SA's best bowling attack since readmission?
In the wake of South Africa's crushing victory over New Zealand in Hamilton, Tristan Holme asks if this is South Africa's most complete bowling attack since isolation.
'The South African bowling unit is almost famous, but not nearly as famous as it should be,' began Chris Rattue's column in the New Zealand Herald on Monday. It was a good place to start, because while there have been instances of inept batting from New Zealand in the series so far, there have also been some good innings and yet no-one has been able to get on top of South Africa's bowlers. Such has been the relentlessness of the pressure the Proteas have exerted as a unit that New Zealand have had no answer.
Vernon Philander grabbed the headlines once more, and yet midway through the third morning it was Morne Morkel who had seemed the pick of the bowlers in the second innings. The two Test pitches we have had so far have not been as helpful as the scores have suggested, but South Africa's refusal to let their foot off the gas when the ball has gone soft has been the difference between a normal Test match and a three-day affair. Even when there is nothing happening, all five bowlers have found a way to be threatening in a defensive manner.
Morkel's 1 for 26 in 13 overs during the second innings typified that. Bowling into a slight breeze he alternated between troubling the batsmen with the short ball, and zoning in on the top of off stump. Doug Bracewell was his only wicket, but the pressure he created exhausted the batsmen, wearing them down to a point where they no longer had the mental strength to deal with the skill of Philander and Dale Steyn.
Steyn had performed a similar role in Dunedin, where he bowled well but not brilliantly, while Jacques Kallis' spell on the third morning not only kept New Zealand on the back foot but brought the key wicket of Daniel Vettori. It was a spell which showed that, even when South Africa's weakest bowler was on, the batsmen were under threat.
Sitting in the press conference room a few hours later the thought dawned that, pound for pound, this could well be South Africa's most complete bowling attack since readmission. "It'll be up there I think," agreed assistant coach Russell Domingo. "We've obviously had great individual bowlers in [Shaun] Pollock and [Allan] Donald, Fanie de Villiers, Brian McMillan. But as a unit this is probably one of the top bowling units that South Africa has produced because there's no bowler that you can target. Everybody's at you all the time and knows what's expected of him and has the skills to execute it."
South Africa have had some wonderful pace attacks in the last 20 years. The 1994 side that drew home and away series against Australia contained Donald, de Villiers, McMillan and Craig Matthews, while the 2008 team that won series in England and Australia had Steyn, Morkel and Makhaya Ntini, with Kallis providing able back-up.
Yet so often down the years the Proteas have lacked an attacking spinner. Pat Symcox played in the famous win in Sydney in 1994, but his bark was generally bigger than his bite. Left-arm spinners Nicky Boje and Paul Harris have performed admirable jobs for extended periods of time and made vital contributions to memorable victories, but while both boasted excellent control, their purpose rarely went beyond holding up an end for the fast bowlers.
Paul Adams is the closest South Africa have come to a serious spinner. In early 1996 he joined Donald, Pollock, McMillan, Kallis and Hansie Cronje in an attack that bowled England out for 153 and 157 to wrap up a series win at Newlands. That combination has a fair claim to the title of most complete unit, but the current crop has every opportunity to usurp it. Steyn looks set to at least match Donald's record, while Philander has shown in his six Tests that he has the control of Pollock but perhaps a touch more skill. Morkel is a new-ball bowler in his own right, forced into first-change by the success of the other two, whereas McMillan was always a back-up man.
The only question remaining is Imran Tahir. In seven Tests he is yet to encounter a helpful pitch, and while his 18 wickets have come at 37 he certainly hasn't disgraced himself. An economy rate of 3.25 is higher than Harris and Boje but what he is trying to do is very different. South Africa's needs have forced him to temper his attacking nature slightly, but a wicked googly means he is always a wicket-taking threat.
"He's taken 500 first-class wickets and has done so with lots of variations, so one issue we've worked on is for him to be patient with his pace and variations, and make batsmen work him through the off-side. He's shown that in this Test," Donald told me during the Dunedin clash.
"I'm sure he would love a four-for or five-for somewhere," Smith said after the win in Hamilton. "Ultimately he's doing his role. He's not going at fours or fives - he's going at sort of 2.8/3 per over so he's holding the game for us still. I'm hoping that when we get on that real turner that he'll come to the party and pick up some crucial wickets."
That chance won't come in Wellington this week, where a bouncy pitch is likely to give the seamers more help than the spinners, and so Tahir's biggest test is yet to come. Should he pass with flying colours when it does eventually roll around, this attack's coronation as South Africa's finest since isolation will surely be complete.