Dale Steyn smiles, a trifle too amiably for comfort perhaps, at the image of himself as the mean and nasty fast bowler determined to strip England of their status as the best Test team in the world.
“Look at me,” said South Africa’s spearhead. “There’s nothing to me. I’m actually skinny and small for a fast bowler. I guess I’m really lucky. I just have this gift for pace and I’m trying to make it work as often as I can.”
Do not be deceived. The man sitting before me, all 6ft and around 13 stones of him, is the undisputed No 1 bowler in the world, a fast man with a strike rate of 40, better than anyone in the history of the game to have taken more than 150 Test wickets. And he will be at the forefront of the battle of the two best attacks in the world that will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of the main event of this cricketing summer.
Steyn has been clocked at 97mph but more usually bowls in the low 90s. He also has an animated, aggressive streak that sees him displaying more than his fair share of emotion on the pitch. It is difficult to believe, as he chats away modestly for an hour, that I am speaking to the right man. He just seems too nice and has a fascinating explanation for his dual personality.
“I’m not actually that aggressive when I go on to the field,” said Steyn as he prepares for South Africa’s Test showdown against England, starting next Thursday at The Kia Oval. “I just try to play the part. Like Shane Warne played his part beautifully. People would go to cricket grounds to watch him, like it was a stage and he was the main performer.
“As a fast bowler I have responsibility to lead the attack, lift up all the players who are in my team and, yes, be that little bit more aggressive. I can’t spin a ball a mile like Shane Warne but I can bowl it at 150 clicks (kph) and that’s how I can get people to say, “Something’s happening here”.
“You want to stare the batter down or make him shake because it’s too quick. It gets people going, not just the crowd but the players too. So I play a role but off the field I’m really not like that.”
Steyn, 29, will not be short of a word for Andrew Strauss and the other England batsmen in the heat of battle. “Sledging isn’t really part of my game but sometimes it comes naturally. I don’t like to talk to batters. I like to let the ball do the talking. But there is a time and a place when you have to say something. Talk to him about his technique or whatever it is. There is a mind game involved.
“I believe 80 per cent of cricket is in the mind and 20 per cent of it is skill. But you have to be clever about it. Some people just go out there and say the most stupid stuff. That can blow over the batsman’s head but when you are smart about it you can get inside a guy’s mind and put some doubt in there. Then that might spread through the rest of the team and you can cause some damage.”
Once upon a time the man who would go on to be a proud successor to South African pace bowling legends such as Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock was indeed considered too nice for his chosen profession. The young Steyn struggled to impose himself on the opposition and lacked the mean streak that now poses such a threat to England.
Then, one day during a Test against New Zealand at Centurion five years ago, everything changed when a nasty delivery from the fledgling fast bowler struck a batsman called Craig Cumming in the face.
“When I started off I didn’t want to upset anybody,” Steyn said. “When you are a new kid on the block you really don’t want to make a name for yourself for the wrong reasons and look like an idiot. Look at our recent tour of New Zealand, for example. Tim Southee is a good player and quite a nice guy but he shouted off his mouth just a bit too much and ended up getting dropped. So you have to be careful.
“When I was younger I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to keep quiet. Maybe it was that series against New Zealand that proved the turning point. I took 20 wickets in that one and almost killed a guy. He was in pretty bad shape. He went to hospital, had a plate put in and I don’t know what else.
“I’d made a little marker and from that point on I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this’. Mark Boucher would come and say, ‘Maybe it’s time you opened your mouth a bit now because we need you to do that’.”
He has rarely looked back. Now, he will lead an attack that includes the height and bounce of Morne Morkel, the emerging seam of Vernon Philander, the pace of the evergreen Jacques Kallis and the leg-spin of Imran Tahir against another bowling unit brimming with skill and options, that of England.
“We’ve got a great side, a fantastic team,” said Steyn. “Our team is full of quality individuals and when we all pull together it makes for a very strong cricket team. I’m looking forward to seeing what these guys can produce, not just myself. There is some big cricket coming up for us here and in Australia.
“The ranking is something we are really striving for. You want to be the No 1 team in the world. You want to lead the way. You want other teams looking at you and saying, ‘What are they doing that we need to do?’ And when they get close to you we then step up again. That’s what we really want to do.
“I feel like this is the best environment I’ve been involved in. Man for man we have some wonderful players. When I started we had some great cricketers such as Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini and some of the same guys we have now. The team hasn’t changed that much but the maturity of the guys has come on leaps and bounds since when I was first around.
“The environment feels so professional. Not that it wasn’t before but, if this team played the team we had a couple of years ago, this one would be better.”
There is, of course, a fascinating sub-plot to this eagerly anticipated three-Test series. The presence of South African-born players like Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, and even Strauss and Matt Prior, in the England side is an emotive subject, one that divides opinions. Only last week Trott felt compelled to say again that he was no mercenary and he considered himself totally English.
South Africa have also lost others, like Craig Kieswetter, who could so easily have been stepping in for the injured Boucher as the tourists’ wicketkeeper next week, and those who have chosen to use their Kolpak status to play as non-overseas players in English domestic cricket. Steyn has some fascinating views on the matter.
“I’m very open minded about life, and people have to do what they have to do,” he said. “I’ve got no problems with that. Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter are the ones, really, and they’re fantastic players but I’m not saying we’re missing out because, if I look at our team, I feel who would they knock out? I think they’d have a hard time getting into our team now. Seriously.
“I’m happy for them that they’ve come over here and made good lives for themselves and achieved fantastic things in cricket but I”m not saying that we miss them at all. I’m sure they would have done just as well if they’d stayed at home but they play for England. We’ve got loads of guys at home who want to play for South Africa who are very good players. The Proteas want to achieve fantastic things. Obviously we don’t want players to leave to play in England, New Zealand and Australia but if they decide to do that what can we do?
“All I’d say to the England players is that they will soon be playing for the No 2 team in the world because we want to get to No 1.”
Steyn is particularly friendly with Trott, too friendly according to former South Africa coach Mickey Arthur, now in charge of Australia, who admonished his strike bowler for socialising with Trott during a Test on England’s last tour of South Africa.
“Mickey was smoking his socks!” he said rather colourfully. “I played at Warwickshire with Trotty and we were having lunch one day in Sandton. I vaguely remember Mickey saying that but, if you’re friends with someone, what’s the problem with socialising?
“When we walk on the field I”m still going to try to get him out. Trotty won’t be apologising if he hits me for four and I certainly won’t be apologising if I get him out. I know when we walk off the field I can still go up to him, hit him on the shoulder, smile at him and laugh with him. It’s fine.”
That spell with Warwickshire, along with an earlier stint in county cricket with Essex, did much to make Steyn the bowler he is today, even though he did not get off to the best of starts in England.
“I loved county cricket and had a great time,” said Steyn. “I was very young when I played for Essex, very immature and very useless. At one point I even said to Graham Gooch that they should keep their money because they were wasting it on me, I was so bad.
“When I came back to play for Warwickshire I didn’t want to make the same mistakes. I played a lot better for them and lived up to the expectations the club had for me. That was important.
“I apologise to Essex but when I came back I was a lot better cricketer. I learnt a lot from that, coming back to play against England for South Africa four years ago.”
That series ended in triumph for South Africa and the end of Michael Vaughan as England captain but it was not hugely successful for Steyn. In fact, his figures against England are not as good as his overall ones and he has something of a point to prove at The Oval, Headingley and Lord”s.
“I did a bit of damage in the second Test in 2008 and did what I needed to do, which was down to playing here before, but then I broke my thumb and couldn’t play in the last two. I made my Test debut against England when I was really young and I didn’t quite know what was going on.
“I was caught up in playing for South Africa, so those first three Tests I’ve statistically almost written off as a learning phase. For me I only really began counting my stats two years after I started playing Test cricket. I know a little bit more now but I’m still learning. My record is not terrible against England. I can live with it.”
Yet his mission now is to improve that record against England before going on to cement his name as one of the great fast men.
“I’m not a statto. I’m happy to play and win. I just want to stay fit and strong and keep doing the things I”m doing. My biggest thing is for someone to be sitting in a bar long after I’ve retired saying, ‘Do you remember that guy Steyn? He gave everything all day and was entertaining to watch’.
“I want to be a part of the fast bowling legacy that has been around for as long as cricket has been played. I have no idea what Joel Garner’s stats are, or Malcolm Marshall’s, but I know I would have been s******* myself if I had to go and face them. I just want to be considered part of that elite group and then my job would be complete.”
With a smile on his face. Off the pitch, at least.
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