Trio make Proteas irresistable force
That is twice in a row that the shell-shocked leader of the vanquished opposition, reflecting on the devastation that has just passed, has shaken his head and admitted that this bowling is the best he has ever seen.
Most recently it was the Pakistan cricket team’s coach, Dav Whatmore, who had such high praise for the South African pace attack.
“I have never seen two hours of such relentless attack,” he said. “It was incredible pace bowling.”
It was. And it will be recorded in history. In two hours on the second day of last week’s first Test, South Africa’s Dale Steyn recorded the truly gobsmacking statistics of 6-8. Firing in concert with fellow cricketing rocket launchers Vernon Philander, Morné Morkel and Jacques Kallis, he reduced the team ranked fourth in the world to a 10-wicket total of just 49.
Déjà vu? Only a month earlier a similarly dazed Black Caps captain, Brendan McCullum, reflecting on a score of 45 in the first innings of the Test against South Africa at Newlands, described the bowling – specifically that of Philander – as being “as good a spell as you’d see in Test cricket”.
“He never misses,” said McCullum.
Somebody, in short, is doing something right. Since former Proteas batsman Gary Kirsten took over the management of the team last year, the Proteas have become the best Test team in the world.
To be sure, that ranking has a lot to do with the skills of batsmen like Hashim Amla and Kallis.
But, by common consent, it has even more to do with the bowling attack.
Steyn, at 29, has been the top-ranked bowler in Tests for a few years now, and merely cemented that position with his 6-8 in one innings and 11-60 in the Test overall.
Philander, at 24, stands only 51 rating points behind Steyn in the rankings, and took only seven Tests to clock up his first 50 wickets. In his most recent outing at Newlands, he underlined his class by taking five New Zealand wickets in a devastating 25-ball spell.
The 28-year-old Morkel is the lowest-ranked player of the trio – ninth in the world – but even he has totted up more-than-respectable figures of 173 wickets in 48 Tests.
Although big hauls have eluded him in recent games, bowling coach Allan Donald describes him as the “unsung hero of the team”.
“The number of opportunities and chances he creates is immense,” said Donald.
“I truly feel that his man-of-the-match and man-of-the-series performance is just around the corner.”
Then, of course, when something special is needed, there is Kallis to fall back on. At 37, the peerless all-rounder, though generally used in short spells these days, is bowling some of the fastest and trickiest balls of a bowling career that has him knocking on the door of 300 Test wickets.
The statistics alone argue for this Proteas squad as undoubtedly the best in the world. But are they the best South Africa has ever produced?
The country has been blessed with many exceptional fast bowling talents, with names such as Mike Procter, Peter Pollock, Neil Adcock, Peter Heine, Fanie de Villiers, Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini all gracing the record books.
But if anybody speaks with real authority, it is Donald, or “White Lightning” as he was known in his playing days.
Third on the list of South African Test wicket takers, Donald also happens to be the Proteas’ bowling coach – part of a package deal with Kirsten, who came home to South Africa after taking the Indian cricket team to the top of the rankings.
Donald said: “They are the best bowling attack South Africa has ever produced. They each bring an incredible amount of experience to the team and an unbelievable amount of skill.”
Enough of the right stuff, he wryly observed, to better his 330 Test wickets in a career that stretched from 1992 to 2002.
“They each bring something unique to the team,” he said.
“Dale’s mix of pace and aggression is unmatched, while Morné keeps up relentless pressure. Vernon has the amazing ability of bowling balls that make batsmen play.”
Himself part of a formidable unit with Shaun Pollock and Ntini, Donald said the difference was consistency.
“Although it was a great attack, I feel that we have never had three seamers that were all on form at the same time.”
Pollock is the record wicket taker for South Africa, with 421 in 108 matches. Ntini is second with 390 wickets in 101 Tests.
Philander’s bowling mentor, Vincent Barnes, said he believed that Steyn, Morkel and Philander still had it in their partnership to scale even higher heights. “The scary thing is that they are all young and have time to become even better,” said Barnes, the South Africa A coach.
He added that one of the great strengths of the unit lay in their capacity for “hunting as a pack”, unleashing a combined onslaught that was “vicious and relentless”.
But both Donald and Barnes said that Steyn was the kingpin. Donald said: “Dale sets the tone in the team. I truly feel that South Africa will never see a better bowler than him, ever. If he stays fit he will surpass greats such as Courtney Walsh and Glenn McGrath.”
M W Avg BB
Dale Steyn 63 323 22.67 7/51
Morné Morkel 48 173 29.93 6/23
Vernon Philander 14 78 17.48 6/44
Best in the World
(fast bowlers only)
M W Avg BB
Glenn McGrath 124 563 21.64 8/24
Courtney Walsh 132 519 24.44 7/37
Kapil Dev 131 434 29.64 9/83