A team on the rise

Published : Jan 10, 2009 00:00 IST

South Africa’s batting hero... Jean-Paul Duminy.-R. RAGU
South Africa’s batting hero... Jean-Paul Duminy.-R. RAGU

South Africa’s batting hero... Jean-Paul Duminy.-R. RAGU

South Africa, of late, has displayed remarkable resilience to claw its way back from tough situations. It is a side teeming with players who completely believe in themselves. By S. Dinakar.

South Africa’s turnaround in Test cricket actually began with spin. India was progressing to a position of dominance in the third Test in Cape Town. Then, skipper Graeme Smith tossed the ball to left-arm spinner Paul Harris on the afternoon of the fourth day. The South African skipper wanted to slow down the pace of the game; he believed that frustrating the Indian batsmen would result in wickets.

Harris was asked to bowl over-the-wicket in an attempt to spin the ball into the right-hander from the rough outside the leg-stump. Smith shackled Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid before prising them out.

Soon, Smith unleashed Dale Steyn who blew away the lower order. Sighting a historic series victory an hour earlier, India was now fighting for survival. The tourist, eventually, lost the three-Test series 2-1. The series witnessed the resurgence of South Africa.

The South African attack was earlier considered one-dimensional; too many pacemen with similar attributes enabled the opposing batsmen to settle down. The attack lacked left-arm pace or spin.

South Africa and Smith were under pressure ahead of the decider early in 2007. India had ambushed the host at the Wanderers in the first Test. South Africa had come back hard at the paceman-friendly Kingsmead. The decision to include Harris for the third Test on a dry track at Newlands was taken after much debate.

South Africa has not looked back since in Test cricket. While Steyn has cut like a knife, there has been greater balance in the team’s attack. And Smith, not exactly acknowledged for his management of spin, was handling Harris better. The contribution of Harris cannot be judged in numbers.

Of course, Steyn has been the spearhead. Any bowler who can swing the new ball away from the right-hander at blinding pace has to be special. Even if the surface offers little help, he can still beat batsmen with air-speed and swing.

South Africa’s rise is intertwined with self-confidence. The side has displayed resilience to claw its way back from tough situations; the team has not wilted under pressure as it often did in the past against Australia.

Steyn’s heroic batting partnership with Jean-Paul Duminy at the MCG, when Australia was moving in for the kill, was all about heart and commitment. This South African side believed in itself; even bowlers played key roles with the willow in stressful situations.

Steyn is the very definition of a strike bowler. He can probe a batsman’s technique and instil fear in him with his short-pitched fliers. These deliveries are well directed and often follow the batsmen from over and around the wicket. Crucially, he can achieve reverse swing. He moves the ball from a fuller length, finds the edge of the bat, breaches the defence with movement.

Steyn can also sustain his intensity through spells. He always possessed pace and fire but injuries and a lack of consistency set his career back. Now, he is a match-winner — the No. 1 fast bowler in world cricket. He also revels as a thinking bowler.

One of the features of South Africa’s series triumph over Australia has been the set-piece dismissals. Smith positioned his men in specific places for the miscued drives and his bowlers responded to the call of the skipper.

Steyn, getting the ball to climb about waist-high from just short of a good length, was spot on when Matthew Hayden attempted a drive on the up in Melbourne. The big opener, falling into a trap, was held at short-cover.

Truth to tell, there have also been occasions when Steyn has struggled in the series; he has clearly not been as potent against the tail and the searing yorkers have been off-target. Yet, he has slugged it out and produced wicket-taking deliveries at critical junctures. His series clinching 10-wicket match haul at the MCG reflects as much his resolve as his ability. He is enjoying the challenge and responsibility of being the No. 1 bowler.

The South African is also evolving as a paceman. He is exploring the angles and changing his speeds. Steyn is also reading the batsmen and reacting to situations in a more comprehensive manner.

Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel, Jacques Kallis and Harris have ensured that the pressure on the batsmen stays. Ntini may have cut down on his pace but is hitting the right areas more often. His ability to straighten the ball from wide of the crease to the right-hander or angle the ball across the left-hander makes him a compelling bowler. He can still slip in an odd quick delivery.

Steyn and Ntini have combined well as a new ball pair. Their methods and lengths are contrasting.

The tall Morne Morkel of a high-arm action and bounce has added to the attack. When he finds the right length on or around the off-stump, Morkel can be lethal with his natural bounce and away movement. He is still a work in progress — he often searches for the ideal length — but has played a key role in South Africa’s epic triumph. He does unsettle the batsmen with bounce.

Smith has employed Kallis effectively. The experienced all-rounder has contained and struck with his cutters. Kallis has bounded in with commitment even if his batting has gone off the boil.

The South African bowlers have also been helped by the decline in the Australian batting. Matthew Hayden is no longer the dominant force he was; years of batting have taken its toll. And there is no Adam Gilchirst down the order to blitz the bowling.

While appreciating the South African batting, it must be remembered that this Australian line-up does not include Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, the two bowlers who dominated the South African teams of the past mentally. And Brett Lee has suffered a free fall of sorts.

To cut it short, the Aussie bowling standards have dropped rather drastically. As a direct result of the lesser intensity in bowling, the Aussies have been less aggressive on the field. Most cricketing aspects are related.

Smith has displayed character and strokes at the top of the order. He has been unaffected by the burdens of captaincy; rather the responsibility has lifted him. The evolution of Hashim Amla at the crucial No. 3 slot has been remarkable. The tentative batsman whose shuffle led him nowhere — he was often caught at the crease in his early days — is now brimming with confidence. His greater belief has much to do with a sense of belonging in the South African team. Amla has been both solid and strokeful for South Africa in a pivotal position. He has provided the innings momentum with timing and grace.

The left-handed Duminy’s epic at the MCG showed him out to be a calm-headed batsman with a secure defence, good judgment in the corridor and a fine array of strokes. Duminy displayed timing and placement and was able to rally with the tail. His temperament was admirable.

The injury to Ashwell Prince was a blow to South Africa but Duminy has shown heart for the battle. Despite being a rather tenacious southpaw, his batting has an old-fashioned elegance about it.

Abraham de Villiers, someone with a natural ball sense, has sparkled down the order. The fluent right-hander takes his chances, can disrupt the rhythm of an attack. He forces the bowler to alter his length and then cashes in on it; this sharp-thinking batsman’s initial movement is no more than a ruse on occasions. De Villiers has delivered when it has mattered for South Africa. He brings a dash of enterprise to the middle-order.

Team South Africa is on the rise. Smith’s men believe in themselves. Confidence is a precious commodity.

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