Dale Steyn, born June 27, 1983, is by far the best pace bowler of his generation, a supreme combination of pace and skill. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the journey so far of the man who holds the fifth best strike rate in the history of Test cricket.
Phalaborwa is tucked away in the Mopani District Municipality, Limpopo province. The rivers Ga-Selati and Olifants meet in that region, almost exactly where the town is situated, halfway up along the eastern border of the Kruger National Park in the Lowveld.
The area is known as the Valley of the Olifants, and temperatures soar to intolerable levels in the summer. The mercury rises as far as 47 °C, and it is difficult to imagine someone running in quick and honing his fast bowling skills over and over again under the tyrannical sun.
The town is known for mining. It still houses the Palabora Mining Company, and boasts the widest man-made hole in Africa, a crater with a 2000 metre diameter. However, tourism and wildlife have now taken over as the main industries. The town is flanked by game reserves and the lush Merensky Golf Estate.
And, surprisingly for a region experiencing such extreme heat, other claim to fame of the town is that from its unassuming quarters hailed the pace-bowling phenomenon called Dale Steyn.
It is perhaps the scorching heat that conditioned Steyn as one of the fittest athletes the game of cricket has seen. Bowling at a searing pace, he picks up wickets every 41.1 deliveries, and yet has never been claimed by one of those injuries that waylay the career of so many a bowler as fast as he is. It is also perhaps the heat that nurtured him which enables him take a wicket every 39 balls on the heartless Asian pitches.
It is may also be that his predominant and primary need to conserve every ounce of energy makes Steyn abstain from the theatrics one has grown to expect from fast bowlers. There is no sneer, no snarl, no sledge, no scowl. There is aggression aplenty, but all of it in his action and delivery. His face, apart from the perpetual pinch approximating a faint frown, remains suited for a table laid out for professional poker players. Even the most diabolical swing at the most frantic of pace merely emits merely a quizzical look from him, as if confused by his own dazzling repertoire. And dazzling it is. He is genuinely fast, and swings at that remarkable pace, equally at ease with the traditional and reverse forms of the art. He can skid on and dart in, and his deliveries often veer away from the right hander at alarming angles.
There are fans who would happily leave the ringside view of an on-going match to get a glimpse of him at the nets, even when he is merely polishing his modest batting abilities. And even when mobbed by these ardent admirers, Steyn remains expressionless, with perhaps the faint frown fading into the semblance of a slight smile. He knows fully well that he is the best fast bowler in the world, but seems perennially flummoxed by his own abilities. That he boasts the fifth best strike-rate in history of Test cricket — considering at least 2000 deliveries — becomes apparent only when one takes the focus off his face and watches him run in with his excellent economical action and send down those wicked, poison tipped deliveries. None of the four who lead him on the strike rate table have played more than 18 Tests. Steyn has managed to knock batsmen over at this alarming frequency over a period of 65 Tests spanning 332 wickets. Among the ones with the top five strike-rates, the next highest wicket-taker is George Lohmann with 112. And he hailed from the 19th century, when standardisation of wickets was still more than three decades away.
It is remarkable that one other member of the top five club is Vernon Philander, who shares the new ball with Steyn for South Africa. The history of the game has seldom witnessed a more potent pair of opening bowlers.
The journey of speed
If he seems to exude quiet confidence now, Steyn had reached just halfway there when he entered the Test scene. And it was not the better half. He was quiet all right, but more confused rather than confident, stumbling along with his bustling bundle of brilliance. He even bowled at a restrained pace when he played his first three Tests against England in 2004-05, ending with a wayward spell of 47 runs from nine overs, including eight no balls. His initial returns were eight wickets at 52 apiece and he was dropped from the team.
It was against New Zealand that he came back a season later and captured five for 47 at Centurion on return. Makhaya Ntini captured the other five wickets as the two bowled the Kiwis out to snatch a victory for the home team. This did make him a bowler to watch out for, an able successor to Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock. However, it was in November 2007 that the world got the indication that he would match those illustrious predecessors ball for ball and even surpass them. His first great hit was launched on the same Centurion ground, and once again his opponents were the New Zealanders. By this time his skills had been honed, and loads of experience gathered on the way. Two county stints, two years apart and for Essex and Warwickshire, stood him in excellent stead.
He picked up 10 in the 2007 Centurion match, for just the second time in his career. The previous occasion had been in the preceding Test in Johannesburg — indicating the lethal strike rate to follow. But, what made the biggest impact were not his many wickets, but his other victim. It was the ball that thudded into the face of opening batsman Craig Cummins, resulting in 23 fractures as he lay pitiably in the Intensive Care Unit. The previous month he had swung the ball at full pace to have the Pakistan batsman hopping in their own backyard, but this delivery underlined his place in the highest echelon of the menacing quicks.
Wickets continued to tumble at an extraordinary rate, and in the following March, while demolishing the hapless Bangladesh batsmen, he reached 100 scalps in just his 20th Test, the fastest by a South African. The record is now in increasing danger of being smashed by the intriguing deliveries of his partner Philander. Not that Steyn will object if that takes place.
Following the landmark, he crossed the border into India and had the strong line-up in shambles with five for 23 in eight overs at Ahmedabad, dismissing the home side for 76 in 20 overs, before lunch on the first day. His destructive self was showcased by that one delivery that got Rahul Dravid during the innings. It pitched on the off-stump, seamed away just a shade, beat the wall-like willow and peeled the varnish from the off-stump to dislodge the bails.
By the end of 2008, South Africa enjoyed the best phase since return to the Test scene. The team travelled to Australia and beat them in a three Test series. Steyn captured 10 at Melbourne and batted with extraordinary poise to score a vital 76, his best yet, while adding 180 with Jean-Paul Duminy. The win gave the Proteans the series and removed the last remnant of doubt about his supremacy as a fast bowler. The final arguments were provided with an eloquently talking ball. The Test match also saw him race to 150 wickets.
No limits — in speed or success
Since then, the cricket fraternity has accepted Dale Steyn as the premier pace bowler of the world. Since the retirement of Glenn McGrath and before the arrival of Philander, there had been no serious contenders to challenge his status. And after being acclaimed as the best fast bowler, Steyn continued to bowl as one. He routed the Englishmen at Johannesburg. He came back to India and knocked over seven men for 51 at Nagpur, two with conventional swing and five with the old ball. The wickets continued to come across Johannesburg, Perth, Trinidad and The Oval.
With each passing year, with Philander at the other end and Morne Morkel to back them up, Steyn has turned increasingly lethal. Steyn ended last year with seven wickets at Perth, bowling South Africa to another series win over Australia and bringing his tally to 299. Since then he has been engaged in two very short series this year. Two Tests against New Zealand got him 13 wickets at 11.53. The following three against Pakistan added 20 to his tally, at 12.90 with a best of 8.1-6-8-6.
The only blemish in his career probably was when he was riled by Suleiman Benn in Barbados in 2010, and let fly a spit in his direction after being dismissed. He was fined his entire match fee. Surprisingly, no such burst of temper has been witnessed when he is armed with his weapon of destruction, charging in with the new ball.
With 332 wickets in his bag at 22.65, with 21 five wicket hauls and five 10-fors in just 65 Tests, it is incredible when we reflect that today he is celebrating only his 30th birthday. The mind boggles when one considers the peaks he may scale if blessed with a few more uninterrupted, injury-free years as the gold-tipped spearhead of South Africa.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix