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Luke Alfred

South Africa need to get their bite back

Their mongrel seems to have gone AWOL, tail between its legs

Luke Alfred
Shark alert: Dale Steyn can bring some teeth to South Africa, but does he remember how to?  •  CPL/Sportsfile

Shark alert: Dale Steyn can bring some teeth to South Africa, but does he remember how to?  •  CPL/Sportsfile

It all got a bit lippy during England's final Test against Pakistan at The Oval a few days ago. Alex Hales pulled a much-shown face that wouldn't have been out of place in the pre-school sandpit, and predictably perhaps, given their enforcer-like swagger, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson weighed in with their two ha'pennies worth soon enough.
Like those of many fast bowlers, Broad's and Anderson's emotions run fairly close to the surface. No one smells the slow bleed of self-belief like the pair, and this, in part, is what makes them so dangerous as second- and third-spell stalkers. To get self-righteous about the occasional indiscretion seems hypocritical, because it forgets that radioactivity is hot-wired into their DNA. They can resonate in no other way - and wouldn't be the cricketers they are without it.
When he was coach of South Africa, Mickey Arthur used to talk with an amiable yet slightly puzzled air about Dale Steyn's "red mist". It was a strange and quixotic beast, liable to descend without warning and disappear over the horizon just as quickly. One of the notable features of South Africa's slide down the Test rankings in recent months has not only been the absence of the visibly tiring Steyn but the almost complete lack of mongrel in their approach to the game. Where is the snarl? The calculated nastiness? The occasional fumes of anger?
Hopefully Steyn plays in the first Test against New Zealand in Durban and, in so doing, brings the mist along with him. Kingsmead was where he cried off against England last summer and there is an argument to be made for the fact that his departure initiated the selection merry-go-round (Hardus Viljoen at the Wanderers?) that ultimately led to South Africa losing the series.
Given the recent backstory, Kingsmead is a good place for new beginnings, and there's a pleasing symmetry to watching Steyn restart a Test career that he has long insisted isn't over, in Durban.
Steyn likes playing against New Zealand. He was too young and callow a player when he made his debut alongside AB de Villiers against England in Port Elizabeth in 2004, bowling 16 no-balls, but by 2007 had forced his way back into contention. Who should he encounter but New Zealand, slicing through them like a hot knife through a rack of braaied ribs.
Where is the snarl? The calculated nastiness? The occasional fumes of anger?
In two Tests, at the Wanderers and Centurion, late that year, Steyn took 20 wickets against New Zealand, helping bundle the second to a three-day conclusion as the visitors were bowled out for 188 and 136.
One of the few players to face Steyn with anything approaching confidence that November was Stephen Fleming, then in the twilight of his distinguished career. Fleming scored the only fifty of either New Zealand innings in Centurion but it was ultimately small change. Bowling his awayswing at pace and picking up a host of bowleds and leg- befores, Steyn was the man. New Zealand blinked first and the second Test - and therefore the abbreviated series - was over before it had ever really begun.
Fleming knew a thing or two about the dark arts of intimidation. It was he who launched a premeditated verbal attack on a young Graeme Smith when South Africa toured New Zealand in 2004. Brendon McCallum did much the same to Jacques Kallis at Eden Park towards the end of the ODI series, and the South Africans were badly rattled. Whether Steyn initiates the verbals or whether it comes from someone else, it would give fans all over the country heart to see some aggro from the home side. Without it you begin to wonder about their pride.
Steyn might not be the bowler of old, having to cannily ration his energies, but he knows a bit about lip. Perhaps the time has come for him to sledge from the front?
News from the South African camp these past few weeks has been about "culture workshops" and that old chestnut beginning with the letter "t" - transformation. This is all well and good but you rather feel that transformation is a red herring, a convenient mask for other things. South Africa need, rather, to discover their inner sledge, the hard competitor that made someone like Brian McMillan and Pat Symcox such mean performers.
The impression for some time now has been that South African cricket has lost its way. Finding their inner mongrel would go some way to restoring everyone's leaking confidence.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg