Dale Steyn — licensed to thrill

Dale Steyn … 6 for 8 and 5 for 52 in plotting the annihilation of Pakistan in the first Test at Jo’burg © Getty Images

By Madan Mohan

Pakistan predictably found South Africa too hot to handle first up at Johannesburg and collapsed in the face of yet another Dale Steyn special. We have by now become so accustomed to Steyn’s effectiveness that when he doesn’t bag fifers, we worry that he may have lost it. Probably because it’s not so easy to take the visual pleasures of watching Steyn in action for granted. He gives a lot of cricket fans what they want to see — except when their countrymen have to bear the brunt of his menace; they dread a cricket world devoid of his intimidating presence. 

Time was when there was almost a surfeit of the fast and the furious in cricket. Pace bowling acquired some serious measure of cult by the late seventies and it thrived right till the end of the nineties. I remember watching Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Waqar Younis, Alan Donald and, much later, Shoaib Akthar and ruing the absence of such speed merchants in the Indian cricket team. 

But in the noughties, the supply of express pace bowlers began to dry up. While Australia had Brett Lee, South Africa were in transition, West Indies went into decline and Pakistan was rocked by instability. Uniformly placid pitches contributed to this as attritional tactics were increasingly favoured to contain hungry willows.        

Steyn quickly rammed home the message that he was different. Not only was he quick, he had a frightening degree of control over his pace. From the word go, he never set much store for bowling dry (which is probably why his One-Day International record is decidedly unflattering). He combined fast and skiddy outswingers with some of the nastiest round-the- wicket chin music heard since Malcolm Marshall. The batsmen didn’t like what they heard.  

Steyn devoured wickets at an astonishing rate and in varying conditions. Rarely are Indian batsmen beaten so comprehensively by pace at home as they were at Ahmedabad in 2008 and Nagpur in 2010 up against Steyn in full flow.  As recently as last year, he bowled decisive spells at key stages of Test series in England and Australia to set up victory for South Africa. Apart from his mighty impressive 323 Test wickets at an average of 22.67, Steyn’s repertoire is well rounded and equipped with tactics to counter the most obdurate of batsmen. Though he is nearly 30, he is still widely expected to join the likes of Shane Warne and Anil Kumble as one of the highest wicket-takers of the game.  

Time will aptly judge that prediction, but the sheer delight of Steyn goes far beyond all that. His thunderous run-up and the ferocity on his face transport cricket fans to an era they thought had disappeared.  

Just take a look at Morne Morkel for a good contrast. He bowls at least as fast as Steyn and sometimes faster, but he does his job with the fuss of a Rolls Royce and is almost invisible at the crease. That’s what a lot of modern day pace bowlers are like (Steve Finn is another) and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Steyn wins the hearts of fans by making over pace bowling into a thrilling art that gets the adrenaline soaring.

There’ll probably be much insightful analysis of his 11-wicket demolition job on Pakistan at Johannesburg. But it’s the sight of Steyn running in, threatening to send the Pakistan batsmen scurrying for cover that fans will remember. They would probably also be reminded of ‘White Lightning’ aka Alan Donald – though Steyn is in many ways a very different bowler.

India’s turn to face the Steyn music again comes later this year. It’s spine-chilling thought, to put it mildly.

(Madan Mohan is a 27-year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)