Bad, bad boys in the pace alley

Steyn and Morkel have the natural chemistry every successful partnership has. Sir Len Hutton once said of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller that you couldn't pick a fight with one of them, for you'd have both at your throat. There's a similar sense to how Steyn and Morkel operate. Not only do their methods complement each other — Steyn's skiddy pace and late swing and Morkel's sheer speed and abrupt lift — they work on batsmen together, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

When they were in Nagpur in February, addressing the media with rare humour and composure, the South Africans let it be known that they were viewing the India-South Africa engagement as a five-Test series — two in India and three later in the year (and early 2011) in South Africa.

Although Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel didn't once complain about the surfaces they were to play on in India, they seemed keen to get at the Indian batsmen in South Africa, where conditions are kinder to fast-bowlers. Steyn smiled his elastic smile when asked about it. Morkel, who spoke with gentle understatement, merely said he was very interested in seeing how that phase of the engagement played out.

That phase is very nearly upon us. The promotion of the series as India's Final Frontier may have no more than a tenuous acquaintance with accuracy, but there's no disputing the stiffness of the challenge.

South Africa has, over the last four years, been the most severe test of touring batsmen. The average partnership raises 26 runs and a wicket falls roughly every ninth over. The numbers show that Kingsmead, in Durban where the second Test will be played, is among the most difficult grounds in the world to make first-innings runs.

The conditions have a lot to do with this — many South Africa pitches still have pace, bounce, and movement. With Steyn's evolution as the world's premier fast-bowler and Morkel's development as the ideal counterpoint, it's no surprise that visiting batsmen have it tough.

Steyn and Morkel have the natural chemistry every successful partnership has. Sir Len Hutton once said of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller that you couldn't pick a fight with one of them, for you'd have both at your throat. There's a similar sense to how Steyn and Morkel operate. Not only do their methods complement each other — Steyn's skiddy pace and late swing and Morkel's sheer speed and abrupt lift — they work on batsmen together. You need look only at how they roughed up and removed Michael Hussey in concert to understand this.

The Hussey example, from early 2009, is particularly interesting, for they seemed to switch roles: Steyn, not Morkel, was the bruising enforcer, bowling bouncer after nasty bouncer; Morkel, not Steyn, supplied the full-length ball that moved at pace to claim the wicket.

To comprehend the extent of what they are capable of together, it might help to study them in isolation. Steyn has always had exceptional physical gifts. Even among top-level athletes, the 27-year-old is regarded as a bit of a freak. Grant Compton, South Africa's strength and conditioning expert between 2007 and 2009, told Cricinfo that Steyn's fast-twitch muscles, essential for explosive power, are very well developed; but, uncommonly, he also has incredible endurance. So not only can Steyn bowl fast, he can sustain it through a day.

Another thing Steyn has always had is the ability to bowl the out-swinger — the wristwork needed to curve the ball away from the right-hander comes naturally to him.

But it's what Steyn has done with his gifts that has seen him strike at a rate of a wicket every six overs in the last four years. He's added the in-swinger, which has improved the potency of the out-swinger.

Steyn has also honed his understanding of wicket-taking to its subtlest level. His dismissal of the great Sachin Tendulkar in Nagpur was the work of a bowling genius. After an out-swinger had been driven for four, Steyn bowled the batsman another out-swinger, but widened its arc, shifting closer to the stumps in delivery and dropping his length a fraction for this purpose. Tendulkar stepped forward to drive, as he had the previous ball, but was drawn out of a position of stability by the delivery's shape.

Morkel is a formidable bowler in his own right — there are batsmen who've confessed they'd rather face Steyn than him. He's quicker than Steyn on average: earlier this year, he often breached the 150 kmph mark against India while Steyn hit the mid 140s.

He too is something of a physical freak, for very tall men seldom bowl as fast as he does. With his pace and his height (6ft 6in), he can get deliveries to rise off a length irrespective of how slow the pitch plays. This is the 26-year-old Morkel's default mode of attack, but he also has the ability to swing the new ball — not as proficiently or as generously as Steyn but well enough to create trouble. He has a fine leg-cutter of slightly fuller length, which often does the job after the batsman has been pinned to the crease. Morkel bowls well against left-handers, and if that hardly seems a commendation, consider that Steyn hasn't as good a record against lefties as he has against righties.

So how will India's celebrated batting handle the challenge? A lot will depend on another partnership with great natural chemistry, that between Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir.

Sehwag worries South Africa more than any other batsman in the world because he disrupts their discipline. Their strategy to him in India was to bowl short and cramp him for room, or bowl so wide that he had to go out of his way to make the play. In between, Steyn tried setting him up with the out-swinger for the one that hurries in. Sehwag responded by playing with greater patience than he normally practises, and made two hundreds.

He avoided deliveries directed at his ribs by crouching under them or swaying away from them, refusing to take the bait. Deliveries that rose off a length were hit on the up through the off-side with a slight hop that both shifted his body out of the way and allowed the ball to be met on the top of its bounce. He watched for the Steyn in-swinger, and got his bat down in time.

But that was in India. How will Sehwag go in South Africa, where the bounce is steeper? He has shown that his batsmanship travels well, that he can get runs in bowler-friendly conditions. But his record in South Africa isn't great. After his dazzling hundred on debut, in Bloemfontein, Sehwag has made 133 runs in eight innings in South Africa. It's a record he will want to improve.

Gambhir, who hasn't played a Test in South Africa, is another with a point to prove. Morkel tormented him in India, getting him in each innings of the first Test. Those dismissals led to a slump which Gambhir appears to have corrected only recently. He's the sort of person who needs to constantly prove himself against the best in the world. Whatever happens, this much is certain: he won't shrink from the challenge.

There are few things as reassuring as a line-up that lists Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, and V. V. S. Laxman. But their records in South Africa show just why it's such a difficult place to tour; they also show that South Africa's style of constriction has had great success against India's batsmen, who like to hit boundaries.

Tendulkar, although he has made three centuries, averages 39.76 in South Africa, his lowest in any country. Dravid's average of 33.60 is only marginally more than his average in Sri Lanka (33.10), which is his lowest in a country. His strike-rate of 39 runs every 100 balls is also among his slowest. Laxman too has had to work harder for his runs in South Africa — the combination of his average (41.11) and strike-rate (45.06) is his least impressive in a country.

The three of them — and Suresh Raina, for whom this will be a critical tour — have travelled to South Africa ahead of time to acclimatise and adjust. They can't have a better person to help get them ready than Gary Kirsten, a man who intimately knows South Africa's rhythms.

Preparation may not guarantee success, but the mental stillness that arises from the knowledge that you can do no more is invaluable. If India is to enhance the legitimacy of its No.1 ranking, it can do no better than defeat South Africa in South Africa. And while that's a battle that will be fought on many fronts, the most prominent contest will be that between India's batsmen and Steyn and Morkel.

THE SCHEDULE

First Test: December 16-20, SuperSport Park, Centurion.

Second Test: December 26-30, Kingsmead, Durban.

Third Test: January 2-6, Newlands, Cape Town.

Only T20: January 9, Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban.

First ODI (D/N): January 12, Kingsmead, Durban.

Second ODI (D/N): January 15, New Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg.

Third ODI (D/N): January 18, Newlands, Cape Town.

Fourth ODI (D/N): January 21, St. George's Park, Port Elizabeth.

Fifth ODI: January 23, SuperSport Park, Centurion.