Danyal Rasool in Centurion
We may all agree there’s almost no limit to what Dale Steyn can do. The second wicket of the day, his 422nd, was simply a reminder that South Africa’s greatest fast bowler could suffer a broken arm – a death knell for most fast bowlers – come back aged 35, maintain that pace, and overtake Shaun Pollock at the top of his country’s wickets list. Steyn bowls fast at the guy at the other end, and sends him away quicker than just about any other fast bowler does. That’s just one of the things he does.
On Monday, he was putting his omnipotence to another use, predicting with eerie detail how the Boxing Day Test might pan out. At the press conference, where most of the attention lay on the Pollock record, there was a question about whether he was worried that, in the absence of Lungi Ngidi and Vernon Philander, he might be forced to take on more of the bowling responsibility.
For a moment, it almost appeared Steyn was annoyed by the sheer impudence of the question. “Do you know who’s in our squad?” he shot back. “We’ve drafted in another bowler, we’re fine.”
That “other bowler” was Duanne Olivier. Consider what he went on to say about the 26-year old, and compare it to what happened out there on Boxing Day. “I do think the onus will be on our bigger players like KG [Kagiso Rabada] and myself but I think Duane’s been bowling beautifully. He’s the highest wicket-taker in the MSL. He got four or five wickets in the warm-up game so if he goes under the radar and takes wickets and we win, I’m not complaining.” On a day that ended with Olivier taking six wickets and wrapping Pakistan up before tea, how’s that for prescient?
Olivier had come in as first change after nine overs that had served as an extended celebratory party for Steyn, the atmosphere more than merry enough for this time of year. Following Rabada and Steyn is rarely a flattering experience, and Olivier did indeed look off the pace for his first three overs. Even the first wicket he took, an ordinary delivery down legside that Shan Masood somehow conspired to drag onto his stumps, had little of the elegance normally associated with the man he had replaced in the XI – Philander.
“I was a bit disappointed in my first two overs,” Olivier said. “I think my lines were a bit too short and I gave a bit of width. I think I was a bit nervous as well. My main focus was just to commit every ball 100% and it just seemed to work. The wicket’s bounce helped, and that’s one of my strengths.”
It was the next one that made everyone sit up and take notice. Asad Shafiq shaped up to play one he expected to hold its line on off stump, but just as it approached his bat, it changed course, heading for his front pad. It was trademark Philander.
In the fourth over after lunch, when Babar Azam and Azhar Ali would barely have digested what they had consumed, Olivier came up with an over that made Pakistan feel sick. The first ball was a perfectly directed bouncer – he bowled that well all day, forcing Pakistan’s batsman into all manner of undignified positions – which Azhar gloved into the air. Theunis de Bruyn, who only passed a fitness test two days ago, scampered to his right, and at full stretch, plucked the ball inches before it kissed the ground. Call it Steyn’s stardust or good old unrelenting work ethic, but this is a bowling unit that has begun to take for granted world-class support from its fielders.
Speaking of fitness, it is worth noting the particular circumstances in which Olivier had prepared for this Test. He was, as Steyn pointed out, the leading wicket-taker in the MSL, but perhaps more impressively, the only one of the seamers not allowed the luxury of a rest ahead of this match; the depleted bowling ranks of the Knights, his domestic franchise, meant it just wasn’t possible.
Olivier had bowled with impeccable rhythm in the game against the Titans last week, and taken seven wickets in the match, ultimately in a losing cause. The short ball tactic that got him three of his wickets on Wednesday was so expertly deployed against the Titans that it had left both openers requiring treatment from the physio. The openers in question? Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram.
“The four-day game was good preparation for me,” he said. “The wicket played a little bit similar, not as much bounce, but it was going around nicely. So for me, it was just going back to basics and to showcase my strengths here.”
If the unassuming nature of Olivier’s run-up might remind you of Philander, not much about the actual deliveries did. He banged in 66% of them short of a good length, and according to Cricviz, was the fastest of the bowlers on show. Much of the magic happens after he plants his foot and goes through the delivery stride, a wickedly swift front-on action culminating in a snap of both shoulder and wrist giving it much of the unlikely pace it carries. The bounce these pitches offer, of course, lends him another layer of potency.
In five Tests prior, though, he had never taken more than three wickets in an innings, and hadn’t played one since October 2017. It is an uncanny thing South Africa do, arguably better than anyone else in the world: prepare their players for international cricket, reared completely on the domestic circuit. Upon readmission in 1990, there was never an easing-in period, with South Africa simply claiming their place around the top of world cricket, where they’ve stayed ever since.
After all, Olivier is at best the home side’s fifth-choice fast bowler, but here he was, being passionately defended by Steyn and earmarked as the potential match-winner in just his sixth Test, and first in 14 months. The confidence in the system, rather than just the squad that most often puts on the Test whites, is understandable. No side in the world is bled dry of quality talent year in, year out, as South Africa is, whether they leave for reasons related to Kolpak or the transformation policy, or the desire to pursue more lucrative T20 careers elsewhere. Olivier, remember, got his own chance only after Kyle Abbott walked away in 2016.
Now, on a day when the focus was all on Steyn, one couldn’t help but think about his pre-match press conference and that impassioned defence of his junior partner. Steyn’s faith, as well as Olivier’s place in the side, have been more than justified.