Watch out for South Africa's bowlers
South African cricket has done it again: arrived in a foreign land with a pace attack to savour. Back in the mid and late 1960s - before isolation - Peter Pollock and Mike Procter led their country's rout of Australia. They would have done much the same to anyone else, given the chance. The production line continued through the wilderness years as Procter's heroic deeds inspired fine men such as Vintcent Van der Bijl and Garth Le Roux - along with an array of variously talented other fast bowlers who would have held South Africa's place at the top table of international cricket: think Clive Rice and Rupert "Spook" Hanley; Stephen Jefferies, Kenny Watson and others less noted.
It is remarkable that more than two decades without global exposure did not compromise the quality of cricket in the Republic, never mind the desire - quick bowling is hard yakka and not often truly appreciated as such. The Currie Cup may never have been stronger than during the 1970s and '80s, almost certainly because it was the highest level of the game on offer and the provincial players tore into one another as if they were opponents from another land. Transvaal had a fantastic team; Natal were not so dusty either. The pitches were often spicy and fast bowlers dominated on the hard, bouncy surface at the Wanderers and the zippy greentops at Kingsmead. The international rebel sides that visited from 1981 through to 1991 were astonished by the intensity of the cricket and the ferocity and consistency of the quicks. So rewarding was life for the fast men that Sylvester Clarke, the huge Barbadian, signed up for Transvaal and completed the make-up of a unit that became known as the Mean Machine.
When apartheid was finally broken down and the ban on South African sport lifted in 1991, briefly Rice and then Kepler Wessels led competitive teams with terrific pacemen. First out of the blocks was Allan Donald; close behind him were Fanie de Villiers, Brian MacMillan, Brett Schultz, Corrie van Zyl, Craig Matthews and Eric Simons. They soon won in England and drew a thrilling three-match series in Australia. Were it not for a memorable explosion of raw power and emotion from Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh in Barbados, they would have collared the West Indians too.
Since then, Shaun Pollock and Dale Steyn have been at the head of bowling attacks that have included Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini, Andre Nel, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. As Kallis has long pointed out, batting in South Africa is no sinecure. The pitches are mainly kind to bowlers, who lick their lips. By this he means the fast men, for South African spin has mainly gone missing.
Steyn is in Perth tomorrow, 12 years since he first showed promise on debut against England in Port Elizabeth. There have been few better in the history of the game. He is a terrific athlete with a smart brain and an alarming streak that might otherwise be interpreted as a cry to battle. Like Malcolm Marshall before him, the outswinger is his stock in trade and the inswinger a wicked, inside thigh-stinging addition to his arsenal. He need not break the speedometer to create an impression: he does so with a mad look in his eye, the killer zeal of his body talk, and that chainsaw celebration. Steyn relishes the Australian frontier more than any other and knows that he is running out of years. The present tally is 416 wickets at 22 each. Expect him to ride the threat of a shoulder niggle and play a key part in Perth's first encounter of three.
Alongside this leader of the band are some worthy players. Morkel loves Perth like the deserts love the rain. The trick will be to keep his length fuller than is obvious or, indeed, than looks exciting. Ball after ball flies through at the WACA but many are wasted in macho expression. Morkel took key wickets last time around; he is a good bet for the same again. Moreover, he has married an Australia girl, once a brave television sports journalist in her own country, and will be eager to confirm the bragging rights.
Philander is a fine exponent of the old arts and subtle variations. On the exterior there appears to be little either to him or to his work, but hidden beneath is a craftsman in swing and seam. Perth may not be his venue, unless he can find the strength of a shire horse and operate into the Fremantle Doctor that plays its part each afternoon. That job may be awarded to Kyle Abbott, as willing a shire horse as any captain might find.
Last in Steyn's merry band is the most important of them all. Like Ntini back in the day, Kagiso Rabada bowls for a nation. He is the government's cause celebre and Cricket South Africa's route to justification. But there is no tokenism in Rabada's selection - far from it. He has rare talent, a joyous spring of step, and lets rip at serious pace. With youth on his side, Rabada maintains his performance until the umpires pull the stumps from the ground each day. His eight Tests have yielded 29 wickets at 24 each and a strike rate of 38.9. Only Procter is ahead of him among South Africans who have taken 25 wickets or more. He bowls a natural off-stump line, and earlier this year forced England to nibble away at deliveries they would have chosen to leave alone. In the Centurion Test and at just 20 years of age, he claimed 13 for 144, the second best figures in his country's history. Sure, this is only the beginning of a young man's life in the game, but the pedigree is clear.
These bowlers could be the difference between the sides over the coming five days. Last year's pitch for the Test against New Zealand was a drab thing that drew the teeth of every bowler in the game. Almost 1200 runs were scored in the first innings of the match as double-hundreds and mere hundreds were sprinkled around like confetti. The curator will not want a repeat, and thus, the surface should reveal some of its famed character this time around. It is hard to see the South Africans not making best use of it. How AB de Villiers, injured and watching from home, must be pining for this rivalry and the chance to fire such heavy artillery at the Australians. That is now a privilege belonging to Faf du Plessis. No one here can wait. The juices are running. Expect three crackerjack games between old enemies and many good friends.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK