On December17, 2004, a wide-eyed and wild-armed 21-year-old from Phalaborwa became South Africa’s 62nd Test player since re-admission. On December 16, 2013, sitting in the shade beside where the Proteas were having a net ahead of the first Test against India at the Wanderers, Dale Steyn looked stunned when told the next day would mark the ninth anniversary of his Test debut.
“Really? I had no idea. That is crazy,” said Steyn.
Does it feel like nine years?
“Ah, yeah,” he laughed, and looked across at the nets where Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, who played with him in that losing Test in PE, were training. “No, it doesn’t. I’m kidding. It’s amazing that. Nine years. Wow. I’m just thinking, not just about the cricket, but I’ve known some of these guys for nine years now. That’s a long time.
“I remember so much about that first Test, so much, man. My family came down. I remember having over-sized clothing. AB and myself went into a team meeting the night before the game and they tricked us by saying we had to go to the meeting in our number ones (team blazers).
“We also had to give a presentation on past cricketers. Gerald de Kock, who was our media manager at the time, printed a whole bunch of information for me and he even wrote this presentation for me. I had to stand up in front of the team and read it.
“AB had to do something on apartheid, I think. We didn’t even get to AB because when I was halfway through my presentation the whole team burst out laughing.
“The Test match itself was a crazy game that we ended up losing. I don’t remember too much about that bit, because I was young and stupid.”
The now 30-year-old Steyn said he has become much more professional in every aspect of his cricketing career. He credits the people who have influenced him positively down the years, changing him from the young and stupid man into the number one bowler in the world in the No 1 Test team in the world.
“The cricketers amaze me. I’ve known Kallis for nine years. I’ve been a student of what he’s done for nine years. Smithy was there, Polly (Shaun Pollock) was there for a couple of years and also AB. Being around these guys for nine years is what has made me a better player. If I could tell the Dale Steyn from 2004 what to do, I would have told him when he was 15 to move to Pretoria,” laughed Steyn.
It was at the Wanderers in 2007 that Steyn had his “breakthrough” match, for want of a better term. He took 10 wickets against New Zealand, five in each innings, as South Africa tore the Black Caps apart. Then he did it again at SuperSport Park, then his home ground, adding another 10 sticks, six of them from 10.3 overs in the second innings. He also hit Craig Cumming on the head, sending him to hospital.
“I think you begin to get the belief in yourself the moment you start to feel more welcome in the environment you are in. Not that I was never welcome, but in the beginning it’s a hard place.
“I looked at Kallis as my hero, and you walk into the changeroom and now he’s sitting there with you. It’s a pretty intimidating thing. You think, ‘I’m not better than this guy’, but to make it in international cricket you have to think you are on par with him, which is belief, I guess. If you don’t, then you will come off second best.
“We’ve gotten better at welcoming new guys into the team over the years, making them feel at home as quickly as possible. Like Quinton de Kock, who makes three hundreds before he turns 21 – there’s a reason behind that. It’s because he feels part of this team and can contribute. He feels welcome. Back then, I felt welcome, but I felt I wasn’t yet ready to play for these guys. It took a while for me to believe. Then I started taking wickets.”
He began taking a lot of wickets, becoming the fastest South African to 100 wickets. He took 86 in one year, when he was named the ICC Test player of the year. Wild, young and stupid had been smoothed into fast, aggressive and clever. His action has evolved over the years, as much in the way he thinks about his job as in the mechanics of it.
“I had to change my run-up after I bowled about a billion no balls in that first game and other games. It’s changed a little. The action itself has become stronger and tighter.
“Back then, it was a typical young guy’s style. It was wild and all over the place. Everything’s more mechanical now. It’s still got the free flow, but there is a deep sense of the mechanics, of what I am doing. Back then I was just running in and I was thinking, ‘I have to hit a good length. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I have to do it.’
“Now there’s a system I work on. From the top of my run-up I feel how I take off and start running in. I get to the crease, it’s a gather, it’s a hold, and then it’s a land, then focus on the point that you want to let it go. Then it’s release, follow through, head up… all these little things that go through my mind now that I’ve worked out over nine years.”
In those nine years, Steyn had the chance to meet Madiba on occasion. “The one time we met him was after a Test match here against New Zealand, when I’d taken the 10 wickets, I think.
“He invited us to his house. When we got there I was the first one in. AB and I were the youngest. I sat right next to him and I remember everyone handing me their phones and while I was listening to him I was sneaking pics of him. I didn’t even get one myself. It was a humbling experience. I would have appreciated it more to have met him now because I understand more now what he has done for our country than I did back then.”
Steyn has seen many things in his nine years as a Test player. Without ignoring the challenge of India over these two Tests, he is relishing the upcoming series against Australia, who have just decimated England.
What makes this South African team special?
“Our ruthlessness in everything that we do. We are ruthless as a bowling unit, we are ruthless in our lengths, not talking about hitting guys in the face, but we are consistently and aggressively ruthless in hitting a hard length all the time making it hard for teams to score runs against us.
“Our batting speaks for itself. Hashim, Graeme, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, best batters in the world. I don’t even look at Michael Clarke.
“When you put us all together in one team, how we gel and perform, with all the different religions and colours, and we find a way to work, a South African way. You can’t break through that forcefield. It’s impossible. We’re a Madiba team.” - Cape Argus