x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

South Africa bowling attack climbing the cricket ranks

South Africa's latest pace attack against Pakistan should open discussion as to where they rank on the all-time list, writes Osman Samiuddin.

As a general rule Pakistan are the worst batting side in the world against which to judge a bowling attack.

All kinds of chancers and part-timers and fakers have inflated their reputations against Pakistan's batsmen, only for the rest of the world to subsequently discover that they are not really that good, or in some cases, that they are even bowlers (see North, Marcus).

But Saturday's demolition for their lowest-ever Test score by South Africa was an exception. On Saturday, 49 all out represented zero inflation.

This was not even a batting disaster in the sense that 59 and 53 in Sharjah over 10 years ago was. Even taking into consideration the presence of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, that pitch was dead.

Sure some might look at a couple of dismissals and fall back on the old Pakistan cannot play swing trope. But that would be churlish, as well as playing down the genius that went into causing those downfalls. No, Saturday was not about the batting. It was about South Africa's pace attack, because more than anything 49 all out represented a kind of apotheosis.

Take the words of Dav Whatmore, the Pakistan coach: "I have never seen two hours of relentless pace bowling like I did today. They just never took the pressure off."

It is in his interests to say that right?

So take the words of Dale Steyn himself, delighted with the spell and particularly that he got top-order wickets for the first time in a while (more is the point that he had not needed to get them).

"It's not like they were jumping and darting around like lower-order New Zealand players," he said.

Pakistan were not. Misbah-ul-Haq and Azhar Ali actually played little mini-epics. And they still got bowled out for 49, which is the frightening thing about this attack. There was no let-up. There never is.

Getting past Steyn is difficult enough. Once was a time, from the end of 2007 on, when watching Steyn was a visceral thrill. One eye was kept on the speed gun, the other on stumps waiting to be hit or on a batsman being pinged.

His bowling now asks for a more cerebral appreciation. On average the pace is down, although he is still easily able to pick it up when he wants.

The nastiness is not conveyed as a physical threat, but as mental ownership: he is smart enough to out-think you, not just quick and mean enough to get you out.

Still, that wiry, granite-muscularity is imposing and if he went skinhead, he could easily pass off as a mixed martial arts fighter.

Then to have to deal with Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel. A degree of homogeneity would be relief, but to have to face this variety?

Morkel, less a stork than before, but still long and gangly, and with his bounce and pace; and Philander, a gum-chewing card sharp of a bowler.

But the true strength of this quartet is to be judged by its weakest link and if Jacques Kallis is the weakest link, then you get an idea of just how strong it is. Kallis bowled arguably the ball of the innings in dismissing Azhar and he got rid of Misbah as well.

Those wickets kept up the pattern of his new bowling avatar. He is not taking nearly as many wickets as he used to. But when he does take them, he makes sure they are big ones.

Only three of his 21 wickets (in his last 21 Tests) are tail-enders; victims includes Ricky Ponting, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Shane Watson. This is not a weak link. Which leaves us, inevitably, to where all discussion in sport, serious or recreational, is ultimately predestined to end up.

How good are they but more pressingly how great are they? These can be fulfilling debates but they can also be infuriating, because it is never going to be definitive.

For what it is worth, Philander is untested in the subcontinent, and there are days when Morkel blows far too hot and cold. But they have put together some serious performances.

Saturday was the third time in 15 months they have bowled a Test side out for under 50. Steyn, Morkel and Kallis have also bowled India out for 76 (between 1976 and 2000, as a totally shallow and somewhat idle comparison, a succession of great West Indian pace attacks bowled out sides for under hundred 12 times).

Fourteen times in 35 Tests since the start of 2009, South Africa have bowled sides out for under 200.

There is no argument that they are outright the best attack in the game at the moment, the credentials of England having fallen over in the last year.

Allan Donald says it is the best South African attack he has seen and those must be weighty words. Beyond that? Not just now but some day the time will be right for that discussion and maybe it is compliment enough to imagine that this attack will not easily be ignored from among the many contenders.


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