A year ago TOM EATON wrote that Dale Steyn had been the No 1 bowler in the world for quite some time but he has been over-used by South Africa. He reckoned he has 300 international overs left. This is the story he wrote, in it’s original form.
Not enough runs, said the pundits. The bowlers hadn’t helped, of course, serving up some short, wide pie to the likes of Virat Kohli. But once the Dhaka dust had settled and the stadium lights had gone out for the third and last time that evening, it was agreed that South Africa had lost in the semi-final of the World Twenty20 because they had simply not set India a challenging total. Certainly, by the end it was a fairly one-sided affair, summed up by MS Dhoni dead-batting the last ball of the penultimate over at his feet to allow Kohli to hit the winning runs – a shot as dismissive of South Africa’s attack as any six slapped over cover.
Twenty-over cricket, a sport in which the fish are stapled to the sides of the barrel and the gun is loaded with dynamite, is all about batting, and the recent romp in Bangladesh was no exception. Batsmen made merry, and bowlers fought rearguard actions or staunched the bleeding as best they could. South Africa’s batsmen enjoyed themselves along with the rest, and it was pleasant to watch JP Duminy in full flow and to remember why he was once the next big thing. But for all Duminy’s slaps over cow corner, and despite AB de Villiers’ often breathtaking swashbuckling, one presence loomed large over the Proteas in Bangladesh, and it wasn’t a batsman. It was a bowler. The best bowler in the world.
Innings ebbed and flowed; powerplays exploded or fizzled; batsmen made themselves heroes or villains; but through all the chaos, the cricketing mathematics remained simple: when Dale Steyn fired, South Africa won. When he failed, South Africa lost. The only exception was the close game against England in which Steyn was hammered to all parts, the Proteas’ blushes spared by Imran Tahir, enjoying the tournament of his life. For the rest, though, South Africa were as reliant on Steyn as they have ever been.
None of this would be a problem under normal circumstances. Steyn is the game’s ultimate enforcer, a nuclear option in a conventional shooting war. It was inevitable that South Africa would build their attack around him and that he would come to embody the team’s aggression and ambition. But anyone who has watched Steyn over the past few months would have to admit these are no longer normal circumstances.
Throughout his twenties, Steyn bowled like an angry cyborg sent from the future to terminate batsmen. His veins bulged, his face went puce as he roared his primal caveman roars, but otherwise his body showed almost no reaction to the strain it was under. As he sprinted up to the crease hour after hour, and as the scalps piled up, he seemed invulnerable, a perfectly calibrated pace machine grafted on to a titanium skeleton.
But that’s the trouble with terminators sent from the future. They start malfunctioning and taking on human frailty. And since turning 30, Steyn and his hamstrings have begun to look worryingly human.
Even if we find a more modern movie metaphor, and replace a creaky terminator with an avenging superhero, it doesn’t look much better. The story of Steyn, once a blockbuster full of sound effects like ‘sock!’ ‘pow!’ ‘whump!’ and ‘blam!’, now also features characters dressed as physiotherapists, whispering things like ‘concern’, ‘rest’ and ‘fitness test’. But ‘panic’? ‘Existential fear’? Hardly. The dialogue might be changing slightly, but the plot seems to be obeying the heroic formula down to the letter.
The career of the great fast bowler is a three-act drama full of sound and fury, and in the 80 years since Bodyline it has changed very little. We open on a young tearaway with napalm in his veins and nothing in his head: coaches and cricket writers call him ‘raw’ so they don’t have to call him more accurate, and potentially defamatory, names. Indeed, he is so ‘raw’ he doesn’t realise he’s bowling at batsmen. Instead, he bowls to impress wicketkeepers and speed guns. He likes the sound of a cricket ball hitting a helmet or cracking an abdominal protector, but most of all he likes hearing the ball thwack into the keeper’s gloves and the admiring shouts of the slip cordon.
Then, somewhere around his 26th birthday, he spontaneously begins to grow a brain. For the first time he begins to suspect there might be other people on the field besides him. The light is dawning. Act Two is beginning. Slowly he discovers new pleasures, like forcing batsmen to think rather than simply to duck. He still likes the gasps of the slips and the crowd, but now his favourite noises are faint nicks or the clatter of cartwheeling stumps. He learns that speed without control is a liability, and that outswingers bowled short of length can be as intimidating as throat-balls. When he turns 30, he enjoys being feared and respected in equal measure.
But just when he has stopped the runaway train, rescued the passengers on the booby-trapped ferry and is about to kiss his girlfriend while hanging upside down in a rainstorm, the superhero is suddenly confronted by the only force in the universe that can stop him. This is the super-villain that has stalked him since Act One, a shadowy figure always haunting his dreams, whispering that he, too, will be crushed like all the other superheroes who have come before him. Its name? Time. The third and final act has begun.
