Rapid Rabada gives SA attack relentless edge

Kagiso Rabada bowled with a lot of pace Associated Press

Of the things running through Neil Wagner's mind when he walked out to bat with New Zealand on 169 for 8, 127 of them would have been about his own bowling. That's how many short balls he sent down in the 39 overs he bowled in the first innings, and he knew they would be avenged.

The 128th thought would have been that he at least did not have to deal with Morne Morkel as well.

Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander were back in South Africa's attack, but instead of Morkel, who is nursing a back injury, they had Kagiso Rabada as the third prong. As a trio, they offer swing, seam, pace, bounce and all-round relentlessness, which could end up working Morkel out of the mix altogether.

Between Steyn and Philander, they found exactly the right lines and lengths to create confusion in the New Zealand's batsmen's minds. They dropped the ball outside off and then made it swerve away enough to flirt with the edge, or find it. It's like ringing a doorbell and then running away. Every time, the person inside will open the door just in case it's not a prank.

Even if New Zealand had got used to the trick, they had to cope with the home invasion. Rabada is more than the perfect first change, he is almost like a third opening bowler because he does things with the same intensity. He reaches speeds of 150kph regularly, bends his back to get extra bounce, and he varies his lengths to prevent anyone from settling.

"It so nice to be back in this space," Steyn said, after the three quicks had shared nine wickets to bowl New Zealand out for 214. "Vernon is a phenomenal bowler. He has kept it so tight. To bowl with him, you feel free because you can do whatever you want and he is going to tick over at two runs an over. And then KG, he's bowling 150, he is hitting the deck and getting wickets. it's a great partnership at the moment."

So much so that the spinner, Dane Piedt, had almost been an afterthought, bowling only seven overs in New Zealand's innings.

Once Morkel returns to fitness, South Africa could seriously consider a four-pronged pace attack in seamer-friendly conditions. It would be tough on Dane Piedt, who is fast developing into the kind of support spinner that South Africa like having around, but they have alternatives. JP Duminy and Dean Elgar could do holding jobs with the only concern around that selection being what impact it would have on transformation targets.

Exactly what these are has not been made public and Russell Domingo had said before the series that he had not received any instructions, but it is understood that CSA have agreed to field six players of colour with at least two black Africans. That number will be calculated over the course of a season, which means there may be times where they can change their dynamics to suit the situation.

On lively surfaces, South Africa will be formidable if their strike force includes all four of Steyn, Philander, Rabada and Morkel, and it looks increasingly likely that Morkel will play second fiddle to Rabada, especially if the evidence of the third day's play is anything to go on.

Rabada's most aggressive spell came against Wagner, who would have known he had it coming, particularly since he has been the source of much needle so far. This was Wagner's homecoming and he wanted to make an impact. He hit Hashim Amla and JP Duminy with short balls and got one to whizz past Temba Bavuma's ears, but that was nothing on what he did to Rabada, whom he bounced nine times.

Although he did not cause any harm, he had breached the unwritten code enough times to know what was coming. He just did not know how much of it he would have to take.

Would it be gentle to start with, good length on off stump? Would it be the quicker one that hurried him off his feet and forced him to play? Or would Rabada try to do some real damage immediately?

It was a bouncer, pitching on middle and leg, and climbing towards Wagner's head. His helmet jittered. Wagner did not.

Rabada turned around, expressionless, and did it again. Faster, but not as furious. Wagner could watch it down the leg side and calm down. Until Rabada turned around and slipped in something different but just as dangerous.

Faster still, at 149kph, full and tempting. Wagner met it on the full and bottom-edged. Hashim Amla claimed the catch at first slip. It turned out to be a bump ball. Rabada, once again, turned around, expressionless.

Four more bouncers had Wagner hopping before Rabada made contact again. This time on the shoulder. Rabada thought he had found bat or at least glove. He was animated, he appealed, and when he was denied he asked for a review. The first replay showed that in his efforts to unsettle Wagner, Rabada had overstepped. It became moot point that the ball clipped the edge of the bat before hitting Wagner's shoulder. As soon as Rabada saw he had not got the desired result, he fixed his expression and hurtled in again.

The next ball was a yorker, which Wagner again turned into a full toss and punched down the ground. His punishment was over.

Steyn bowled the next over, and peppered Wagner again. This time he took the bouncers on, and took 18 off the over. The South African camp was unimpressed, and felt he may have been better served grinding it out in support of Kane Williamson, who was scoring a battling half-century at the other end. "He came out and backed away," Steyn said. "If he wanted to be more courageous and brave, he would have been 30 off 90 and watched his captain get a hundred rather than take it on."

Wagner may want to keep that in mind when he bats again. Then, he may also have to face some spin, with Steyn expecting Piedt to come into the game far more. "The spinner will have to come into play and hopefully as the game goes on, there will be a little more for him," he said.

There will definitely be more for Wagner. What started as a little pre-match hype about his return to his home ground has turned into some needle over the pronunciation of his Afrikaans surname and, by extension, of everything he does on the field. "Things got a little bit heated and a few words were said," Doug Bracewell said. "It's always going to happen."

There will also definitely be more for South Africa's new look attack, with or without Morkel.