“It is only in Tests that we can truly appreciate the beauty and bewitchment of such a special delivery. Dale Steyn and his outswinger have been a compelling sight in the game. We are fortunate to have witnessed him at his best”

 

The story of Dale Steyn is the story of a single delivery — the outswinger. Not just any outswinger, however, but the one bowled so expertly and so consistently by the South African fast bowling great.

It is a delivery that, in some ways, is all his own. Many other bowls it, of course, yet none deliver a more menacing version. None bowl it with such devastating effect.

Steyn’s outswinger didn’t necessarily deviate a great deal. It usually moved just enough to find the edge or to make the batsman think how very lucky he was to have missed it. Armed with a new ball, and squaring up against a righthander, Steyn was often unplayable. It didn’t matter who the batsman was – Tendulkar or Dravid or Ponting – survival would be the primary concern. They knew they needed a sizeable dose of good fortune to see him off.

The opening batsman facing Steyn at the beginning of the innings knew what was coming. He knew the ball would be fairly full. He knew it would mostly inhabit a line on or around offstump. And he knew that very late in its flight the ball would probably veer away. He knew what was coming, but was still at a loss as to how to combat it. The length and line were already demanding. The late swing would make it impossible.

It was outswing that made him the Test-match bowler he was, arguably the best the game has ever seen. Of all the bowlers with more than 200 Test wickets, his strike rate 42.3 balls per wicket is the best. This puts him some distance ahead of some of the greatest fast bowlers in history, bowlers like Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee, Wasim Akram, and Richard Hadlee, whose name comes up every time there is a discussion about cricket’s best fast bowlers.

“God gave me the outswinger,” stated Indian great Kapil Dev, “I had to develop the rest.” Apparently, God gave Dale Steyn his outswinger too. “Did you at any stage worry about losing your outswinger?” he was asked in an interview with The Cricket Monthly. “No, never,” came his reply. “That is the biggest thing I have got: my away-swinger. Hopefully, it never goes. I don’t think about fast bowling a lot. I just do it.”

Imagine that. Being the best at something without even having to think about it. That is much unlike someone like Malcolm Marshall, who not only practiced his craft diligently but also thought about it deeply.

Steyn, by his own words, is something of a natural. He still needed to work relentlessly hard at it – he’d not have reached the heights he did otherwise. But his athleticism, uncomplicated action, and natural outswing tell of someone who was born to be a fast bowler.

Former Indian swing bowling master, Zaheer Khan informed us, on Cricbuzz Live, of a conversation he had with Steyn about bowling. “Imagine you bowling just outswingers, can you just work out inswinger as well?” This is how the South African answered: “He said,” reports Zaheer, that “he doesn’t have to because he wanted to protect the shape of his outswinger and he felt that if he works on his wrist position and somehow loses his outswing, then all the sting in his bowling is gonna go away.”

That reply was instructive. Steyn was saying that he knows the gem of delivery his outswinger is and he’d do nothing to jeopardize its effectiveness. In Driving Ambition, his autobiography, former England captain Andrew Strauss tells of a period in his career when he and the England team coaches were trying to improve his driving as a way of expanding his range of strokes. He scored his runs mostly off the back foot and his driving off the front foot was seen as a glaring weakness that opponents were beginning to exploit.

After assiduous work on the matter, the lefthander reports that “I got out far more often driving the ball and I scored hardly any runs off the back foot.” His front foot driving got a little better, yet not only did it cause him to lose his wicket more often, but it also hampered his previously outstanding backfoot play. Steyn was not willing to take that kind of risk.

Moving the ball both ways is an ability to be admired, however, and there were bowlers more skilled than Steyn who have no problem doing it. Jimmy Anderson and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, for example, are capable of swinging the new ball in and out as they please. Steyn has not really displayed that ability. What he has is the most potent weapon in the game — the deadliest delivery in cricket. His outswinger is the most difficult to negotiate and has probably brought him more wickets than any delivery has brought any other bowler. In other words, Steyn’s outswinger was more likely to take a batsman’s wicket than Shane Warne’s flipper, for example, or Muttiah Muralitharan’s doosra, or any other delivery in cricket’s long history.

Fred Trueman was known for his booming outswingers. “Keep bowling those outswingers, Fred, and you’ll be all right,” Maurice Leyland said to him as he was easing into his career. “That’s the one that gets the great batsmen out.”

After swinging the new ball away from the right-handed batsman, Steyn will return later in the game, provided the ball deteriorates enough to facilitate reverse swing, to snake the old ball wickedly back into the batsman. His 7/51 at Nagpur in 2010 was largely a masterful display of reverse-swing bowling. After prizing out Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar with the new ball, he returned later, with the ball reversing, to extract the last five wickets in a stunning display.

But getting wickets with the new ball was his main strength and he did that better than any other bowler. It is no surprise then that South Africa’s best run in Tests coincided with the period of Steyn at the peak of his powers. He was, to be sure, one of the main causes of their success.

Now 37, Steyn retired from Test Cricket in 2019. And while he will still play White-ball cricket, it is in Tests that he and his outswinger has been most effective; it is only in Tests that we can truly appreciate the beauty and bewitchment of such a special delivery. Dale Steyn and his outswinger have been a compelling sight in the game. We are fortunate to have witnessed him at his best.

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