“I used to look like Brad Pitt but Dale Steyn changed that” - said Kiwi opener Craig Cumming after receiving a blow to his face resulting multiple facial fractures from the South African speedster in 2007 in a Test match at Centurion.
Every cricketing era has had a threatening fast bowler causing fear and anxiety to the batsmen. The last quarter of the 19th century when Test cricket surfaced had Fred Spofforth also known as “The Demon Bowler” and George Lohmann, then came Sydney Barnes post 1900. The 1950s saw Fred Trueman followed by West Indies’ fiery pace quartet along with all-rounders like Sir Richard Hadlee, Sir Ian Botham and Imran Khan. 1990s witnessed Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Curtley Ambrose, Courtny Walsh, Glenn McGrath and Allan Donald operating all at once. For the millennial generation, that bowler was Dale Willem Steyn.
Yes, there were menacing fast bowlers like Brett Lee, Shane Bond and Shoaib Akhtar playing alongside him but Steyn rose above all building a reputation for himself as the best fast bowler of his generation.
Coming from a small town, Phalaborwa bordering along the Kruger National Park, the right-arm pacer began his Test journey in 2004, much after any of his contemporaries but just when the aforementioned bowlers were fading away, Steyn peaked ensuring the level of fast bowling didn’t dip.
In the most batting batting-friendly era, some pacers could bowl with pace, some could swing the new ball, some could do tricks with the old ball, some were known for their accuracy and then there was Steyn who could do all that by himself. He was a chance for the current crop of cricket fans who could not witness the Lillees, the Akrams, the Holdings to watch a complete fast bowler in action.
Steyn’s display of fast bowling started right from his run-up. A look at the batsman before beginning his run was a sign of his positive intent. He loading into his delivery stride was like poetry in motion. The overall flow of his bowling action from run-up to the follow-through was one of the most flawless things on the cricket field. But that was not the end of it.
“I remember standing at the top of my mark when I was 18 and thinking that I am Brett Lee. As I gather, I think about Allan Donald, then I think Shaun Pollock and his accuracy and as I let go off the ball, I think Shoaib Akhtar in pace”, answered Steyn when broadcaster Mike Haysman asked the Phalaborwa born about his idols growing up during an interview for SuperSport.
The most fast bowler-ish thing one can associate with Dale Steyn was his celebration. The essence of his bowling lied in his celebrations. The fist pumps and the chainsaw he pulled out after dismissing Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan on his Test debut was just a trailer. In the upcoming years, his veins popped out from his neck, the crazy eyes gave an impression of him being possessed. Looking into his eyes after being dismissed was the worst thing a batsman could do to himself. Sometimes, he just yawned after picking up a wicket.
Steyn once told his teammates that he will stop celebrating extravagantly when he has not earned a wicket. Faf du Plessis requested him to stay away from such thoughts explaining him what his celebrations meant to the team. It lifted the spirits of the South African team and had the same effect on the people watching the game. The way he lost himself into the celebrations letting his alter-ego take over is what cricket is all about.
There is a dream delivery for every bowler. For a right-arm fast bowler, it is an out-swinging delivery that curves away from a leg stump line. It is one of the toughest deliveries to execute and Steyn aced it in his career. He got Michael Vaughan twice in that fashion - 2004 in Centurion on his debut and then in 2008 at Lord’s. “Lightning can strike twice”, exclaimed the commentator when it happened at Lord’s. Rahul Dravid lost his off stump in a similar way to Steyn in Ahmedabad in 2008. Michael Clarke, was squared up by another such delivery in Perth in 2012, a year in which Clarke had scored four double hundreds.
Steyn bowled a plethora of deliveries you can take with you to your grave.
Steyn announced himself in South Africa’s home series against New Zealand in 2007. He picked 20 wickets in the series, a 21st century record in a two-match series at 9.2 runs per wicket. Next year, he ran through the Indian batting line-up taking 5 for 23 in the sub-continental conditions. After the culmination of the Test, he was the no.1 ranked bowler in Test cricket along with Muttiah Muralitharan. In 2008, he staged South Africa’s first Test series victories Down Under with a 10-wicket haul at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
For 485 weeks between 2006 and 2015, South Africa did not lose an away Test series. Dale Steyn was unrivalled at the top of the ICC bowling rankings for almost 330 weeks (over 6 years) showing his influence on South Africa’s rise as a Test nation.
