SA in New Zealand
Steyn recaptures his sting
Dale Steyn (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - I’m prepared to bet that Dale Steyn’s problematic big toe suddenly doesn’t hurt so much.
While again beaten in the wickets column by emerging strike partner Vernon Philander - that very fact a huge tribute to the less experienced customer, of course - the Phalaborwa Express nevertheless rediscovered his mojo for the Proteas in an explosive final session on day one of the second Test against New Zealand in Hamilton on Thursday.
It was he who triggered the clatter of wickets in that session, 10 in all, which almost certainly means this Test will see an outcome either way, unlike the rain-wrecked opening encounter in Dunedin ... and the tourists hold the aces.
There is a good prospect of mild, mostly dry weather as things stand for the remainder of this game, and play has already advanced to such an extent now that even a few interruptions ought not to prevent a result.
South Africa won’t be too seriously unnerved, either, by the loss of two of their own wickets before the close (one of them night-watchman Steyn) as they find themselves only 158 runs adrift of the insufficient Black Caps’ total of 185 all out with eight wickets in hand -- there is talk that days two and three will be kindest for batting, even if that is often a phenomenon in this format.
That is an infinitely better position than they were in when, following a gritty 89-run alliance between home kingpins Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor, it was just beginning to seem as if the New Zealanders had actually lost a “good” toss.
After all, any early demons in an initially greenish pitch and under leaden skies appeared to be settling and a hard grind was in prospect for the Proteas as the scoreboard reached 133 for two.
Nobody in their right minds could have predicted what would happen next, as Steyn, after a period of pretty sustained assault and battery by the attack as a whole, exposed McCullum’s impetuous streak once again when threateningly set: he suckered him into pulling a short ball down Jacques Rudolph’s gleeful throat at deep square leg.
And with Philander extremely happy to rejoin a swelling “party”, New Zealand incredibly lost another four wickets without a further run being added ... yes, 133 for seven.
During those chaotic 15 minutes or so, one can only imagine the panic, and frantic rummaging around for protective equipment - no doubt a fair bit of it - in the home dressing room.
You have to give some credit to Kruger van Wyk, the little battler from Wolmaransstad, and more genuine tailender Mark Gillespie for partly stabilising the floundering ship, the latter indulging in some unorthodox, Pub XI-type slogging even after a particularly painful blow from Steyn flush on the forearm.
They say it sometimes only takes a few balls for a fast bowler to feel good about himself again after a leanish spell, and that certainly seemed to apply to Steyn on Thursday.
He had still been a bit down on pace in the early part of the New Zealand innings, perhaps still suffering the lingering effects of his toe issue from University Oval a few days earlier.
Typically of pacemen not completely at peace with the world, it wasn’t hard to see tell-tale evidence of his frustration: a shake of the head here, a kick at the turf there, the occasional shower of spittle ... Steyn sets high standards for himself and clearly knew things weren’t quite clicking.
Here is a man who hasn’t bagged more than a solitary “five-for” in his last 14 innings in Tests, which is an unusual statistic if you examine his stellar five-day career in entirety.
But the scalp of McCullum, after both tea and a protracted rain break, was the spark that started the Steyn fire at Seddon Park, as the world’s top-ranked bowler found both rhythm and pace – he got one ball through at 152km/h, according to the speed gun, which is probably right up there with his very best timings.
Might that mini-spell also be the signal that the 28-year-old is up and running in series terms after a slightly ho-hum Dunedin (two for 104) for him?
It could be hugely influential to the prospects of South Africa claiming the summer spoils against the seldom-say-die hosts.
Meanwhile Philander is well on course to become the fastest South African to 50 Test scalps: halfway (in bowling terms anyway) through this fixture for him, he now sports 39 after another four-wicket booty, and in only his sixth Test.
Peter Pollock is the record holder as things stand: he got there in nine Tests - and ironically at Wellington in February 1964, the city where the Proteas will end this tour with the third Test.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing