If there is a place Pakistani batsmen have, historically, enjoyed less than Australia, it is South Africa. Australia holds the more tortured place in the batting psyche of Pakistan, amplified by traumatic collapses and losses, plus just a longer history of it happening - it's 46 years, after all, since this.

Collectively, however, Pakistan average 21.92 in South Africa. How bad is that? Nearly six-runs-per-wicket-less-than-Australia bad is how bad.

Still, if you asked a Pakistani batsman of a certain vintage to draw a boogieman, the picture would be of a 6"5 beanpole with the occasional snarl, mean as heck with runs, hanging around that off stump like a pesky fly around rotting food, his inches drawing out bounce and his fingers and wrist movement off the surface. Glenn McGrath to you and I.

McGrath is second on the list of most successful fast bowlers against Pakistan, but he's basically first given Kapil Dev is top. Kapil was a great fast bowler but nobody - certainly not the numbers - would say he exercised any kind of tyranny over Pakistani batsmen.

Not much further down the list sits Dale Steyn who, in his own way and of his own time, has held a not-too-dissimilar meaning to Pakistani batsmen that McGrath did: shorter but quicker, less bounce but more swing, hounding the same edges, more intense and more explosive too.

Mohammad Hafeez timed his retirement as sweet as he did some of his drives, but the top five Pakistani batsmen to fall most often to Steyn are all specialists. Only Misbah-ul-Haq can be said to have gained some measure of control over him.

And the thing about this record is that Pakistan have only once come across Steyn in South Africa at his absolute peak, the last time they toured. That went well.

All of which is to bring your attention to Steyn vs Babar Azam, a duel, yes, but, on longer consideration, more a passing (to which we will return). Either way, it's been compelling because it has wrought such unexpected results so far.

Compelling at several layers too. Numbers help give some shape to what has happened, which, in short, is that by some metrics, Steyn has not been dominated by a batsman in the manner Babar has done across two Tests. It is only two Tests and three innings, but with a minimum qualification of 50 balls faced, Babar's strike rate against Steyn is unmatched.

It is only 66 balls. Others such as David Warner, who has scored at nearly a run a ball against Steyn over 215 deliveries is a much more substantive sampling of dominance (tempered only somewhat by four dismissals in 12 innings). Virender Sehwag went at 4.85 per Steyn over, across 16 innings and 257 balls, but Steyn got his own back with seven dismissals: Sehwag averages less than 30 against him and just 13 in South Africa.

Kevin Pietersen is the other notable, scoring nearly five runs off every Steyn over in 11 innings and averaging over 50 per dismissal. And for a sustained burst of dominance, Pietersen's treatment of Steyn at Headingley in 2012 during his imperious 149 is unparalleled: 64 runs, 12 fours, most of them magnificent, and that skyscraper six from 72 Steyn deliveries.

In that sense, it was the flurry of boundaries from Babar in the first innings in Centurion that stood out: 10 boundaries in the 31 deliveries from Steyn but in which all 10 came in a span of just 24 balls. Pietersen at Headingley apart nobody has hit Steyn for that many boundaries in a single innings. It didn't stop there. In Cape Town during his second-innings 72 Babar hit Steyn for five more boundaries in 29 balls.

Sixteen boundaries off just 66 balls is one more than Chris Gayle managed against Steyn in nearly twice as many balls, across nine innings, though he made up with three sixes. It's the same number Brendon McCullum and Ricky Ponting hit in 15 and 14 innings respectively against Steyn.

The optics are even better: a young, gifted Pakistani batsman taking down the greatest fast bowler of this century, maybe of all time, in his own backyard (crib if you want, but he's in that conversation).

Aesthetics matter in how we remember these encounters. So it was important that while Babar was not in control for four of the 16 boundaries - thrice edging low through the cordon, once fending off the gloves - the other 12, together, are still passing themselves off as some kind of dream, waiting to be shaken up into reality (outside edge, gone!).

At Centurion the ball was 38 overs old when Steyn came back at Babar. He was still getting some away movement. And despite not having bowled for 15 overs, his first ball was 144kph (nearly 90mph sounds more impressive). Babar edged it, maybe taking stock of this challenge. He then moved into two cover drives so casually it was like he was shadow-batting on his way to the crease and not putting away balls delivered at 85mph and 91mph.

From what followed, you'll have a favourite. Nobody hates a cover drive and there were a few to choose from. There was that commanding lash past point (87mph). And the pull, off a ball at nearly the same speed, which he took from outside off and put so far in front of square it was closer to mid-on than midwicket. Not a shot so much as a punch to the gut for opponents, and a moment of pure exhilaration for admirers, the breath gone in both constituencies. Mark Nicholas too, with his A game: "…batting of the highest quality, could be Kohli or it could be AB de Villiers, such is the command." Everyone needs a hype guy whether you're Mohammad Ali or Mohammad Sami.

Personally? That second on-drive, two balls after this pull: unfussy, minimalist and beautiful, like Ikea furniture. Also, a passable imitation of another great shot at this very ground nearly 16 years ago, the last in that bonkers Shoaib over to Sachin, the shared principle that the fury of the bowler is to be used as a force against him.

But, here's the but (there's always a but).

Steyn hasn't bowled badly to Babar. At Centurion especially he was getting some shape. He was quick too. Forty-six of the 66 balls Steyn has bowled to Babar have pitched on a length or just short of one, what we might consider good, productive lengths for such surfaces (though short at Babar body is a missed trick). He hasn't really erred in lines either and yet those 46 balls have ceded 53 runs and 12 of Babar's 16 boundaries. When he's driven him through cover, as with the first time in Centurion, it's often been on the up.

But this is not peak Steyn, pre-2016 Steyn, pre-injuries Steyn. This is not the Steyn that Pietersen took apart, or the one Warner creamed 117 runs off of from 94 balls in South Africa in 2013-14.

The pace still gets up there. The swing isn't AWOL. But some essential piece of him, some snap, has gone with all those injuries as well as to the uncomplicated demands of time - his body is 35 years old now after all.

In fact, after Centurion, it was legitimate to wonder whether South Africa would drop Steyn in trying to fit four fast bowlers into three spots. He was asked in Cape Town what he would've done had he been dropped and he said, "I'd probably retire." He was, he said, joking and it won't make a difference against a batting line-up like Pakistan's (he still took seven wickets in the second Test), or perhaps against Sri Lanka later. But the question will come again.

Also the circumstances of each innings have allowed Babar to Hail-Mary his way through. Pakistan have been down, nearly out each time, South Africa have pressed for the kill with attacking fields and Babar, undoubtedly gifted, has lit up a path through it.

More than numbers, actually, it is the symbolism that has stood out, a kid pushing his way into the elite, on his way passing by a man who's confronted by the way out. The man's not done just yet, though, and nobody would be surprised if, at the Wanderers, Steyn reminds Babar who's who and what's what.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo