Dale Steyn hates talking about cricket. He’d prefer talking about his small role in an Adam Sandler film, watching the US Open surfing competition on Huntington Beach in California, writes Ryan Vrede.
Cricket is what he does, not who he is. His identity isn’t wrapped up in his profession, his self-image not determined by whether he succeeds or fails on the world’s ovals. The hot-wired, cherry-red Concorde in his right hand doesn’t define him. For this we should all celebrate.
Certainly his technical prowess is immense. And when he is engaged in battle, he is a beast. But it is his ability to switch off away from the game, to keep perspective on his life, that is at the root of his consistent success.
He chats to me in a manner that suggests he has no real awareness of his status as a global superstar. He isn’t sure how many Test wickets he has taken, and guesses at how many ODI sticks he has. He tells me he doesn’t set any goals. ‘Most of what has happened in my career has happened by fluke,’ he jokes. He sips on a Coke for the duration of our interview and at one stage lets out a burp that would register a four out of five in quality if there were a measure for such things. He is in every way still the farm boy from Phalaborwa. Self-effacing, humble, and with an endearing child-like quality.
‘I don’t play golf like a lot of the other lads; I have a very alternative lifestyle. I listen to crazy music and I play guitar, but suck so bad. Man, so, so bad. But I do it often and never want to get better. How terrible would it be if you became a pro at your hobby? When I’m at home in Cape Town, I explore my city. There’s so much to do, I don’t think about cricket and never want that part of my life to intrude on my “real” life. The two have to be kept separate. I don’t obsess about cricket. When it’s go time, I’m going to give you everything I’ve got. But in my downtime, don’t talk to me about the game. Talk to me about half pipes, about Kelly Slater, about your record time up Devil’s Peak, about your dogs – I love dogs – talk to me about the bush, just don’t talk to me about cricket.’
Steyn is a decade into his international career and thus well placed to comment on men who’ve been obsessed by the game, been caught in its maw, masticated, spat out and left for dead. Some have recovered. The majority never do.
‘I’ve seen too many of those types of situations for my liking,’ Steyn says. ‘Honestly, I can’t relate to that because I just can’t see how anyone would allow a game to destroy their lives like that. I’m not saying it isn’t possible. I’m saying I can’t relate.’
‘I’m also not saying it doesn’t hurt when I struggle or we lose matches,’ he adds. ‘I want to win every match I play in and I want to be the reason we win those games. But I seem to have a sense of perspective on failure that some professionals at the elite level lack. You only need to look at the front page [of newspapers], and not the back, to understand that in the greater scheme of things in this world there are more desperate situations than losing a cricket match.’
Steyn weighs in on Jonathan Trott’s lot. The England batsman returned home after just one Ashes Test, citing his inability to continue due to the savage effects of his lengthy battle with stress and anxiety. Trott’s throwaway line in a 2011 interview with The Cricketer magazine is, in hindsight, extremely revealing. ‘When I had a bad month, I’d hate the game and feel like joining the ground staff,’ he said.
‘I feel for Trott,’ Steyn says. ‘He is a decent bloke and a good player, but he’s one of those guys who lives and breathes the game. I hope he recovers.
‘I think the Proteas are in a fortunate position to have a group of highly gifted players who are also able to switch it on and off as needed. Guys like Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers, Vernon Philander, among others, are all completely chilled away from the game. That has a lot to do with those blokes never going through prolonged slumps. You just can’t fracture their confidence. Maybe it bruises, but they never get so caught up in their struggle that they become liabilities.’
To watch Steyn in action is to see his alter ego come to life. He has no middle ground emotional state – he is either super chilled away from the game or completely invested when in it. Sneering and snarling at batters whose competency isn’t up to his standard is commonplace, as is vein-popping celebrations when he takes a wicket. Voicing his displeasure in a manner best not described here cost him his match fee in the second ODI against Pakistan in November last year. That incident followed hot on the heels of Australia skipper Michael Clarke being docked his fee for a less than friendly exchange with England’s James Anderson. Steyn is quick to point out that his incident was different to Clarke’s in that he didn’t curse directly at the batsman. He was, however, not too fussed about handing over the cash, but explains his point of view.
‘There have to be boundaries, but what irritates me is when umpires and match conveners want to get involved in every little thing in the game,’ he says. ‘They’re there to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand, but often I sense some of them just want face time on TV.
‘I see cricket as theatre and I’m an actor on that stage. Part of my job is to entertain, and sometimes that manifests in me going at a batter.
‘Man, I take lots of abuse on Twitter when I get fired up out there – people call me all sorts of horrible names [laughs]. But I’m guessing those people are sympathetic to the batter’s cause. They’re certainly not Proteas fans.’
Steyn has to shoot off. ‘I’m taking the dogs out for a run. If you need more, let’s chat tomorrow. No, wait, I’m going up the mountain with Paddy Upton. Perhaps the day after that? Let me see. Wow, it’s going to be a scorcher. I’m definitely breaking out the surfboard. Best you get me on on the beach between waves.’