Thursday, June 14, 2012

Analysis on South Africa's pace attack - Part 1

The fast bowling tribe from the Rainbow nation is coming again to the Old Blighty, beware! This fast bowling tribe consists of bloody minded cricketers, who are just after a batsman's head, or their stumps. They look to blast the batsmen out of the crease with pace and intimidation. In short, they are like trained commandos shooting down the bad guys of the world with AK-47.

For an outsider, it seems like they have a secret factory located somewhere in Johannesburg, or Capetown where, instead of producing ballistic missiles, they produce something called fast bowlers. Let it be Andy Bell, Quinn, Adcock, Heine, Peter Pollock, the giant Vince Van Der Biji, Garth Le Roux, Donald, the injury prone but deadly Schultz, Devilliers, Ntini, Steyn, Morkel, Philander and co. All-rounders like Shaun Pollock, Procter, Rice, Macmillan  and many more, South Africa never have had a shortage of fast bowling talent. The assembly line of fast bowlers just don't dry up in the secret factory of the Rainbow Nation.

If I think about even the current crop of fast bowlers consisting of Steyn, Morkel, Philander, Kallis and Lange, they can make the batsmen feel like they are batting on a cauldron of lava. At the same-time, South Africa's pace attack can crumble under pressure and sometimes, may lack the craftiness to defeat the batsmen.  

So in this article, I will look at the current crop of South Africa's pace bowlers who, will look to intimidate England's formidable batting line-up with sheer pace, hostility and their aggressive swagger.

Dale Steyn - The spearhead of the fast bowling tribe Dale Steyn, is a true phenomenon. In an era made up of flat tracks, the Saffer quickie has taken 272 wickets @23.18 and more importantly has a S/R of 40.18. He is no doubt the one and only true great fast bowler of this era.

Just like the battery of fast bowlers we have seen before from South Africa, Steyn too can bowl quick. The one difference is, unlike the battery of hit the deck bowlers, who terrorized the batsmen with pace and bounce, Steyn looks to pitch it up and on his day, he can get it to swing it late at pace. Now, that is a deadly combination to have. Steyn also has a wicked bouncer which tends to follow the right-handed batsman all the way through and invariably takes a piece of the batsman's helmet along with it. I have seen old-timers compare his bouncer to England's former fast bowler John Snow and that is a high praise indeed.This mettlesome cricketer also seems to be made up of Toledo steel, as for a fast bowler, he doesn't break down often.

So does that mean England's batsmen don't have a hope in hell of doing well against the spearhead of  South Africa's pace attack? Of course, England's formidable batting line-up can do well, but they have to be at their absolute best when facing up-to this mighty fine bowler from the Safferland.

First and foremost, Steyn's record against England isn't anything to write home about. Steyn has taken 31 wickets @34.29 against England which shows that the batsmen have generally played him well. Yes, when England played him in 04/05, Steyn was raw and in 09/10, he looked short of a gallop at Durban, as he was just coming back from an injury. The fact though is, he has struggled a bit against England.

One of main reasons for Steyn's struggles against England is, when Steyn came to England in 08, he wasn't able to acclimatise to the different conditions on view quickly. Steyn struggled with the slope at Lord's, tried to pitch it up further to look for swing, but it ended up as half volleys for the batsmen to feast on and maybe as in England the duke ball is used, he struggled a bit to get used to it. Just when Steyn was hitting top form in the second test at Leeds, he got injured and went back home. Steyn now is four years older, so you expect the experienced quickie to acclimatise to the English conditions quicker.

On occasions, Steyn also has struggled a bit against left-handers and England have two lefties at top of the order. Before 2010, Steyn's average against the left-handers was as high as 34.58. It has come down to 26.59 in the last 2 years yet, one can see that he prefers bowling to the right-handed batsmen. So, what maybe the reason behind Steyn's preference of bowling to the right-handers?

Steyn is mainly an outswing bowler and as a result, he will look to bowl the inswinger to the left-handers. The problem is, when compared to say England's spearhead Jimmy Anderson, he doesn't bowl the away swinger to a left-handed-batsman that well. You can see that even with the numbers, as in the last two years, (the series against West Indies hasn't been counted) Anderson has accounted for 39 left-handers and 32 of those wickets have come through being caught by the keeper, or in the slip cordon. It doesn't just show that how well Anderson has used the crease to create an angle across a left-hander so as to produce the edge, but also the importance of the away swinger.

