CENTURION – To describe Dale Steyn’s start in international cricket as ‘inauspicious’ would be kind.
Make no mistake, it had its good moments – knocking over Marcus Trescothick with a 140.3km/h in-ducker for his maiden Test wicket was one, as was the ‘pitch-middle-hit-off’ peach that took out Michael Vaughan.
But for the most part, the beginning for Steyn wasn’t very pretty.
He bowled 19 no-balls in the three Tests he played against England in the summer of 2004/05, more than double the number of wickets he took in that series – eight – and conceded 416 runs in 100.2 overs for an average of 52.
Everyone who watched him knew there was something special – the pace, allied with swing, the mean streak and the vein popping celebration – but he needed refining.
His Test debut against Vaughan’s team came too soon, something his coaches recognised subsequently.
It was a weird, often contentious period for the South African team. Graeme Smith was still finding himself as captain.
The selectors seemingly had little idea what they were doing, leading Smith, then still 23 years old, to plead for some stability.
Steyn wasn’t providing any with his bowling at that stage.
He was posted back to the Titans where, out of the international spotlight and under the tutelage of Richard Pybus, he could refine his bowling, make a couple of technical changes and ultimately set forth on the path to becoming the Dale Steyn who dominated Test cricket for the best part of 10 years between 2006 and 2016.
In that 2005/06 season, he played nine matches in the then-SuperSport Series for the Titans, picking up 49 wickets at an average of 18.22.
By the end of that summer, he was back in the SA Test side for an autumn series against New Zealand. He finished those three Tests with 16 wickets. and his career started its upward curve.
A year later, Steyn was made the attack’s leader as part of Smith’s new strategy for four front-line bowlers, with a particular emphasis – in Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel’s case – on pace.
In 2008, Steyn was Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker with 74 wickets, and central to what was arguably the best year the national side has had.
There were historic series wins in England – a first in 43 years – and in Australia, the first ever, on top of a drawn series in India.
Steyn starred with bat and ball in South Africa’s epic victory at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, scoring 76 and sharing a ninth wicket partnership with JP Duminy of 180, that helped to turn that match in the Proteas’ favour.
With the ball, he claimed 10/154, and he’d go on to finish that three-match series with 18 wickets.
Steyn’s best Test – not just in terms of the statistics, but also the manner in which he bowled – came in Nagpur against India in 2010, when he recorded his best figures of 7/51 in India’s first innings on a very flat deck.
While the reverse swing, Steyn got on that occasion was a feature of his performance, the then-Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said what really set Steyn apart was how he got conventional swing, particularly in his first spell.
And in one instance, he dismissed Sachin Tendulkar with a superb out-swinger.
Steyn’s record in India is outstanding – 26 wickets in six Tests at an average of 21.36 – and is more evidence that beyond mere speed, he’s also one of the most skilful bowlers the game has known.
His record stands alongside any of the great fast bowlers the game has known.
Even if he hadn’t been able to return after that unfortunate shoulder injury in Perth two years ago, there would have been no doubting his greatness.
Thankfully however, and on the back of some very hard work by the man himself, he’s been able to return to the playing arena, and by his own admission is fitter and stronger than before he injured the shoulder.
That beautiful action,that incredible away swinger,that fire that burns inside,those eyes.That’s the phenomenal @DaleSteyn62 Congratulations on achieving the incredible milestone of 422 wkts. Now to join #Club500 #422andbeyond— Vincent Barnes (@VincentBarnes50) December 26, 2018
His goals are clear too – 500 Test wickets and playing 100 Tests – which should warm the hearts of Proteas supporters and lovers of the game everywhere.
The one-time ‘wild thing’ is now very much a more controlled character, but the fury remains, and we’re lucky to still have him in action.
Dale Steyn’s Top 5 Displays
7/51 vs India, Nagpur, 2010
There are two parts to this career-best bowling performance from Steyn – the first was the way he got the new ball swinging conventionally away from the right-hander, dismissing Tendulkar as part of a wonderful set up; the second came when (after the umpires had changed the ball) Steyn got it to reverse and ran through the Indian middle- and lower-order.
On a flat and slow pitch, that display ranks as one of the great fast bowling performances on the sub-continent.
5/87 and 5/67, vs Australia, Melbourne, 2008
If Nagpur was Steyn’s greatest innings performance, then the MCG was arguably his best match performance – it included a game changing 76 with the bat.
There was a lot of hype around Steyn in that historic series, and he lived up to it at the game’s biggest arena.
Pace, control and swing were all to the fore as he tore the Australians apart and help set up South Africa’s first series win Down Under.
4/55 vs Australia, Port Elizabeth, 2014
This was terrific theatre played out on a Sunday afternoon at the country’s oldest cricket stadium, with its famous band providing an intoxicating backdrop as Steyn tore in from the Duck Pond End and laid waste to the Australian middle-order.
Clarke, Smith and most memorably Haddin were ripped out in an awe-inspiring spell that made for riveting viewing. Watching it now still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
5/56 vs England, The Oval, 2012
Amla made his historic triple century following which there were whispers from the England dressing room about the pitch being too flat and ‘sub-continental’.
Feeling that his mate’s achievements had been undermined, Steyn showed how a proper fast bowler operates by tearing through the English in their second innings, setting up a series leading innings victory against the then-No 1 team in the world.
A spell made famous by the images of Steyn angrily holding up his left hand and screaming ‘Five!’ in the direction of the home team’s dressing-room.
6/8 vs Pakistan, The Wanderers, February 2013
A single spell of high quality fast bowling from the Golf Course End saw Pakistan shot out for 49 in 29 overs.
Steyn’s pace wasn’t ferocious – it needn’t have been, such was the movement on offer for him that morning – but his accuracy and control were mesmerising. He scented the merest hint of fear among the Pakistanis and rolled right through them, causing many latecomers to the ‘Bullring’ to miss an enthralling spell.@shockerhess