A bowling attack of rare quality

2013-02-09 00:00

IT is a truth universally acknowledged that retired cricketers find that the art of batting becomes easier with every passing year. No shot is too difficult. No ball gets through tightened defences. The encumbrances of helmets, chest pads and arm guards are not part of our imaginations as we hook bouncers from in front of our noses, caress all those half-volleys through the covers and smash straight drives back past the bowlers.

From the comfort of the Long Room at the Wanderers it has always been an easy game to play. That is, until last Saturday morning when Dale Steyn and his friends tore through the unfortunate Pakistanis. In truth, it had looked none too easy the previous day when the South Africans had lurched to 254 all out. One felt then that if the Pakistanis had had one more quality fast bowler, the Proteas would not have made more than 150.

The Pakistani bowlers were able to achieve exaggerated sideways movement together with erratic bounce. This made batting difficult. The cognoscenti felt that South Africa’s first-innings score, modest as it appeared, might turn out to be adequate. By lunchtime on the second day it was clearly a match-winning total.

The curator of the Wanderers, Chris Scott, has been in harness for 40 years and has produced many excellent cricket pitches, but the pitch for the first Test was not one of them. It had a mottled look about it, with patches of verdant grass standing to attention amid a jigsaw of cracks. It offered too much for good bowlers and was lethal in the hands of this South African attack.

Last Saturday morning on this helpful pitch, Steyn, Philander and Kallis produced an astonishing morning of top-class swing bowling of a quality that has been rarely seen in any form of cricket. They were relentless in their accuracy and the morning was characterised by batting that played and missed more than making contact with the middle of the bat.

Only two batsmen reached double figures and each of them might have been out several times. Steyn was brilliant. He gave nothing away. His outswing bowling at pace was impossible deal with and for all batsmen their dismissals were simply a matter of time.

If Morné Morkel had been on song, I doubt the Pakistanis would have scrambled more than 25 runs.

The South Africans are unlikely to find a pitch more suited to their bowling attack than the one at the Wanderers. Yet this was the third time in 15 months that they had dismissed different opposition Test teams for less that 50 runs. This has never happened before in the long history of Test cricket.

Just how good are these blokes? When they shot out New Zealand for 46 in the New Year Test match, my eldest son-in-law felt certain that this was the best South African attack of all time. I disagreed. After all, I had seen and played against the four members of our great attack of the 1950s — Adcock, Heine, Goddard and Tayfield. In comparison with these giants, Dale and company were mere boys.

The giants had certainly made run making very difficult, but I must now acknowledge that they never combined to bring home a series victory. Adcock was not at his best in 1955 when the five-match series was lost in England. He and Heine then bowled too short in most of an entire home series against the Aussies, which we also lost. Their best achievement was to draw a home series against England when one Test was won by Hugh Tayfield and another was gifted the Springboks on a dreadful pitch in Port Elizabeth.

They certainly never bowled any Test team out for less than 50, let alone did it three times. Eventually the facts speak for themselves and few can rightfully argue that this Proteas attack is not our best of all time.

This is what it must have been like to be an Australian during the era of Warne and McGrath. That was a time when the Aussies mowed down team after team and the Australian fans began to wish for more substantial opposition that would better test their champions.

How far off those days must seem today when Australians have become accustomed to watching their team lose and face a year in which the Poms might well whip them twice in back-to-back Ashes series.

The moral of the story is that we must enjoy our champion fast bowlers while we can. They will depart from us all too soon. It was sad that so few spectators were at the Wanderers to see last Saturday’s slaughter in the sun. This team deserves greater audiences than the ones this country is giving them.

At the Phoenix Open last week-end, 180 000 golf fans turned up each day to watch a PGA tournament that featured neither Tiger Woods nor Rory McIlroy.

Perhaps we should see if some lessons can be drawn from the Phoenix phenomenon, where the organisers have contrived to turn one hole of a golf tournament into a gigantic party. They have built a full surround stadium seating something like 60 000 spectators around a short hole and made it into a happening.

Nothing that golfers can do on a single hole can compare in excitement with what we saw last Saturday at the Wanderers, yet the spectators love whatever goes on and they go back to Phoenix year after year.

On Saturday, in a back room at the Wanderers, a new board was elected to serve SA cricket at the same time that Steyn was creating mayhem.

We must all give this new board time to show that it can restore credibility to the administration of cricket in this country. It would be a successful start if they were able to convince more South Africans of the joys of watching their great team in action.

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