Keeping pace with the very best

With a superb exhibition of swing and seam bowling, Dale Steyn knocked the stuffing out of India in Nagpur. The South African is one of those truly fearsome fast bowlers to come off with flying colours on the placid Indian tracks. He is certainly bound for greater glory. By S. Dinakar.

The slick and quick Dale Steyn inflicts scars on the opposition — not merely physical — with his speed, lift, swing and seam. His numbers are incredible too. Even in the heat and dust of the sub-continent, the scalp-hunter is rarely off target.

Following his destructive spells in the first India versus South Africa Test in Nagpur, Steyn’s strike rate of 28.7 — he has 25 wickets in five Tests at 16.44 — is the best for any fast bowler in India (minimum qualification: 20 wickets).

Just 26, Steyn is already chasing greatness. In fact, we need to travel a long way back in cricket history — to the period between 1886 and 1896 — to find a bowler with over 100 wickets and a better strike rate than Steyn in Tests. English paceman George Lohmann’s 112 wickets in only 18 Tests came at a strike rate of 34.1. Steyn — before the Kolkata Test against India — had 195 wickets in 38 matches at a strike rate of 38.9.

Considering that two pace bowling legends, Dennis Lillee (Australia) and Waqar Younis (Pakistan), reached the 200-wicket mark in their 38th Test — former Australian leg-spinning great Clarrie Grimmett, in 36 Tests, was the quickest to achieve the feat — Steyn is keeping pace with the very best.

The South African has a lot going for him. He is tall and lithe, possesses a wonderfully smooth run-up and action, has a natural out-swinger with the new ball — it darts away at a furious pace from around the off-stump — and gets the older one to reverse swing.

Speaking of Steyn, Lillee told Sportstar: “He has a semi side-on release which does not put too much strain on his back. And from what I have seen of him, he is also a thinking bowler. He knows when to hold back, pull his pace down and bowl line and length, and when to attack with real speed and aggression. I get the feeling that he reads situations very well. And he can move the ball in the air or cut it both ways. He has a magnificent out-swinger.”

Indeed, Steyn pushes a batsman to the back-foot with his pace and bounce. He then consumes him with a fuller ball that swings away. The batsman’s feet movement forward is tentative and he perishes in the cordon.

As M. Vijay and Wriddhiman Saha discovered in Nagpur, Steyn can set up a batsman with deliveries of tremendous control. Precise out-swingers or leg-cutters were followed by the in-swinger or the off-cutter. The unsuspecting batsmen shouldered arms only to hear the delivery rattle the timber.

And maestro Sachin Tendulkar was lured into a fatal drive in the first innings in Nagpur. The South African speedster’s wrist and seam positions are exemplary.

Steyn reverse swung the ball too but statistics reveal — to the surprise of many — that conventional swing and cut have been more effective in India over the years. If we look at the most destructive bowling in an innings by a visiting paceman in India, South African Lance Klusener’s eight for 64 at the Eden Gardens in 1996 and Pakistani Sikander Bakht’s eight for 69 in New Delhi in 1979 were achieved through varying methods. Klusener was essentially fast and straight and used the short ball effectively. Bakht, on the other hand, swung the ball around in a classical fashion.

Pakistan’s Fazal Mahmood’s seven for 42 against India in Lucknow (1952) was spearheaded by accurate cutters while Australia’s Ray Lindwall was terrific with his control and movement when he claimed seven for 43 in Chennai in 1956. Left-armer John Lever’s methods were questioned by the Indians, but he did swing the ball conventionally and rather prodigiously when he sliced through the line-up with seven for 46 in New Delhi in 1976.

The dynamic Ian Botham’s seven for 48 in Mumbai (1980) was a match-winning effort of outstanding swing bowling. Reverse swing was not a factor in those days. These efforts rank higher, at least in numbers, than Steyn’s seven for 51 in the Indian first innings in Nagpur.

While reverse swing can be handy and on occasions a potent weapon for a paceman, the inroads made by the new ball hurt a side the most. ‘Swing the new ball’ has been the mantra, from Lindwall to Steyn.

Certain things never change in cricket.

