Former newspaper editor and author Gasant Abarder sat down with Dale Steyn just minutes before he officially announced his retirement from all formats of the game – where he spoke candidly about ‘white-line fever’, why his generation of players embodied Protea Fire and the future of cricket.
If there is any doubt about Dale Steyn’s claim of being a surfer it disappears the moment you meet him. Laid back isn’t entirely the description but it’s not far off. Perhaps his shoulder length locks hidden under a beanie are the dead giveaways.
It is a very different demeanour from that famous Steyn run-up to batters that strikes the fear of the cricket gods into them. And the explosion-like celebration when he claims a wicket.
“When you walk on to the field it’s a different kind of place. You can express yourself the way you want and behave and act in a way different to your normal self. I thought the cricket field was a stage and I wanted to use that,” he says.
“As I was growing up, I was watching guys like Shane Warne, Allan Donald and these other greats like Curtly Ambrose and what they did on the field with intimidation and how they got wickets. I thought I could pretty much bring that into the way I play cricket and it became part of a really good act. It’s theatre. Nobody wants to play against this teddy bear and I wanted to get people scared and have that fear factor around myself.
“The celebrations? Sometimes I thought I was going to pop a vein. I think people were worried but the best thing is that I never got injured during a celebration which was great because I’d heard of other guys getting hurt, so, I’ve managed to get through 20 years of international cricket without hurting myself after taking a wicket.”
Surfing is far removed from Dale’s childhood in Phalaborwa where he idolised Jonty Rhodes and would re-enact that famous run-out of Pakistan’s Inzamam-Ul-Haq at the 1992 in the garden of his family home. It was the moment he fell in love with cricket.
After living in Cape Town for 14 years – made official after having had a gatsby with Proteas and Cobras teammates Robin Peterson and Monde Zondeki – he is so laid back that he casually posts a tweet officially announcing his retirement before heading to Long Beach on Cape Town’s west coast for a surf.
In this weather? “Yes!” says Dale. “The temperature in the water is actually warmer than the temperature outside.”
And then the inevitable: does Dale Steyn pee in his wetsuit? “Of course. Who doesn’t?”
Dale’s interview is at my brother’s studio for our weekly vlog. It’s in a part of town curiously named Rondebosch East – but on the Cape Flats side of the M5 highway. My brother doesn’t follow sport, so has no idea just how iconic this guy is. One of the game’s greatest-ever fast bowlers.
This area is predominantly Muslim and T-junctioned by Imam Haron Abdullah Road – close to the imposing Islamia Mosque. If it was India and the fans found out Dale was popping around, he wouldn’t have made it to the front door.
This bit of background is important because it sets the tone for just how Dale immersed himself in the lives of a diverse national side that ended up at the top of the ICC rankings in all formats of the game.
“I grew up in this very Afrikaans of town of Phalaborwa and being English there – my whole family comes from Zimbabwe – I was already a little bit timid and scared of everything I did. It was difficult. When you join the South African team my awareness grew of what the Muslim community does and how things happen. I had no idea,” he says.
“I remember being in Sri Lanka for the first time and you can hear the Muslim call to prayer. I asked a silly question because I genuinely didn’t know because of where I come from. I asked what if I’m running in to bowl and this happens, is the batter going to stop?
“I got a fair bit of abuse but it was a great learning experience. When you join the team and you have guys like Hashim Amla, they were a lot more patient and shared their knowledge and I was able to tell them where I came from and my experiences.
“We were just young kids who were 20 years old, we loved the same things and we played our whole careers together – me, Hashim, Faf, AB, Heino Kuhn … I can go through a list of names. It was a wonderful time, we just fed off each other and learned from each other.
“Nothing needed to be scripted when it came to the Protea Fire. That was obviously a great campaign to get the country behind the team but we had already gelled and we were friends playing all three formats with each other. The respect was mutual.”
Dale says growing up and specialising in bowling he’d pay close attention to the likes of Shaun Pollock, Donald, Ambrose, Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee.
“I took all of that and combined to create who I wanted to be on the field.”
Toughest batter to bowl at? No one specific but his response is surprising.
“I felt like the best batters in the world paid the best bowlers in the world the same kind of respect. I think we were aware of the dangers we represented to each other.
“Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting were amazing batters [and sometimes you’d just nod in appreciation]. They’re aware of your skills, too, so they’re trying to come out of this contest between batter and bowler unscathed, trying to get away with it without getting out. They only have once chance, where I at least get six balls.
“Sometimes the best batters in the world weren’t the guys that bothered me that much because of that mutual respect. If I bowled well, they’d play me well. The guys I worried about were the guys who didn’t worry about who I was. The tailenders who came in and were scared but ruined your figures.
“You could have 5-20 and think this is a beautiful day. Then you go 5-70 because they smacked you for a couple of boundaries. There wasn’t one specific name, it was all of them who posed that threat.”
His all-time favourite wicket?
“The one I’ll always remember is my first Test wicket, Marcus Trescothick. You can’t get it any better. Great batter and it hit the middle stump. Everyone’s like always, middle stump! I prefer to hit off-stump … nipping away to the right-hander, top of off. I got Michael Vaughan out like that. I only wanted to take one wicket for South Africa and that’s why I remember the first one. It’s the one that really matters.”
I remind Dale that he so casually just popped by for today’s interview. In fact, the next-door neighbour complained Dale had parked a little across his driveway (my fault, not Dale’s).
The neighbour just shook his head and said he didn’t care who was parked there. In India, though, the same scenario would see the little street fill up with thousands if news spread that Dale was around.
“India is crazy! It’s the closest you’re going to be to feeling like a rock star. You’re treated like a Hollywood or Bollywood star. Cricket is just crazy there. You go to the airport and you’re bombarded, you go to practice and there’s 10,000 people watching. It’s doubtful I’ll ever have that experience in my life again with anything that I do.”
Dale had this game with the fans of IPL teams he played for, leaving tickets for them at places he was visiting or staying at.
“It was just my way of trying to bridge the gap between who I was and this kind of superstar image of who people thought I was. I’m actually just a normal, human. Like everyone else. I wanted to have that closer connection with the fans and would leave it somewhere and would say if you’re first you can have them.”
A typically modest answer by a superstar of the modern game. But this is no normal human, I tell him as I kick him out of the studio. I have work to do and he roars with laughter. What a guy!
The recent The Hundred in England, he says, is a clever way to get new fans to watch. Maybe a format for the Olympics. Will he be tempted back? Part of me wants him to have one last hurrah at the T20 World Cup. But Dale says he’s had his fill. No plans for now apart from catching the perfect wave at Long Beach a bit later.
Catch the full video interview with Dale Steyn in Friday’s edition of #LiveNLoud with Gasant Abarder at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqcJ6HTvKK7jfaUSc3gR03Q