 Steyn on the other hand, when he tries the away swinger, he tends to give room to a left-hander. Being a leftie myself, I can safely say that you don't need a second invitation to play a cut shot against a delivery that is short and wide. The best example I can think of is, Steyn struggling with both line and length on the first day at Lord's in 08 against Strauss and Cook. He would bowl short and wide to both Strauss and Cook and in the end, would overcompensate for it by bowling too full. 

Having said that England's captain Strauss hasn't been able to take advantage of Steyn's occasional struggles against the left-handers. Strauss averaged just 25.71 in 08 and 24.78 in 09/10 against the Saffers. Strauss had great success in 04/05 against the Saffers, but I am not considering it, as Steyn was a greenhorn at that time. Steyn though, has dismissed Strauss just once which gives even more weightage to the theory that Steyn can struggle a bit against a left-handed-batsman. The good news for Strauss is, his tormentor in the last few series Ntini has retired. Ntini dismissed Strauss as many as seven times in his career. The bad news is, the bowler who has dismissed him six times Morne Morkel, still plays for South Africa.

 Strauss's opening partner Cook has done far better against South Africa. Cook averaged 47 in 08 and 41 in 09/10. In-fact, it is staggering to see that even though Steyn is an opening bowler, he has never dismissed Cook! It isn't surprising though that yet again Morkel and Ntini have tormented Cook the most. This time around, Morkel leads the pack as he has dismissed Cook 6 times to Ntini's 3.

Yes, the tall Morkel and the newbie Philander can trouble Strauss and Cook yet, it is a big plus that the main man in the opposition pace attack has a tendency to struggle against the left-handers. I wonder, whether the Saffers will open the bowling with Philander and Morkel against England?

Philander - Most people would expect Morkel to be Steyn's partner in crime with a new ball in hand. Philander though, has been so good since his debut that nowadays, he has taken over the new ball duties from Morkel. In-fact, you can call Philander a sensation. Philander is now the second fastest to reach the landmark of taking 50 wickets. The fastest to reach that landmark did it in the year 1888. It seems like he achieved that feat in stone age as 1888 is a longtime ago. It does show how great Philander has been in his short career.

One may wonder are England's batsmen shuddering with fear at the mere thought of facing this new phenomenon from the Safferland? The fact is, Philander has ripped through batting line-ups like SL, Kiwis and the inconsistent Australian batting line-up. Philander though, hasn't bowled on flat tracks, or he hasn't come up against a formidable batting line-up. It doesn't mean that I don't rate Philander, but he still has to be tested against good batting line-ups and on flat tracks. Here, bowling against England's formidable line-up will be a bigger test for him.

So what are Philander's strengths and how can England's batsmen look to tackle him? Philander bowls with superb control and gets just enough nip of the surface to create problems for the batsmen. From what I have seen of  Vernon, he came across as a specialist in bowling on a fourth stump channel all day. Philander isn't quick, but has a decent effort ball which is about 5 miles per hour quicker than his stock delivery.

The clue to playing him can be seen by how the Kiwi, Kane Williamson played him on the last day of the final test in the Kiwiland. Philander struck to his tried and tested method of bowling on a fourth stump channel and the odd wide delivery to tempt the batsman to drive. On the other hand, Williamson kept leaving most of those deliveries and Philander wasn't able to make inroads into New Zealand's batting line-up.  Philander just gave away 29 runs in 18 overs, but he had no wickets to show for his efforts on that day. Am I clutching to straws here? maybe, but till now Williamson has been the only batsman, who has tried to play the patience game against Philander and it worked.

Philander doesn't get bounce like McGrath. Here, anyone can remember Pigeon even making the little master Tendulkar look human in 1999 WC with a perfect delivery at Edgbaston. It was a short of a length ball that bounced awkwardly on and around off-stump and with the nip he got from the surface, thanks to the last second downward flick of Glenn's wrist meant that little master had no other option, but to edge it. Philander though, doesn't get the same amount of bounce. Now, why can't a few batsmen especially KP, just look to bat slightly out of the crease and see whether Philander has got a plan B? People tell me, he has a decent bouncer, but I haven't seen much evidence of it.

Philander also came across as a good bowler against the lefthanders. He has played only seven tests and it is hard to judge his effectiveness against the left-handers, but from South Africa's point of view, it is worth considering an opening burst from Vernon and Morkel.

I won't bore you more with my analysis on South Africa's pace attack. Instead, I will have a look at rest of South Africa's pace attack in the second part of the article.

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