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South Africa tour of Sri Lanka 2014: Dale Steyn conquers Fort Galle

Dale Steyn snared nine wickets in the match © Getty Images
Dale Steyn grabbed nine wickets in the match, including four in the second innings © Getty Images

Sri Lanka hosted South Africa in the first Test of their series. It was supposed to be the usual Galle track, without anything for the fast bowlers. Then the Phalaborwa Firebolt decided to dominate the day. Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives a day when the hapless Lankans were up against a rampant Dale Steyn.

Dale Steyn will probably remember the Galle Test as the one where he brought up a thousand Test runs. The world, on the other hand, will remember a rampant fire-breathing dragon that set fire to the Sri Lankan camp; the poor batsmen ran helter-skelter, only to be picked out by the dragon one by one; and the ones that managed to survive the massacre fell prey to that giant called Morne Morkel.

The five in the first innings were not outstanding scalps: the wickets had more to do with reckless batting than outstanding bowling. The spell had added to his count of five-wicket hauls, but it did not require a Steyn to produce a performance like that. The second innings was different. Sri Lanka were set 370. Steyn lured Upul Tharanga outside off-stump; the batsman fell for it, and Quinton de Kock did the rest.

Kaushal Silva and Kumar Sangakkara then steadied the ship. Sri Lanka were 110 for one at stumps. They needed 260 more. This was the territory of Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene: you do not conquer Galle until the Colossi crumble; even the heavy artillery has found it difficult over the years.

Then, on the fifth morning, that snarling beast spat fire on the fortress that had seemed impregnable the previous evening: poor Silva did not have a chance; the line was perfect, as was the length; Silva prodded at it, and then de Kock — brilliant enough to prove his worth as AB de Villiers’ successor with the big gloves — claimed a one-hander.

Steyn teased Mahela; the batsman was beaten; there was a huge appeal; Steyn made Hashim Amla review it; the appeal was turned down. Steyn teased Sanga, but he was too smart to poke at it. Sri Lanka survived a round of six bullets and were almost relieved to face the pace and bounce of Big Morne.

On came Vernon Philander, bowling just short of good length and getting the ball to jag take off after landing on the seam. On another day the world would have hailed Morkel and Philander; but this was Steyn’s time. Today was his turn to conquer Galle. Today was his day.

He made way for Imran Tahir, but the Lankans knew that he would be back after a breather. Amla brought him back immediately after Sangakkara had fallen to what was a horrible long-hop. The big guns had fallen. It was up to him now to ensure that the young brigade did not run away with it.

An over’s worth of cat-and-mouse ensued between Steyn and Lahiru Thirimanne. Then Steyn pitched one perfectly on length and moved it a tad away; poor Thirimanne, prone to opening the face of his bat every now and then — what chance did he have against that? The ball flew to de Villiers in the slips.

Dilruwan Perera had made his Test debut only earlier this year, scoring 95; unfortunately, his next two innings had read eight and one, and he had been snared by Steyn’s reverse-swing in the first innings for a duck. Here he was, marginally older to Steyn but nowhere close in confidence to the Phalaborwa Firebolt, facing his nemesis.

It was no better. He could only last two more balls. Steyn let loose a beauty that came in, straightened, and took the outside edge. It was not that Dilruwan did not want to evade: he could not; he was not talented enough to handle that Steyn snorter. Greater batsmen have fallen prey to such brilliance from the master.

His work done, Steyn, retired to the fence in his floppy hat, watching the rest of the line-up crumble, leaving Angelo Mathews stranded. South Africa had felled Galle for the first time in their history. When he was summoned on the podium for a deserving award, there was only one thing the fans wanted to ask Steyn: where did you buy those hideous shades from?

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here)

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