View from the Pavilion End: South Africa's Fab Four
The visitors' formidable quartet of pace bowlers tests techniques and temperaments to the hilt
When Clive Lloyd, chastened by a chasing from an Australian pace attack in 1974-1975, decided that the best balanced attack was four quicks who kept coming and coming and coming, he changed Test cricket forever.
As his West Indian team swept all before it in the late 70s and 80s, there was even a fear of spinners dying out altogether, as wrist spin appeared to be doing, before the chubby bleach blond with the ear-ring bowled the Ball of the Century and a smiling assassin from Sri Lanka spun it this way and that.
Geniuses, of course, make their own rules (as Kevin Pietersen seems desperate to prove) but amongst the merely excellent, pace outside the subcontinent has become the means of taking 20 wickets and hence the means of winning Test matches.
But that doesn't mean that any bunch of seamers will gel together, will work in harmony to probe batsmen's weaknesses, will offer a captain options regardless of pitch conditions or the scoreboard's sledgehammer of truth. Pace attacks need to be balanced too – a set of surgical instruments for a captain to use in order to dissect the opposition.
The unforgettable summer of 2005 saw an England attack nicknamed The Fab Four, a perfect illustration of the balance that can just click in the best bowling units. Matthew Hoggard offered new and old ball swing, Stephen Harmison bounce and hostility, Andrew Flintoff accuracy and reverse swing (especially round the wicket) and Simon Jones toe-crushing yorkers dipping in late. Every bowler asked different questions at different stages of match – sometimes at different stages of an over!
Seven years on, Graeme Smith enjoys the same riches as did Michael Vaughan. With the new ball, he whistles up the best bowler in the world, a man who is a throwback to the days of Donald and Wasim, Marshall and Botham – Dale Steyn.
Genuinely quick, he consistently moves the ball late and holds a line tight to the stumps. He doesn't set batsmen up as Glenn McGrath would do so devilshly, but instead aims to take a wicket with every delivery – and his astonishing strike rate of a wicket every 41 balls shows that he's not far wrong in that estimation.
Sharing the new ball with the champion Steyn, is the new kid on the block and the fastest man to 50 Test wickets in a century, Vernon Philander. Undoubtedly benefiting from having batsmen unconsciously relax having survived a Steyn examination at the other end, Philander doesn't look much, but he moves the ball away from the right-hander's bat from a length that is always inviting the drive and, crucially, he has a plan and skill to execute it.
Quicker even than Steyn and with a bouncer that rears into the armpit and above rather than skids (as Steyn's does) into the rib-cage, is Morne Morkel. Tall and, when the rhythm is with him, about the fastest bowler in world cricket, Morkel won't let batsmen get on to the front foot as they are forcing themselves to do at the other end to combat Steyn and Philander swinging it.
Like Stephen Harmison, Morkel is no snarling speedster sledging and swearing, but he gets the most from his height and his long levers and can bowl all day as his run-up and delivery are models of economy. He's a horrible prospect at first change.
Last one to get his hands on the ball is the oldest paceman in town, Jacques Kallis. Often seen as a reluctant bowler, he has nevertheless delivered almost as many overs in Test cricket as Steyn and Morkel combined and uses every drop of that experience to work on a batsman's technique and nerve.
Though not as quick as he was in his twenties, his huge shoulder turn can still make the ball hit the bat hard and his control can tempt the most wary of opponents into injudicious decisions.
Smith's Fab Four crushed England's upper order as they set off in pursuit of a first innings lead. Steyn was in at Trott's stumps, snaring him LBW on review. So many of Steyn's deliveries would hit the stumps, which helps with the LBWs, but also makes a widish one a real temptation - one Alastair Cook, of all people, was unable to resist.
Morkel has far fewer balls hitting the stumps (or close enough that a batsman must play the ball) but he got one to castle Andrew Strauss, sparking memories of Glenn McGrath's bowling at Lord's in 2005, the finest I have ever seen. James Taylor lasted only three deliveries from Morkel, before edging his fourth from the big man to first slip. He has much to learn – as do all batsmen making their way in Test cricket.
Philander wasn't to be denied, showing his patience by working on Ian Bell's “fourth stump” before inducing the edge to third slip from just about as wide a ball as he bowled to England's new Number Four. A battle won by Philander, despite Bell's excellent knock.
There was no wicket for Kallis, but he kept things tight and he'll be back tomorrow for a crack at the late order.
If England are to win this match and retain their number one ranking in Test cricket, their batsman will have to play extremely well from here, working out four different methods for four very different bowlers, whose only common factor is their mastery of their craft. This is why its called Test cricket.