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Steyn of history hovers at St George's

09 March 2018
Our voices

Reflections on Australia's most recent Test in Port Elizabeth, when Dale Steyn spurred South Africa to a memorable victory


Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.

It's not just the salt-crusted easterlies that whip off Nelson Mandela Bay and howl down Port Elizabeth's Marine Drive that will bring a whiff of familiarity for Australia's touring team when the second Test starts at St George’s Park on Friday.

There's the expansive Duckpond Pavilion – a fixture for more than 20 years - that dominates the view from the players' dressing room as they gaze over a venue that habitually hosts the slowest, lowest Test pitch in South Africa.

The rollicking brass band that churns relentlessly through its daily repertoire will again be in residence among the general admission seats of the Memorial Stand, built to honour the more than 150 members of the ground's cricket and rugby clubs who served during the First World War.

And the catacombs beneath that edifice which lead to the adjoining practice nets remain dotted with home-style food and drinks stalls, some of which are still run by members of local church women's associations.

The brass band is synonymous with cricket in Port Elizabeth // Getty

When they were last in town for a Test four years ago, the Australians arrived similarly buoyed by the telling blow landed against their hosts in the series' opener, not dissimilar in authority (281 runs) and methodology (ruthless fast bowling) to the 118-run triumph they scored in Durban earlier this week.

A victory that served to show doubters that the flawless form of a just-completed Ashes summer could be assuredly transplanted abroad.

Plus there was the controversy that came to swirl around opener David Warner, who was fined 15 per cent of his match fee by ICC match referee Roshan Mahanama for comments he made in an interview with a Sydney radio station that alluded to South Africa's on-field tactics in that clash four years ago.

After reverse swing bowling on the dry Port Elizabeth pitch left the Aussies dumbfounded and defeated in 2014, Warner suggested his team was "questioning whether or not (then Proteas wicketkeeper) AB de Villiers would get the ball in his hand and, with his glove, wipe the rough side every ball".

But one facet that will be demonstrably different to the Australians' previous Test visit four years ago – to the undoubted relief of key members of the touring party – is the prospect of confronting South Africa's best strike bowler in conditions that can make him nigh on unplayable.

The sun sets on St George's Park - and Australia's chances of victory - in 2014 // Getty

Proteas great Dale Steyn remains sidelined due to the latest in a run of nagging injuries that stretches back to the shoulder fracture he sustained while bowling at Perth in the opening match of the bitter rivals' most recent Test campaign two summers ago.

And that fact, given the influence he wielded in that memorable 2014 encounter that set up a stirring series finale, will bring some comfort to Bupa Support Team men's coach Darren Lehmann, his lieutenant (and fielding coach) Brad Haddin and skipper Steve Smith.

More so than other members of the current squad who also travelled to the Rainbow Nation in 2014 (Warner, Nathan Lyon and Shaun Marsh), Lehmann, Haddin and Smith have cause to flinch when they recall the second Test of that previous three-match tour.

Smith, freshly ensconced in the Australia line-up after his Ashes heroics of the preceding home summer, because Steyn handed him the only golden duck of his Test career to date - pinned lbw by the first ball he faced in his team's calamitous second innings.

Haddin because twice in as many knocks he was clean bowled by Steyn who generated reverse swing at warp speed, and whose exuberance as he scythed through the tourists' non-plussed batting was encapsulated in the victory roar he directed at his foe's flattened off stump.

A jubilant Steyn celebrates Haddin's wicket in the second innings // Getty

And Lehmann due to the slap that Steyn so expertly delivered to his outfit that was riding the crest of six consecutive Test wins and eyeing the world No.1 ranking heading into that pivotal Port Elizabeth fixture.

But Steyn would decide the result in devastating style, his 4-55 in the final innings as he got the ball to bend past the groping bats of Australia's middle and lower-order sparked a collapse in which the tourists lost their last nine wickets for 64 runs in less than 32 overs.

It was as Lehmann watched his own pace ace Mitchell Starc inflict a similar hurt via the same method to South Africa’s batters in Durban last week that his mind was cast back to what unfolded in Port Elizabeth four years prior.

"I expect it (reverse-swing) to happen again," Lehmann said in the aftermath of the Kingsmead win.

Steyn the hero as Proteas level series

"We think Port Elizabeth will be very similar (to Durban) - it was last time."

What will be decidedly dissimilar is the absence of Steyn, who remains hopeful of returning for the upcoming third Test at Cape Town should his recovery from a heel ailment – that has prevented him from playing any competitive cricket since January – continues unimpeded.

The 34-year-old holder of 419 Test wickets revealed to a South African radio station in recent days that he hopes to be "back on a cricket field by the end of next week".

Due to the heightened effectiveness of reverse swing bowling in the hands of those (such as Starc) capable of regularly pushing speeds of more than 140km/h, Steyn’s unavailability means the Proteas' hopes of revisiting the carnage of 2014 rest with 22-year-old Kagiso Rabada.

And given that the decisive difference in Durban was the respective contributions from each team's lower-order against the old ball – Australia’s last four wickets added 166 across two innings compared to the Proteas' 27 – it is expected that reverse swing might again dictate the outcome this weekend.

Steyn and the Proteas celebrate their series-levelling victory // Getty

"There was a real difference, and you can see the skill of the reverse-swinging ball with Rabada and Starc, they were the two stand-outs when it came to reverse swing," South Africa captain Faf du Plessis said in the wake of the Kingsmead defeat.

"When KG (Rabada) had the ball in his hand it looked like he could take a wicket at any stage, and the same thing with Starc.

"So obviously it's one bowler in each team at the moment that's got the potential to do that to the tail.

"Dale (Steyn) is one of those guys that are very deadly with the reverse-swinging ball.

"But Dale’s not available for us right now so we’ve got to make sure that with the guys that we have, we find a way to eliminate the tail a lot quicker."

Steyn celebrates as Michael Clarke watches on // Getty

Qantas tour of South Africa

South Africa squad: Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Theunis de Bruyn, AB de Villiers, Dean Elgar, Heinrich Klaasen, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Wiaan Mulder, Lungi Ngidi, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada.

Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Mitchell Starc.

Warm-up match: Australia beat South Africa A by five wickets. Report, highlights

First Test Australia won by 118 runs. Scorecard

Second Test St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, March 9-13. Live coverage

Third Test Newlands, Cape Town, March 22-26. Live coverage

Fourth Test Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 30-April 3. Live coverage