• Steyn’s fitness is key

    South Africa’s plan to intimidate and destroy England’s batsmen will hinge on the fitness of Dale Steyn.

    Is Dale Steyn still at the top of his game? A definitive answer to a popular question remains elusive.

    Steyn continues to lead the ICC Test rankings. Since the start of 2014, the Proteas’ premier bowler has averaged 20.26 with the ball, an average that is superior to his overall average of 22.56.

    Over the past two years, Steyn has taken 52 wickets in 12 Tests. South Africa’s record in those matches reads: won five, drawn four, and lost three.

    And yet, those stats don’t account for the fact that as many as six days of the two-Test series in Bangladesh were lost to rain. In the series against Australia in 2014, Steyn battled with illness throughout the first Test in Centurion. He cried off with a hamstring injury in the third and decisive game in Cape Town after bowling just 10.1 overs in the first innings.

    When Steyn has featured for the Proteas over the past two years, he has lent the side an edge. He has bowled quickly and with a characteristic control. His intensity and aggression has often lifted a side that is still coming to terms with the loss of three great competitors and motivators, namely Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher.

    When Steyn has played, he has lived up to his mantle as the best in the world. Unfortunately, after more than 10 years on the international circuit his body is starting to break down more frequently. The window of opportunity to contribute to the team cause and add to his already impressive legacy grows smaller by the day.

    Steyn’s body betrayed him in that 2014 series against Australia. More recently, Steyn missed three of the four Tests in India due to a groin strain. South Africa went on to lose both series.

    In today’s game, players and teams are judged by how they perform against the likes of South Africa, Australia, England, and India. The Proteas beat England in England in August 2012, and then Australia in Australia several months later. They beat India at home in late 2013. They have since lost to the Aussies and the Indians. If they lose to England in the coming four-Test series, they will surrender their No 1 ranking.

    The Proteas need to bounce back. They have to reverse this concerning trend against the world’s biggest teams. Of course, their success against England this summer may depend on Steyn slaying his own demons. The 32-year-old will be determined to contribute in all four Tests. He will want to snap his streak of breaking down in big Test series.

    Some might suggest that South Africa are well placed to perform in this series, at least from a bowling point of view. Vernon Philander has been ruled out with injury for at least two matches, but the Proteas still boast Morné Morkel, Kyle Abbott, and Kagiso Rabada in their seam-bowling ranks.

    That said, the Proteas are a more potent prospect when Steyn is leading the attack. According to his team-mates, Steyn’s value transcends his ability to remove key members of the opposition. Steyn’s presence lifts the fielding side and inspires the other bowlers in the attack. There’s an edge about the Proteas when Steyn is on the park.

    And yet, the question that will linger over the next two months is that of Steyn’s fitness. Can Steyn survive all four Tests to fulfill his dual role? The Proteas’ chances of winning the series, and keeping their No 1 ranking, may depend on it.