SOUTH AFRICA VS AUSTRALIA: A PACE ODYSSEY

IF YOU thought the pace was high-octane, the stares and verbal exchanges lethal and the overall excitement palpable in the month of January, then be alarmed. For, the South Africa-India Test matches were just a teaser. Over the next few weeks, starting Thursday at Kingsmead in Durban, the cricket world will witness its own Tour de Pace as the Proteas host their arch southern hemisphere rivals Australia for four Tests. It’ll be a rare contest in these times of big bats, small boundaries and flat pitches where the two best pace attacks in world cricket go head-to-head.

It’ll also be a throwback to the 70s and 80s where West Indies-Australia and West Indies-Pakistan battles would resemble cricket’s own G3 concert — the heaviest riffers in the world facing off while the frontmen take a backseat.

It was somewhat similar when Australia toured here four years ago. But back then, it was all about brazen hostility with Mitchell Johnson, fresh from having destroyed England and reducing them to Poms, going up against Dale Steyn for bragging rights over being the most-feared pacer in the world. Johnson and Australia won that war hands down to the extent that former Protea skipper Graeme Smith still shudders to talk about Johnson’s menace in the commentary box. But what makes this edition even more enthralling is the incessant flavours of fast bowling on offer across both sides. If Starc and Rabada will hunt with pace; Hazlewood and Morkel will never stop being at their throats. Vernon Philander will trick and torture with his swing and nagging accuracy while Pat Cummins will keep running in like a man on fire. The only solace, if any, for batsmen from both sides will be at the non-striker’s end. Here’s a look at the bazookas that Steve Smith is bringing to the fight:

Starc, ‘the nose-&-toes’ crusher
“A nose-and-toes attacking option” is how former Aussie pacer Jason Gillespie had described Starc two years ago. It’s a rather apt description too. Starc attacks with two very basic lengths. He just ends up being a fiery proposition off both. The pace rarely dips under 145 kph regardless of whether the ball is flying past the batsman’s nose or zoning in towards his feet. And then there’s the late swing to boot, which he produces from both sides of the wicket — both in and away from the batsman. Just think back to that dismissal of James Vince at Perth, when he did a Wasim Akram and got one to straighten from around the wicket. That he generates this late swing with both new and old ball is what makes him a threat in every spell he bowls.

Australia have long wanted him to be as menacing as his namesake even in disposition. And they’ll expect him to recreate the Mitchell mayhem from the previous two tours. But even in his rather unassuming fashion — a smile that’s more disarming than intimidating — he’ll be the foremost weapon in Australia’s pace armoury.

Hazlewood: McGrath reboot
Back in early 2015, Virat Kohli was pining for Josh Hazlewood’s consistency in his experienced fast bowlers. Only that this was at the end of Hazlewood’s debut Test series. He was that good though from the very start. The comparison with McGrath is one that’s been drawn from the time the New South Welshman came to the fore. His greatest strength, too, is a minimalistic approach to delivering his skills. He’s tall and metronomical in hitting the same length over and over again. But he also uses the angles of the crease craftily and is perhaps the most difficult bowler in world cricket to drive against — as the English found out repeatedly during their Ashes nightmare. The natural bounce off a length and a sharp bouncer also makes front-foot play almost improbable, which ensures that when he’s not attacking, Hazlewood is blocking one end up and creating pressure.

Mitch-Josh: The jumbo combo
Gillespie had predicted in 2016 that the Starc-Hazlewood combination could well go on to become the “best-ever” in Australian cricket history. They seem well on their way. They weren’t in the top draw in terms of numbers back then. But in just a year-and-a-half, they have torpedoed into the No.3 spot behind McGrath-Gillespie and Lindwall-Miller. Their 242 wickets in 26 matches together is by far the most incisive with 9.2 wickets a match between them. And with each complementing the other in terms of the damage they produce individually, there are absolutely no let-ups. And then there’s Pat Cummins waiting in the wings.

Pat Cummins, the workhorse
“He’s a really nice guy but if you put a cricket ball into his hand it becomes a missile. The kid is going to be a superstar.” Those were Brett Lee’s words on Cummins soon after his retirement in 2012. The former fastest bowler in the world had even anointed Cummins to take over from him. This was a year after Cummins had burst on to the scene in South Africa and commenced his grave affair with injuries. For a while, Cummins was feared to never get his body fit enough for the rigours of Test cricket. But since he came back last year in India, he’s not only proved his fitness but also become the enforcer of the pace attack. During the Ashes, it was often Cummins who turned matches on their head with the ball. He bowls a heavy ball, gets balls to shape in and straighten from a wide angle, and justifiably finished as the highest wicket-taker in the Ashes with 23 scalps..