Dale Steyn’s selection for the Proteas tour of Sri Lanka is, at the very least, a triumph over adversity and a demonstration of the determination that has marked his career.
There have been some adverse comments on social media following the announcement that the Phalaborwa Express will be back in national colours for the first time since January, when he injured his heel in the first Test against India. Many feel that, given his record of injuries, the time has come to retire.
It is not an altogether unreasonable view: since December 2015, Steyn has played in just five of South Africa’s 29 Tests and bowled just 176 overs in 14 matches across all formats. Indeed, when the call came, he had bowled only 26 overs in first-class cricket – in one innings, for Hampshire – since January. It was all the selectors needed, but there is an element of risk in the selection.
But Steyn is not one to go quietly, and he did not pick himself.
After much denial that numbers matter, he now admits that the record of the most prolific bowler in South African history, held by Shaun Pollock at 421 wickets, is a lure. He needs just three to take the honour –and he deserves it.
Steyn has always been an all-or-nothing bowler, putting everything he has into the delivery, which was why he was so debilitated by the two shoulder injuries which cut short his series against England in December 2015 and against Australia in November 2016. Those were injuries caused solely by the pressure he put on himself with his bowling action. Pollock, on the other hand, learned to bowl within himself, prolonging his career to 108 matches to gain those 421 wickets, coming at a conservative 2.39 runs per over and at a strike rate of 57.8.
Steyn is an altogether different beast: in his 86 matches, his economy rate is 3.22, but he strikes every 41.5 balls. Five times he has taken 10 wickets in a match, and five wickets on 26 occasions (compared to Pollock’s one and 16 respectively).
His goal, he says, is 100 Test matches and 500 wickets; and both are possible if he can maintain his fitness. He would need 5.7 a match if he were to do both simultaneously, but he could well make a start in Sri Lanka. In the four Tests he has played there, he has taken 21 wickets, twice with five-fors, and a best of 9-99.
But Steyn brings more than just firepower: he brings experience, which would serve both Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi well.
For all Rabada’s meteoric rise, he has played just three matches on the subcontinent, all in India, where he has taken two wickets at 55.5. This will very much be part of his learning curve, and who better to have alongside him than Steyn?
The selection of Steyn raises some interesting selection debates: last time out, the Proteas used three seamers, Imran Tahir and JP Duminy, with the occasional tweak from Elgar to help out. With three specialist spinners in the squad this time – Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi and Shaun von Berg – the suggestion is that two will be in the team: a five-man bowling lineup with Philander at No 7? So will Ngidi miss out?
It would be a pity not to give him experience in those conditions. He is, after all, the future, and the 34-year-old Steyn, despite his iron will, cannot last forever.
Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix