spells in the 13-over contest and, in Edwards' case, a couple of nights earlier in the initial warm-up encounter for Makhaya Ntini's benefit.
Even above the physical and statistical parallels, their success was based on the shared ability to deliver on a full, direct line at a velocity of around 90 miles an hour, interspersed with the occasional climbing bouncer and disguised change of pace.
They cannot carry their teams alone, of course. The support they get from the rest of the attack - Daren Powell, possibly Pedro Collins and Dwayne Bravo for West Indies, Ntini, Andre Nel, Jacques Kallis and the perennial Shaun Pollock for the home team - will be crucial as will the runs their batsmen post for them.
But they will be the spearheads. Edwards, now noticeably bigger, palpably stronger and more accurate than he was on the tour here four years ago (although still with his unusual, slinging action), was the first to make the South Africans take notice.
His demolition of Herschelle Gibbs' stumps in the Ntini match with a fast, inswinging delivery got rid of a batsman with 88 Tests to his name, whose previous innings two weeks earlier had yielded a brilliant ODI hundred against New Zealand. A few nights later, he was hurling down more late inswingers, with which he dispatched the allrounder Vernon Philander, and sharp bouncers, two of which were harshly deemed wides, one of which slammed into the grill of the helmet and left a gash on Johan Botha's chin.
Taylor was more impressive. On target from the start, he dismissed Morne van Wyk first ball, sent the left-hander JP Duminy's off-stump cart wheeling second ball and bowled AB deVilliers off the inside edge with the sixth. It was compelling stuff.
Prematurely rushed into the Test team a day before his 19th birthday, he was neither physically nor psychologically ready for the sudden promotion. Injury kept him inactive for almost two years and his advance has been unsurprisingly spasmodic since his return. Strong performances last year against India in the Caribbean, the Champions Trophy in India and the Test series in Pakistan were followed by a decline in the World Cup and the Tests in England last summer.
Ian Bishop felt fatigue was the cause but, after a short stint of county cricket with Leicestershire, Taylor has come back strong. He was Man of the Series in the ODIs in Zimbabwe prior to crossing the border into South Africa where he has shown why the selectors were so sweet on him in the first place.
After he and Edwards had made their statements, it was time for Steyn to counter.
He brought with him awesome form. He had 20 wickets in the two Tests against New Zealand, along with the rearrangement of opener Craig Cumming's cheekbone with a bouncer that rendered the helmet inadequate. In his only match in the provincial first-class competition in the interim, he gathered eight wickets in the first innings, six in the second, among them a hat-trick. Brought on after three overs on Friday, he warmed up with a slower ball that Devon Smith hoisted to the straight boundary.
It was the signal for him to change gears and what followed was bowling that makes him, at present, at lethal as anyone around, Brett Lee and all. His specialty, the yorker, was through Smith, Runako Morton and Dwayne Bravo before their bats were halfway down. Marlon Samuels simply didn't want any part of it. Circumstances will obviously be different in the Tests but, not only on the basis of a couple of basically irrelevant matches, a hot contest is in prospect.
Who knows, it might even be exciting and competitive.
Also, most brothers in a Test XI, and the fastest to 20 ODI centuries