Exhilarating Steyn leaves India bruised

Exhilarating Steyn leaves India bruised

SA pacer rattled batsmen with excellent mix of conventional and reverse swing

Exhilarating Steyn leaves India bruised

Bowling coach Eric Simmons (left) discusses a point with pacer Ishant Sharma on Wednesday. Reuters

It wasn’t merely the lack of bite in the bowling attack that stood severely exposed during India’s embarrassing innings loss in the first Test to South Africa.

Even at home of late, India’s success has been as much due to the excellent use of reverse swing by Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and S Sreesanth as the turning, jumping ball. With reverse swing conspicuous by its absence for the entire length of the match apart from when Dale Steyn wrecked the Indian tail with a changed ball in the first innings and the spinners having the worst of the conditions on the first and second days, the Indian bowling wore the same ‘ordinary’ tag conferred on Bangladesh last month by Virender Sehwag.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for India. A vastly depleted batting line-up in the absence of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, the forced last-minute inclusion of Wriddhiman Saha as a specialist batsman, the loss of the toss, the absence of reverse swing and the sub-par performance of spin spearhead Harbhajan Singh meant India were ripe for the taking.

To exacerbate their woes, India ran into Steyn at his marauding best. The 26-year-old, at peak fitness and in complete control of his awe-inspiring craft, decimated the Indian batting with one of the finest displays of fast bowling in this country, marked by conventional and reverse swing with tremendous air-speed that took the slowness of the VCA stadium strip out of the equation.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni called it the best display of conventional swing bowling he has seen in the last 12 months, while Sehwag, one of India’s two centurions during that crushing defeat, ranked the South African the ‘best and most dangerous’ bowler he has faced in his career. High praise, indeed!

As a phenomenon, reverse swing has grown exponentially over the years into a fine art form, with few better practitioners than bowlers from the sub-continent. Conventional swing with the new ball in this part of the world, especially at this time of the year when temperatures are on the rise, is another matter altogether.

What makes Steyn’s performance on the third morning, when he fired out Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar in the first innings with genuine, enviable swing, was that he managed to get a ball with which he is not entirely familiar to do his bidding. The South Africans – as indeed the rest of the world apart from England -- use the Kookaburra in all forms of the game, but in India, Test cricket is played with the SG Test ball. The SG Test has a prouder seam that allows the spinners to get greater purchase, but it also stops swinging that much earlier than the Kookaburra, which doesn’t entirely facilitate reverse swing. Indeed, when Australia toured India in 2008, Zaheer and Ishant got the ball to reverse as early as the 11th or 12th over, with orthodox swing dying away early in the piece.

It’s an indication of Steyn’s proficiency and his skill levels that he managed to get the SG Test to swing conventionally even as late as the 15th over. The 26-year-old doesn’t just bound in and bowl quickly; that there is a very calculative mind too was apparent from the manner in which he set Vijay up. After feeding Vijay a succession of outswingers, Steyn unleashed a tremendous inswinger. His mind programmed to play the one leaving him, the right-hander shouldered arms and whirled around in stunned consternation when he heard the death rattle. Strike one!

For effect, strike two was even more impressive. Tendulkar, that master craftsman who has been there and done that, was greeted with a widish awayswinger that he caressed through mid-off for four. Not long afterwards, he was sucked into driving, loosely, at a closer outswinger that shaped away late, caught the outside edge and the maestro by surprise. Exhilarating stuff.

With his seven for 51 on Monday, the number one Test bowler in the world reiterated that his five for 23 on a helpful surface in Ahmedabad two years back, when India crumbled to 76 all out on the first morning, was no flash in the pan. India don’t have much time between now and Sunday, when the second Test begins, to find a way past the Steyn Test, but if they don’t they can bid their number one status goodbye. And nurse a fair few bruised egos!

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