When Dale Steyn left the field against Australia clutching his troublesome right shoulder, South Africa would have feared the worst. But Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj stood up when most needed to lead a glorious comeback.
Ever since detonating Michael Vaughan’s stumps on debut in 2004, Steyn has been an ever-present menace to batsman around the world.
His pace, late swing and fierce competitiveness have dovetailed gloriously to reap 416 wickets from 84 Tests (before the 1st Test against Australia). In an era when a bowling average of 30 is deemed good, he averages under 23 while having the second best strike rate of anyone with more than 100 Test wickets. This is made all the more impressive when you consider the only man in front of him, George Lohmann, played on uncovered pitches.
For all his brilliance though, there have been clear signs that the end may be near for the 33-year-old. Having enjoyed a remarkably good injury record until he was 30, he has struggled for consistent game time in the last few years.
He suffered groin strains in 2013 and 2015, a side strain in 2013 and a rib fracture in 2014. That year he also suffered three hamstring strains. A serious shoulder injury meant that in the 2015-16 season Steyn missed six of South Africa’s eight Tests.
He came back well in the home Tests against New Zealand in August but the sight of the fearsome quick trudging off the field earlier today was hugely concerning.
Steyn had just picked up the wicket of David Warner for 97 and, pumped up, he was scenting further blood. Unfortunately he was unable to finish his next over after going down clutching his right shoulder. The early news is that he has aggravated an old injury and is undergoing further tests in hospital.
At the time Australia were 166-1 in response to South Africa’s 242 and were eyeing a big first-innings lead. It would have been easy enough for South Africa’s inexperienced bowling line-up to struggle with the setback and the loss of their talismanic leader.
However the Proteas showed there is life after Dale Steyn with a stirring comeback to limit Australia’s lead to two. The home side lost their last nine wickets for just 77 runs.
Vernon Philander, Steyn’s partner-in-crime for much of the last five years, led the way with four wickets (including nos. 10 and 11) but it was the younger two bowlers on display who really grabbed the game by the throat.
The post-Steyn comeback was started by the extraordinarily exciting prospect Kagiso Rabada. He knocked Usman Khawaja’s stumps out of the ground with a ball which swung dramatically from around the stumps before later returning to grab a return catch from Adam Voges.
Rabada is just 21 and is playing in his ninth Test but has been thrust into the spearhead role quicker than planned by the number of injuries which have decimated South Africa’s bowling attack over the last 12 months. He has played the role to perfection and, for the moment at least, there seems no limit to what he can achieve on the international stage.
Rabada’s co-conspirator at the WACA was the left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj. Making his debut, the 26-year-old bowled with accuracy and control and fully deserved his three wickets. South Africa have a less-than-ideal track record with spinners but this was a highly promising first effort from Maharaj and a solid first-class record suggests he may yet be the one to succeed where so many others have failed.
The sight of one of Test cricket’s greatest ever fast bowlers brought down to earth by the ravages of injury is a desperate reminder that time waits for no man.
The emergence of a bowling attack capable of picking up his baton and taking the fight to the enemy is the rather large silver lining.