“The world waits, keenly, patiently, intently to witness those veins popping one final time. Nothing in sport equals to the adrenaline rush you derive from it. Steyn lives by it”.
The green and gold seemed a haze. A black ghost-like figure approached him and offered a hand as he sat crouched on the pitch scarcely able to acknowledge what had just unfolded. This was a World Cup semi-final; where champions are born and champions win. Yet, he sat there wronged, inconsolable and peeved. Eden Park seemed larger than ever and the crowd more intimidating than ever.
An unforgettable moment from Dale Steyn’s illustrated career has him in despair at the Eden Park after South Africa’s heart-wrenching semi-final loss to New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup. Perhaps, it isn’t the best way to open up on one of the best fast bowlers that ever walked the face of the earth.
But that night was an anomaly in Dale Steyn’s career. Right from the moment he steamed in as a teenage tearaway on debut against Michael Vaughan and opened him up completely to castle the stumps, Dale Steyn was a prodigy; a legend whose success was as predictable as Earth’s rotation.
When he ran in, the crowd stood up and cheered. They adored him, loved him. He was a born hero. His rise came at a time the cricketing fraternity had lost the likes of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. A generation of cricketers had hung up their boots and screamed for a worthy successor.
When Steyn and his fist-pumping celebrations greeted the world, cricket knew fast bowling was about to be renewed, injected with a dose of adrenaline. Dale Steyn was that. Energy, vibe and swagger. When he stared, batsmen listened. He didn’t need to talk. His eyes did. His deliveries did. His vein-popping celebrations did.
“Everybody has adrenaline,” he once said in an interview. But to diffuse that spirit all around the moment he took that red cherry in his hands made him special. He wasn’t from a cricket related family. His roots lay in small Phalaborwa and his rush and passion emerged from his undying love for fast bowling.
From Richard Hadlee to Shoaib Akhtar to Brett Lee to Shaun Tait, every single fast bowler who could set the pace gun on fire had an addiction. That emerges from the ability to do something very few in the world can do – bowl insanely fast.
“I don’t know what it is about fast bowling. I guess it’s the ability to do something that nobody else can really do. Not a lot of people can run in and bowl really fast, you know. So that’s a nice thing, knowing that you are part of a small percentage of people in the world who are able to do that, and that’s a great feeling,” Steyn says.
In Steyn’s case, he knew pace wasn’t his only attribute. When he bowled the ball swung away, even if he tried not to. The outswinger came so naturally to him that he would still have got the new ball in a team of Glenn McGrath, Curtly Ambrose, Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev and Wasim Akram.
To his credit, he evolved. He wasn’t satisfied bowling just fast with the new ball. He had had his share of setbacks, one which came extremely early in his International career in an ODI when Phil Jacques took a special liking to him. Post his five-over spell, Steyn had deplorable figures of 0/58.
Richard Pybus, who worked a lot with Steyn early in his career recalls that day vividly. “It wasn’t all plain sailing. He got absolutely butchered in an ODI in Australia – ‘traumatised’ may not be too strong a word. He came back from that experience and I remember him saying to me, ‘That is never going to happen again’. Firm and defiant.”
It rarely happened since then. Steyn ruled over batsmen, irrespective of conditions, irrespective of the stature of batsmen or the nature of the pitch. He evolved as he grew. The reverse swing became a primary weapon in his arsenal as did the cross seam ball. While fast bowlers were content to be fast, Steyn wanted to be everything. He worked, practised insanely and came out as a winner, a champion.
His battle with Sachin Tendulkar in 2011 at Cape Town was a sight to behold. He consistently beat the maestro’s bat with lightning-quick outswingers. The ball swung wildly, seamed but eluded the edge. He beat Tendulkar’s bat as many as three times in an over and picked an edge twice. It was an exhibition of high-quality fast bowling. The world had been denied of such quality since the retirement of Glenn McGrath.
If Steyn didn’t get a wicket, it was only because the batsman at the other end was a certain Sachin Tendulkar. The Indian legend made a spectacular hundred that innings but Steyn had five wickets to show for and ended the series with 21.
It was a continuation of his feats in 2008 in Ahmedabad when he had decimated the famed Indian batting line-up for 76 on a day one pitch that was said to offer absolutely nothing to fast bowlers. Two years later he returned to the sub-continent to dish out another venomous spell of 7/51 at Nagpur.
By the latter half of his career, reverse swing was a major weapon in his armoury, one that made opposition captains alter their decisions at the toss. He could take out whole teams in a spell like he did at Port Elizabeth in 2014 against Australia. He tormented the Aussies when the ball started reversing and bowled them out for 216 after they had raced to 152/1. None apart from the openers got to double-digit scores as Steyn whipped out the cream of Australia’s batting belly.
By the time the lowest moment of his career unfolded at Eden Park, Steyn’s injury-free graph had started going awry. It became a part and parcel of his journey, so much so that he could barely complete Test matches. In the first day of an all-important Australian tour in 2016, Dale Steyn returned from injury to bowl at speeds in excess of 150kmph. By the end of the day, he hobbled off the Perth pitch to never return in the series.
Most fast bowlers decided enough is enough after a slew of injuries. But Steyn was a champion, a deer who outraced the lion, an enigma. He refused to succumb to injuries. He fought through and is still fighting injuries. He made a couple of comebacks, both ending in further injuries but the return of the ‘Steyn Remover’ looms yet again.
Every time he grits through an injury, you could sense the passion in his eyes and words. He might be within touching distance of Shaun Pollock’s South African record of Test wickets. But that isn’t what keeps him going; it is his undying, relentless love for the game and for the art. He made the art richer, brighter and inspired quite a few young lads to take it up. Without him, fast bowling would perhaps never be the same again. The Phalaborwa Express, as he is called, though, isn’t done yet. The world waits, keenly, patiently, intently to witness those veins popping one final time. Nothing in sport equals to the adrenaline rush you derive from it. Steyn lives by it.