They were described as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”.
Whispering Death. An expressionless assassin. The Big Bird. And finally an unorthodox mean machine to bring them all together.
The legends of the West Indies and their “Fire in Babylon” may have acquired mythical status in cricket now but at times, it can still be difficult to just actually understand what was so intimidating about Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft’s deadly quartet that terrorized an entire generation of batsmen in the late 1970s.
Pace like fire
“We were different in approach and size,” said the man who was widely considered the brains behind that quartet, Andy Roberts, in a function in Mumbai in 2016. “Joel presented the bounce, Michael… sheer pace, Colin presented the angle because he bowled so wide of the crease and,” Roberts added modestly. “I was the least of the lot… I presented what many people say, the brain behind the four.”
Together, this feared quartet played 11 matches together between 1979 and 1983, taking 172 wickets at an average of 24.12. West Indies lost only once in this period and so the legend was born. Those who had seen them in action talked about “the quartet” in awe.
But, as the years progressed and West Indies cricket went from bad to worse at the stroke of the new millennium, much of it descended into folklore. As it happens with most legends, new generations started to wonder…how much of it was fact and how much was it fiction? Or more specifically, how was it to face those four at their peak? Was it really as fearsome or were the story-tellers exaggerating?
Finally, on a sunny Saturday at the majestic Newlands cricket stadium, India faced the full force of another ferocious quartet. It was only a fleeting glimpse of paradise though – now with Dale Steyn’s injury likely to rule him out for the rest of the series, we perhaps will never see them jam together again. But, if nothing else, on this glorious Saturday in Cape Town, the 2017 quartet sent an important message: the stories were real. The legends were true.
South Africa revive the legend
Curiously though, they possessed a faint resemblance with the old masters. Vernon Philander is the metronome. He’s more classic rock than heavy metal. He has no time for the fury and the rage. Much like Roberts before him, he is all precision, method and brain. Teasing and tantalising the batsman with relentless banana swing at one spot of the pitch. Over and over again. Much like an incisor chipping through cloth.
Okay fine, but he won’t take off my head, right? No worries, look who it is from the other end. Why, South Africa’s own version of the Big Bird himself. There’s a bit of Joel Garner in Morne Morkel. A lot of limbs, a towering presence at 1.96 metres, all coming together in one heaving package to deliver a red ball from way above the eye-line.
Virat Kohli, perhaps the greatest batsman of his generation, thought he knew a thing or two when he saw Morkel pitch it to him on a good length on Friday. Except when it comes from that height, the ball does strange things – it jags up uncomfortably, zones in on your body and, in Kohli’s case, took the edge of his bat’s shoulder, rebounding off to Quinton de Kock behind him.
Sounds uncomfortable already? The batsman in you cringing? That’s probably the same thing those hapless batsmen in the late ’70s felt. But, come now, we’re just getting started here. Heard the phrase, “Pace like Fire”? Meet the man who exemplifies that: Dale Steyn.
Here he was, making a comeback from an injury that had threatened to derail his career. Tragically enough, he ended the day sorely rubbing his left heel and walked off with the prospect of another injury absence looming. But in between, he proved why there is just no pace bowler more fearsome than him in this generation.
On what will now be regarded as a comeback terribly cut short, Steyn’s eyes said it all. The fire was raging inside. Steyn is special, because he doesn’t need to have a distinctive trait to his frightening fast bowling – he can do it all. Here again, you name it, he brought it – bouncers aimed at the badge of the Indian batsmen’s helmets, late swing at 90-plus miles per hour, chin music dished out liberally, ringing in the batsmen’s ears – a microcosm of his long, distinguished career. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last time we’ve seen him in the whites.
But let’s get back to the better stuff. Here’s Kagiso Rabada, the young superhero. He looks so unassuming that you wonder if he’s a fast bowler. He doesn’t radiate Steyn’s bubbling rage or Morkel’s unorthodoxy. He’ll give you a stare, but that’s it. And yet at times, on the second day in Cape Town, Rabada seemed to be the one making the batsmen the most uncomfortable.
He hit them right in their uncomfortable spots, made them wince in pain and bend awkwardly to avoid sharp bouncers. At just 22, he is devastatingly calm and has his entire career ahead of him. He can choose who he wants to be: a Garner, a Croft, a Holding or a Roberts. What a scary proposition.
Peak fast bowling
Till Hardik Pandya brought some sanity back to the proceedings, watching the four operate in tandem was a sight like no other. There are probably no better days in Test cricket. While fast bowlers make the game exciting, a typical day of cricket rarely, if ever, features four of them operating together – two of them operate together, three at maximum with a new ball, before the adrenaline rush of pace merges into the cerebral mind-games of spin.
But on Saturday, the adrenaline rush just flowed. Each and every bowler signified a threat. India’s batsmen didn’t have a place to hide. Nothing came easy. Every delivery was a threat. In other “normal” Test matches, there are often periods where the game drifts. Nothing seems to be happening – the commentators start talking about other things, the crowd gets into a lazy afternoon slumber in the sunshine and the players seem to go through their motions.
Not in Cape Town on Saturday. Every delivery was an event in itself. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada – each with their unique superhuman skill – enthralled us on one of those days which reminded us why we fell for this beautiful game in the first place. We may never see all four of them indulge our fantasies this way again. But it doesn’t matter. The baton passes from one quartet to another. From one era to another. The legend only grows.