The golden run involved a number of memorable spells. 7 for 51 on a Nagpur track described by AB de Villiers as one of the flattest decks he has batted on. Match figures of 9 for 99 in Galle leading Proteas to their first Test series win in Sri Lanka. No other non-Asian fast bowler has picked more scalps than him in Asia (92). Dale Steyn aced the toughest of bowling conditions for a fast bowler.
In South Africa, he was invincible, with 261 wickets at home. His best includes 20 wickets in the two Tests against New Zealand as mentioned above and the astonishing bowling figures of 8.1-6-8-6 in folding Pakistan’s innings for 49 in 2013 at Wanderers.
Later in the same year, he had an unproductive first Test against India in Johannesburg and lost his no. 1 ranking. His response was a nine-wicket haul taking down the Indian batting unit in the second Test in Durban. It included another dream ball to hit the top of Cheteshwar Pujara’s off stump. South Africa won the Test, the series and Steyn regained his no.1 ranking.
The following year when Australia toured South Africa winning the first Test by a huge margin, it was another minor dent to Steyn’s ego. His response - a majestic four-wicket haul with the old ball derailing Australia’s run chase in the second innings. He did Michael Clarke with an away swinger, sent Steve Smith back for a golden duck (only golden duck of his test career so far) with an in-swinger and then the lightning struck twice for Brad Haddin when Steyn hit his middle stump through the gate for the second time in the game.
Steyn pointed towards the flattened middle stump in elation, screamed his heart out looking at the stump cam as if he was making the statement that he can never be written off.
Injury was the only thing that could keep Steyn away and the right-arm pacer was dodging that too. From the two-match Test series against the Kiwis in 2006 where Steyn peaked till South Africa’s first Test in India in 2015, the Proteas played 71 Tests. Dale Steyn played 68 of those. For a fast bowler operating consistently over 135 kph to play for that long is an outstanding effort.
In the next 39 Tests for South Africa, he could play only 12. A groin strain after the Mohali Test in November 2015 was the first major injury in Steyn’s career which was followed by a shoulder strain December 2015. Then there was the failure of the coracoid bone failure in his shoulder, an injury still unusual in the sporting world. He was now knocked out of the game for a year. On his return against India in January 2018, he damaged his heel to be out for another six weeks.
A stretch of such devastating injuries at the age of 30 can force any fast bowler to go into oblivion but Steyn fought to stay relevant.
“I want to achieve certain things in my career. A hundredth Test and 500 Test wickets would be incredible”, said Dale Steyn when he made another comeback, against Sri Lanka in 2018.
Only two wickets in 52.4 overs in the series showed that he was past his prime but the never ending fire in his belly did not let him hang his boots.
Steyn never chased records but one should be glad that he kept trying and ultimately, in the first Test against Pakistan in December 2018, he was able to go past Shaun Pollock’s tally of 421 wickets and become the highest wicket-taker in South Africa’s Test history.
Steyn took his 400th Test wicket in 2015 becoming the fastest fast bowler to reach in the milestone (in terms of balls bowled). But to take the remaining 22 wickets, it took him more than three years. Out of all the records that he won’t be able to achieve because of the trauma his body went through, this is the one he deserved the most.
He received a thumbs up from the Shaun Pollock – the past of South African bowling - who was sitting in the commentary box and was fittingly lifted on the shoulders by Kagiso Rabada - the future of South African bowling.
“It’s terrible to consider never playing another Test again but what’s more terrifying is the thought of never playing again at all” - said Dale Steyn explaining his decision to retire from his favorite format of the game.
Steyn started his first-class and Test career alongside AB de Villiers. Both of them engineered many victory for South Africa during their golden run as a Test side. It is peculiar how their respective careers have ended. AB de Villiers, fully fit left the game because he “ran out of gas”. Dale Steyn on the other hand, clearly suggests in his final few words as a Test cricket that the fire is still there in his belly but his body does not allow him to carry the burden of the longest format.
We all expected him to retire from white-ball cricket to prolong his red-ball cricket career but the demands of Test cricket forced him to take the other path.
93 TESTS, 439 WICKETS, 23 RUNS PER WICKET AND APPROXIMATELY A WICKET EVERY 7TH OVER
We have seen special things on a cricket field and witnessing Dale Steyn bowling in Test cricket is right up there.