Cape Town – Needed in a hurry … the Phalaborwa Express.
Dale Steyn is primed to rebalance South Africa’s inconsistent seam department with his enormous experience and just as welcome genuine pace, almost certainly beginning with the first of three important Twenty20 internationals against England at East London on Wednesday (18:00).
The Proteas – without the veteran Steyn in their 50-overs mix – ran England deceptively close in the last of only two completed one-day internationals in the short series at the Wanderers on Sunday, losing by two wickets.
It was a little misleading because the tourists made criminally heavy weather at the back end of their essentially modest chase of 257 for the victory – and a 1-1 split of honours – after a superb platform had been laid upfront in the chase: rash dismissals made for a slightly nervier finish than had seemed likely for lengthy periods.
The game seemed all but over as a contest when England raced to a record (at the Bullring) first 10-over powerplay score of 77 for two, which was – pivotally in the final analysis – more hurricane-like than South Africa’s earlier corresponding effort of 36 for one, on route to a relatively modest 256 for seven.
Jonny Bairstow was especially severe on the Proteas’ opening bowlers, Lungi Ngidi and Beuran Hendricks, as his dramatic innings of 43 at a strike rate of 187 saw Ngidi given brutally short shrift in an initial two-over spell that leaked 29 runs.
The big-limbed fast bowler simply could not find any rhythm and being curtailed to speed readings too often in the low 130s in kilometres-per-hour hardly helped his cause.
“He looks tentative in his approach; there’s no snap in his action and he’s not attacking the crease … he’s just putting it there,” observed visiting television commentator David Lloyd sympathetically as Ngidi disappeared to all parts.
Considering the mayhem of the first handful of overs, England were never too likely to find run-rate for the remainder of the chase a problem, and they duly got home with 40 balls remaining despite the unnecessary late clatter of wickets.
To Ngidi’s immense credit, his closing spell was altogether more zesty and committed, and he managed to end with a considerably less embarrassing 9-2-63-3.
But it still didn’t hide the fact that the 23-year-old, also cumbersome and error-prone in the field, continues to look well short of the figure who burst so spectacularly onto the broad international scene in 2017 – he had also struggled to get out of the blocks in the earlier Newlands ODI.
Woes ran deeper than just Ngidi on Sunday, in fairness, as the fairly callow group of SA seamers between them sent down the equivalent of more than two additional overs in wides, and were correctly branded “wild and woolly” by former national captain Shaun Pollock.
Encouragingly Lutho Sipamla, the youngest component at 21, showed a combination of composure and decent skill levels much of the time, and ended as the most economical Proteas pace bowler after a near-maximum spell, leaking just 4.50 runs to the over despite entering the attack quicker than expected and at the height of Bairstow’s onslaught.
But he can also not be classified as truly rapid just yet in his blooding at this level – nor will he be part of the T20 squad, which seems a pity now – and that is where Steyn, despite being well into his 37th year, could provide the missing element over the next week or so with his known ability to push the speed-gun to close to the 150km/h mark on occasions.
He is earmarked to represent the SA cause one more time at a major ICC event when the T20 World Cup is staged in Australia later in the year, and his immense street wisdom (93 Tests, 125 ODIs, 44 T20s) comes onto the national team’s radar at what seems a perfect time in their intensifying preparation for that jamboree.
Steyn wearing the Proteas’ greens for the first time in 11 months at East London seems a no-brainer.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing