The Dale Steyn enigma confounds cricket itself with a great new discovery
Fast bowling may not be a dying breed yet, but finding good fast bowlers is becoming all too difficult. Who’s the next great fast bowler from India besides Bumrah and India’s exponent of pace bowling doesn’t touch 145 kmph regularly- does he?
Who’s the next great pacer from Sri Lanka in the post-Vaas and Malinga era? Would you put Lakmal in the same league of accuracy and wicket-taking as these greats?
Where’s Australia on this domain after Starc? Is Riley Meredith the actual answer?
Windies have found Seales who can-or cannot- be a great, Pakistan have unearthed a massive force in Shaheen Afridi, while South Africa have found in Rabada an established pacer.
Much like all great sports that often go in search of the “Next Great,” Cricket too has its mission cut out for it.
Besides England, who’re enjoying this period of great harvest- think Archer, Wood, Robinson- the responsibility of world cricket finding the next great fast bowler, a legend of the caliber of Dale Steyn is going to define Cricket’s next few decades.
And it’s a question no less daunting to answer than it is a riddle too complex solve. Much like great corporations’ IT departments move to a new server to safeguard data, Cricket in an age of T20 histrionics is moving from being a bowler’s paradise to being a sport more suited for batsmen.
Little wonder that it’s called a batsman’s game even in the wake of new-age developments like the DRS and Mankading.
The entertainment segment had already been introduced in 2007 with the inception of the T20. One never really thought that cricket would override the age of instant gratification and lessened attention spans by jumping on buses taking shorter routes.
Now there’s T20, and even The Hundred.
But to the purist, the one who willingly woke up and saw an Ashes contest early morning and got hooked to Test cricket whilst it was nearing 12 at night, Dale Steyn was the last of a lot.
The last of a lot ready to put his body on the line in the face of adversity and strain for experiencing greatness in the sport.
The last in a generation of fast bowlers that played both forms of the game until the very end before which enduring pain stemming from endless injuries became unbearable.
But not the last- as a matter of fact- the first to take 430 plus Test wickets for South Africa and thus far, the only one to break into 400 dismissals in the toughest format of the sport since Shaun Pollock.
Truth be told, it’s only fitting that Dale Steyn broke Pollock’s record for most Test scalps for the Proteas since in the aftermath of Donald and Pollock’s retirements, it was Steyn who filled the massive vacuum that haunted South Africa, one which carried the placard:
“Looking for the next great South African pacer.”
Though many came and waned out trying. Ntini stuck to his job but was he a timeless great? Andre Nel was difficult to score off but not menacing like Steyn. Ryan McLaren, you’d think is somewhere working out in a gym to tone up what was already a chiseled physique.
There’s great hope and expectation attached to both Pretorius and Anrich Nortje but will they even claim 300 wickets given there’s not much of Tests being played anyways?
Steyn entered a star-studded team and leaves a unit, having last played an international in 2019, a star-less one.
The inception into a unit with famed names- Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jack Kallis, and Shaun Pollock- would be a brilliant one with fearlessly fast deliveries getting the better of Vaughn, Trescothick and Simon Jones.
But the closing chapter to a fascinating and exasperatingly beautiful journey, which lasted for not less than 17 long years, wasn’t as rememberable.
Going wicketless in 2019 at Port Elizabeth in the Test against Sri Lanka offered the world not a glimpse but a glaring view of a pacer who had slowed down- never in enthusiasm though- one who had already bore the brunt of one injury too many.
In 2017, a fascinating year for South Africa where they hammered Sri Lanka but got under the English hammer, Philander, Maharaj, Morkel, Rabada all played their part. Only one name was missing!
That of Dale Steyn, who took 400 wickets even without requiring a century of Tests.
But Steyn’s highs and successes also proved a case in point.
And it’s that we tend to judge bowlers too often at the back of a single spell or a single lowly outing.
In 2015, the year most remembered for Steyn being hammered by Grant Elliott of New Zealand in the semi finals of the world cup, we forgot what the then 32-year-old managed in limited-overs cricket on the whole.
With an economy of under 5, having bowled 164 overs, Steyn emerged with 30 of his eventual 196 ODI dismissals.
That’s the deceptive power of cricket, in stark contract to Steyn’s not so deceptive but backbreaking pace; the very year we thought he had fallen in his game was to be his most successful in ODI cricket.
That same year, Steyn collected 17 wickets bowling no fewer than 127 overs, often at the back of erupting tendon troubles and back niggles.
Never again in Test cricket would he even touch 15 wickets a year again as the conformation of a downward spiral was evident 2016 onward and confirmed when in 2017, he sat out the entire year, watching cricket change in context of performance and leadership.
How painful and ghastly might have been the sight of seeing AB stepping down as captain, then seeing one colleague after another calling time on their careers, de Villiers’s exit followed by Morkel, Amla, Tahir, Philander exiting the scene with Faf being the lone man at the center of the storm?
But there was always perfect sense as to why Dale Steyn was a ‘Steyn in the end!’
The 2019 Steyn was nothing in comparison to the fearsome, terror-inciting fast bowling machine; the peak Dale Steyn-gun Steyn of 2010 and 2012.
In 2010, he ran down an India powered by Dhoni, Sachin, Badrinath, Sehwag and Gambhir powered India for a 7-for-51.
A few months later, he welcomed India with a hostile spell, one of the best ever by a South African in South Africa in his 7-for at Centurion that saw Sehwag, Dhoni, Gambhir struggling to put bat to ball in front of the brute pace of a tireless troubler of batsmen.
There was always more to Steyn on any given day. He could seam and swing in indifferent conditions and produce chin music on sub-continental flat tracks that suited batsmen more than pacers.
A lion-hearted performer, who in the end, compelled by declining age and unfavourable fitness, had to ply his trade in T20 leagues many of which had rather irrationally exuberant team names, Steyn’s physical attributes might have receded but his enthusiasm for the sport never really did.
You could say, his was a career that was magnified by both- achievements as well as heartbreaks, one where the latter often ran the risk- and perhaps succeeded-in outliving the former.
His best-ever spell in ODI cricket, that definitive 6 for 39 saw Proteas lose by 1 run. Just 1 run against Pakistan in 2013 where Akmal, Afridi, Hafeez, Jamshed had just no answer to Dale Steyn’s hostility.
He ends his career without having ever been a world cup winner.
Yet for his love for the game, the iron-hearted will to succeed and the ability to trounce batsmen doing his bit to make an often one-sided game a contest between bat and ball, Steyn ends a victor, if not the collector of a mega ICC trophy like a world cup.
In this guts and glory tale of one man’s pursuit to be the best he could ever be rests the glory and agony of being Dale Steyn.