An on-fire Dale Steyn is going to be central to the Proteas’ chances of success Down Under. Featured in the latest edition of SA Cricket magazine.
If Dale Steyn could dig up the Centurion pitch and carry it around with him he probably would. Another eight wickets, including 5-33 in the second innings against New Zealand in August, took his Test tally to 416.
Just when those predicting that he was entering the final throes of his Test career – to which Steyn himself took to social media wondering if they were ‘Nostradamus’ – the South African great fast bowler responded by tearing into the Kiwis.
Steyn has now taken 56 wickets at Centurion at an average of 17.12 runs per wicket. That’s an eye-watering statistic but a better one is this: No other bowler in the history of Test cricket has taken 50 or more wickets at any venue around the world with a better strike rate. Steyn’s figure sits at 30.3, or in other words, a Test wicket every five overs he bowls at Centurion.
Second on the list is Alec Bedser, the Englishman who took a wicket at Old Trafford every 35.6 balls. Run your finger across some others: Jimmy Anderson (Trent Bridge, 41.0), Curtly Ambrose (Queen’s Park Oval, 41.9), Muttiah Muralitharan (Kandy, 43.4), Anil Kumble (Delhi, 43.5), Shane Warne (the Gabba, 48.8).
There are other stats that only underline how great Steyn is: he’s had 26 five-fors in only 84 Tests; Only Richard Hadlee (36 in 86), Glenn McGrath (29 in 124) and Ian Botham (27 in 102) are ahead of him.
One could go on, and on. When the Proteas tour Australia, the number 421 will be in Steyn’s sights, because that’s where Shaun Pollock signed off his Test career at the age of 34, having played 108 Tests. Pollock holds the South African record and sits ninth on the all-time list, headed by Muralitharan.
Steyn sits at No 11, with Harbhajan Singh at No 10 with 417. The ‘Steyn Remover’ should go ahead of Singh and Pollock in Australia and if he stays fit and healthy he will relish the opportunity of running through the Sri Lankan order when they tour at the end of the year. Hadlee retired with 431 Test victims and Kapil Dev 434. Steyn could well move past them as well before the Sri Lankans head home.
For much of 2015 the Proteas played some ordinary cricket and they were thumped 3-0 in India before losing a much-hyped home series against England in 2015-16. That dip in performance coincided with Steyn suffering from injury and Vernon Philander losing his magic touch. Suddenly, it was left to the emergence of Kagiso Rabada to try hold the rampant England batsmen at bay. It was like trying to hold back the tide.
‘I tried to rush back for the Bangalore Test and if I hadn’t, I would have probably played the [rest of the] series against India,’ Steyn said recently. ‘Then, against England, I tried to go from 0 to 100 too quickly and I broke a bone in my shoulder which is very rare. It was not a case of age or ability. There was no doubt that my ability was there or that I could play this game anymore.’
Now, all he wants to do is run in fast and send down that red ball in excess of 140km/h and with such skills that the opposition batsmen have the fear in their eyes. ‘I just want to play,’ Steyn said. ‘I don’t know if I will wake up in a month and can’t do it anymore or if I will wake up in four years and can’t do it anymore.
‘I just really enjoy playing Test cricket. I love it. It’s what I feel I have been put on earth to do.
‘I do not know when to pull the plug or when the time to make that decision will come but if I am still making batters jump around and the pace is there, I will carry on doing what I am doing.’
On the subject of records and numbers, the 33-year-old reckoned statistics don’t motivate him. ‘When I am 70 that’s not what I am going to remember. I will remember tonight [beating New Zealand at Centurion]. I will remember winning in Australia, I will remember winning in England, and hopefully I will remember winning a World Cup too.’
Steyn’s return has come at just the right time to boost flagging hopes around the Proteas. Not that rankings is always the best barometer, but the Test squad had slipped to No 7 in the world, with Pakistan and India the top two, before the 1-0 ‘series’ victory against New Zealand lifted them back up to No 5.
Australia, in Australia, will provide a more accurate yardstick as to where the Proteas currently stand in the Test arena and the success of Steyn is integral to their fortunes. As he charged in with intent at Centurion, it was as if he was sending a message to Rabada that there’s still plenty of life left in the older fast bowler. His pace was consistently a few kilometres higher and the late swing was too much for the outplayed Kiwis to handle.
When Steyn’s carotid vein is bulging in his neck and his fist pumping piston-like towards the ground, South Africa smiles. There is no greater sight in cricket than seeing a fast bowler uproot the stump of a batsman and Steyn’s reaction shows just what it means to him. And when he is in the mood, that energy fills the dressingroom. And for a few pleasurable days, the country seems to forget all the daily sideshows that often cause panic and gloom in society.
Steyn is one of the world’s great fast bowlers of all-time. Just where he ranks is for one of those long sessions around the fire or in the bar, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he is ahead of the likes of Allan Donald, Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and anyone from the pre-isolation era. When it comes to ranking the batsmen it’s a lot harder, because pre-isolation had geniuses like Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards to strengthen the debate. Jacques Kallis is the standout from the post 1991 generation.
However, importantly, we can all agree that Steyn is back, and even if he isn’t at his best – Australia will go a long way to providing evidence either yes or no – he is more than a handful for any top batsman in the world when it comes to Test cricket.
The argument to back his case as one of the best of all-time is not based solely in the statistics which seem to suggest he is in the top-three fast bowlers to have played the game.
His importance in the success of South Africa is borne out by this fact. In 22 of his 26 Test innings ‘five-fors’, the Proteas have won the match. Ahead of him in that particular list are Muralitharan (41 five-wicket hauls resulting in a Sri Lankan victory) and Warne (27 times for Australia). Both were legendary spinners, with Steyn’s figures suggesting he is the most influential fast bowler to have played Test cricket.
No one dare predict where this particular story is going to end. Steyn has defied the predictions before and come back strongly. Father Time tells you at that his next birthday he will be 34 and history shows the tap on the shoulder is not far away. But that’s only next June.
For now, Dale Steyn has singlehandedly raised the hopes of all those who hold South Africa’s Test team close to their heart.
Written by Gary Lemke, editorial director at Highbury Safika Media