Of course, a paceman has to make adjustments to his length while bowling in India. Even the great Glenn McGrath chose a fuller length here over his preferred three-quarter length down under. Since the tracks in the sub-continent offer less bounce, the fuller length enhances the chances of the ball moving in the air.

McGrath had his share of success in India; he donned a crucial role when the Aussies conquered the final frontier in 2004. The former Australian paceman has 33 wickets in eight Tests at 21.30 (strike rate: 56.9) in India. It’s a creditable record but Steyn’s numbers compare favourably with that of McGrath. The South African has operated with greater thrust in India.

In fact, McGrath’s pace partner Jason Gillespie has enjoyed more success in India. He has 33 scalps at 21.72 in seven Tests (strike rate: 47.1).

If we look at the tally of wickets of visiting pacemen in India, West Indian great Courtney Walsh tops the pack with 43 in seven Tests at 18.55 (strike rate: 38.7). Walsh’s awkward action, lift and two-way seam movement tested the Indian line-up; he could be deadly on wearing surfaces with cracks. He is followed by another West Indian great Wes Hall (38 wickets in eight Tests at 20.94, strike rate: 46.5). Lever has 37 from eight matches at 19.75 (strike rate: 43.1).

West Indies’ Andy Roberts, rated by Lillee as the most complete fast bowler he had seen, claimed 37 wickets in seven Tests at 19.81 (strike rate: 42.8). His compatriot, the menacing Malcolm Marshall, fired out 36 batsmen in nine Tests at 24.61 (strike rate: 49.4).

Australia’s lion-hearted Garth McKenzie picked up 34 wickets in eight Tests at 19.26 (strike rate: 58.3) in India, while England’s pacy Bob Willis — 32 wickets in 10 Tests at 22.37 (strike rate: 49.5) — too had his moments.

The masterly Richard Hadlee of New Zealand grabbed 31 wickets in just six Tests at 22.22 (strike rate: 44.00). Hadlee was slower than Steyn, but his methods were similar.

Behind the top pack are the Aussie left-armer of much craft and swing, Alan Davidson, the Whispering Death from the West Indies, Michael Holding, and Botham, all with 30 wickets.

It is clear from the list that foreign pacemen in general have been less effective in India since the mid-1990s. This again is surprising, given the extent of focus on reverse swing during this period. Pakistan’s Wasim Akram had a mixed time in India by his own lofty standards (27 wickets in eight Tests at 27.70, strike rate: 62.9).

In fact, Steyn’s inspiration, Allan Donald had a rather rewarding experience in India — 17 wickets in four Tests at 16.11 (strike rate: 42.8). He hurried the batsmen with speed and nailed them with just a hint of movement.

In terms of sheer impact though, the red-hot Marshall’s eight-wicket match haul in the Kanpur Test of 1983 would be hard to beat. He cut the ball at lightning speed and hustled the batsmen with venomous short-pitched deliveries from round the wicket on a placid Green Park track. It was an awesome display of hostile fast bowling.

Steyn, surely, belongs to the big league. His heroics in India would be talked about for a long time. He dented India with the new and the old ball. While conventional outswing remains his strength, he has also bowled the reverse swing. His swinging yorkers do probe the batsmen.

“Steyn disguises the ball well when he sends down reverse swing. He covers it with his palm and fingers and the batsman is not able to see which side is shiny and which one is rough till the very last moment,” says Lillee. In reverse swing, the ball moves towards the shiny side.

The South African is bound for greater glory. He already has four 10-wicket match hauls and his performances at home — 113 wickets in 22 Tests at 23.29 (strike rate: 40.00) — compare favourably with his away record of 82 wickets in 16 Tests at 22.70 (strike rate: 37.50).

Crucially, Steyn has a sense of occasion. In the dramatic Test series in Australia of 2008-09, where South Africa triumphed, he dismissed 18 batsmen in three Tests at 26.16 (strike rate: 43.7). The South African has tormented India. His four for 30 in the Indian second innings — he reversed the ball — in Cape Town in the decider in 2007 was a match-swinging effort. Then, he blew away the host in the Ahmedabad Test of 2008 with a blistering five for 23 in the first innings.

The aggression and intent in him simmer. Dale Steyn is high on octane and low on sympathy for the batsmen.