Ahmedabad 2008 was a landmark moment in Dale Steyn’s Test career. Virender Sehwag had battered South Africa with a triple hundred at Chennai in the first Test match and a bruised South African attack arrived in Ahmedabad mentally bruised for the second Test.
Bowling out India’s batting line-up had appeared near improbable at Chennai, yet within 15 overs of the first innings at Ahmedabad, Steyn had sent back two of India’s batting backbones from the Chennai Test - Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid.
He cleaned up Sehwag with a corker of an in-swinger and then seamed the ball away from Dravid to reduce India to 53 for 5. This would turn into 76 all out with Steyn picking up 5 for 23 and South Africa going on to win the Test by an innings and 90 runs.
This wasn’t a one-off either as his performances in Karachi before this and Nagpur after this show. In 2007 in Karachi, Morne Morkel injured his foot ahead of the first Test and Steyn, an irregular in the starting XI until then, opened the attack with Makhaya Ntini. In a game-changing spell, Steyn removed Pakistan’s top three in the second innings including a defiant Younis Khan to bowl South Africa to a win.
At Nagpur in 2010, he once again tormented the Indians with a 7 for 51, which included the big wicket of Sachin Tendulkar. It remains his best-ever performance in a Test innings and one that catapulted him into a heroic performer in Asian conditions.
Among non-Asian pacers, nobody had more success than Steyn in Asia. He picked up 92 wickets, 15 more than the next best, Courtney Walsh, and struck at a rate of 42.9, the best after Richard Hadlee.
When Steyn bowled an out-swinger in his debut Test at Port Elizabeth in 2004 against England to send Michael Vaughan’s stumps cartwheeling, the world gushed. He had just seven first-class wickets at that time. But having cleaned up his future Test skipper, Graeme Smith, in a domestic game, Steyn had already caught the attention of the South African selectors quite early. Even then, few expected him to sustain that hunger for red ball cricket and find consistent success.
As he finishes his Test career with 439 wickets, the fifth most by any pace bowler, those concerns are put to rest. What made him a legend was his ability to pick up wickets quite frequently. His strike rate of 42.3 is the best for any bowler with more than 200 Test wickets.
Capturing Asia and the rest. Check.
Recount some of Steyn’s best spells and Nagpur 2010 against India, Durban 2010 against India, Karachi 2007 against Pakistan and Melbourne 2008 against Australia stand out.
What makes these spells unique is that each of them came in different innings’ of the Test match - if Karachi was in the 4th innings, Durban was in the first innings, Melbourne in the 3rd innings and Nagpur in the second innings.
It reveals the kind of bowler Steyn was in red ball cricket. He excelled irrespective of conditions and steamed in with unwavering intensity on day one and on day five. He was as effective in any innings of a Test match and this turned him into a captain’s go to bowler.
If the pitch was green on day 1, he would swing and seam it. If it was dead flat, he would unleash cross seamers and extract life out of the surface. When the ball was old, Steyn would steam in with the same aggression and find reverse swing effortlessly. He just knew to pick up wickets whatever the conditions, whatever stage the Test match was in.
Conquering the wear and tear. Check.
With flat pitches and the rise of T20 cricket, batsmen dominated cricket across formats, and this took a toll on a numbers of bowlers. Not Steyn, though. He had a way of finding the best batsman in the opposition side and engaging in one-on-one battles with him that often swayed in his way.
The persistence and sheer eagerness to win over resilient batsmen and least aggressive batsmen made Steyn a captain’s go-to man.
In Test cricket, he had the better of attractive stroke makers like Virender Sehwag (7 dismissals), Brendon McCullum (6 dismissals), Michael Clarke (9 dismissals), Sachin Tendulkar (3 dismissals), Ricky Ponting (4 dismissals) and David Warner (4 dismissals). But he could also breach the defence and mess with the concentration of some of Test cricket’s best ever. Steyn dismissed Jonathan Trott (7 dismissals), Younis Khan (6 dismissals), Alastair Cook (4 dismissals), VVS Laxman (4 dismissals), Mahela Jayawardene (4 dismissals), Shivnarine Chanderpaul (3 dismissals), Cheteshwar Pujara (3 dismissals) and Rahul Dravid (2 dismissals).
Steyn picked up a five-wicket haul in every continent and in every single country where he played at least five Test matches.
He played an influential hand in South Africa’s wins. 305 of his total 439 Test wickets came in wins. Giving away just 16.6 runs per wicket in South Africa’s wins, Steyn was irresistible for the Proteas for 15 long years. His performance in won matches is among the best for fast bowlers with at least 150 Test wickets. Only Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee have a better average than him in wins. Even then, Steyn beats them hands down in strike rate yet again.
Dominating a batting era and contributing to wins. Check.
In an era where players are looking to maximise their financial potential by playing in T20 leagues, Steyn maintained his fetish for Test cricket.
He constantly battled injuries in the last few years of his Test career. The shoulder became a focus point for most of his injuries and in 2015 and 2016. The second instance came in Perth 2016 when he was ruled out of the series after day one when he constantly peppered Australia with 150kmph snorters.
The seriousness of the injury saw him missing 14 months of cricket. When Steyn returned to Test cricket for the first Test against India at home in 2018, he was injured by day 2, damaging his heel. Another groin injury in the County Championship saw him miss further action but he returned for the home Test series against Sri Lanka in February 2019 to go past Shaun Pollock as South Africa’s highest wicket-taker. He further broke down soon after he was named in the World Cup squad and brings his Test career to a close in a bid to lengthen his international career.
In this age of T20 mercenaries and freelance cricketers, Steyn’s passion for Test cricket and eagerness to step out in whites stood out. Even when announcing his decision to give up Tests, Steyn’s words overflowed with love for the format.
“Today I walk away from a format of the game I love so much,” Steyn said. “In my opinion Test cricket is the best version of this game. It tests you mentally, physically, emotionally. It’s terrible to consider never playing another Test again but what’s more terrifying is the thought of never playing again at all.”
Fighting injuries with passion and loving Test cricket. Check.