Now our hero is forced to confront his mortality. He must concede that his body is cracking, that his powers are fading, that his will is stronger than his tendons. He must come to terms with hours on the physio table and batsmen pulling him in front of square. But he is now also old enough to understand that, apart from the diabolical Time, his only real competition is himself. His body might be starting to crack but his mind is sharper than it’s ever been. He knows batsmen’s weaknesses before they do. He can set and spring traps before ambitious young sloggers even know they’re being set up.
How does the movie end? Badly. Time almost always gets his man. Very few fast-bowling superheroes get to fly off into the sunset on their own terms. Most hobble aside on wrecked knees or torn hamstrings, talking optimistically about a comeback next season, but we all know they are done, and so we turn away and start looking for the next 22-year-old with lightning in his shoulder and thunder in his wrist.
Dale Steyn turns 31 at the end of June, and, according to the well-worn script, his second act is reaching its climax. His battle with Time is about to begin. For those familiar with the history of fast bowling, this will not be particularly alarming. We know the third act is a story of decline; but we also know this period, if handled sensitively and skilfully, can also be full of triumphs. Indeed, some of the greats have even used this period to redefine themselves and to become better bowlers. Today Dennis Lillee and Sir Richard Hadlee are celebrated as much for their respective comebacks from injury as they are for their pace and ferocity.
Most of our cricket writers and commentators have recognised that Steyn is now entering his final act, and are taking the transition in their stride. Some have begun to offer pragmatic advice, for example suggesting he sit out more T20s to save himself for Test cricket. There seems to be an unspoken consensus that if Steyn is managed well, he still has a few good years left in him. Nobody is panicking. Nobody is talking about the end of days.
Which is an oversight, because I believe Steyn’s career is much, much closer to its end than most pundits realise. In fact, I believe Steyn has little more than a year left in international cricket.
It sounds silly, perhaps even downright ignorant. After all, the injury-stricken Lillee was 34 when he retired. Allan Donald, like Steyn a side-on slinging thoroughbred, played until he was 35. Hadlee only quit at 39, and took 262 Test wickets at 19.6 after his 31st birthday.
I accept it seems mad to call time on Steyn’s career based on his age. He’s a young man compared to many of the greats. But I believe age is no longer a fair reflection of how far gone a player’s powers are. As more and more cricket gets played, it’s not years in the game that matter, it’s overs bowled. And Steyn has bowled far too many of them for a 30-year-old fast bowler.
At the time of writing, three months away from his 31st birthday, Steyn had bowled a total of 3 334 overs in international cricket (Tests, ODIs and T20s). It’s a number that doesn’t mean much – until you start looking at the workloads of other thoroughbred fast bowlers and seeing how many overs they had sent down three months shy of their 31st birthdays. Then the figures become startling.
Brett Lee’s total of 3 344 seems almost identical to Steyn’s until one recognises two telling facts: firstly, that Lee bowled 500 fewer Test overs than Steyn (his total was bulked up by lots of ODIs) and secondly, that he retired almost immediately after reaching this total. In short, when he was Steyn’s current age he was more or less broken.
Other great fast men, however, seemed to have taken it far more gently. Courtney Walsh, hailed as one of the most dogged workhorses of seam bowling, had sent down a total of 2 938 international overs at the same age. Curtly Ambrose had managed 2 897, with only 1 968 of those overs bowled in Tests – almost 1 000 fewer than Steyn. Michael Holding had bowled 2 429; Shoaib Akhtar, 2 258; Donald, 2 053; Lillee, 2 012; and Hadlee a grand total of 1 928.
In short, just before his 31st birthday, Steyn has already got through the kind of workload that took former greats until their 34th or 35th years. And I believe he doesn’t have much more to give.
Did Graeme Smith over-bowl him? Almost certainly. Can we blame Smith? Probably not. It would have taken extraordinary self-denial not to throw the ball to Steyn in a crisis, or to balance the long-term benefits of prolonging Steyn’s career against the immediate need for a wicket. Besides, fast bowlers want to be the gladiator at the centre of the arena. Steyn wanted to bowl every one of those overs.
But now he has, and I fear he has more or less shot his bolt. I hope I am proved wrong, but I suspect he has at most another 300 international overs left in him. By the end of the winter tour to Sri Lanka, that might be down to 200. He will certainly see off West Indies next summer, take heaps of wickets and wind back the clock now and then. He may even take his 400th Test scalp, which will be a moment for the ages. But right now the signs all point to Steyn’s extraordinary career coming to an end in mid-2015.
When it does, we should not despair. The next Dale Steyn will erupt on to the scene at some point. But when he does, his captain will need to remember what Smith couldn’t: that great fast bowlers are tornadoes in a glass bottle. Unleash them and they are the most destructive force in cricket; but let them run on and on, without capturing them and confining them when they need it, and they can blow themselves apart.
And now, Mr Steyn, prove me wrong. Please.
This feature is courtesy of Business Day Sport Monthly, published by Highbury Safika Media.