South Africa is primarily a conservative society. It has a lot to do with the country being subjected to draconian segregation rules for close on a century. And its cricket culture was almost the embodiment of this for many years. This was largely also due to many of its players having been reared within a former colonial school structure.
Individuality is almost always frowned upon in such an environment. Regardless of talent and achievement, young men are often taught to keep their heads down and simply follow the instruction manual. Don’t play across the line. Keep your elbow up. Hit your areas. Don’t bowl too fast.
This formula may work for most, but sometimes there is someone who comes along who is just a little bit different, or in fact, actually quite special.
Enter Dale Willem Steyn. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that Steyn’s parents chose Marensky High School in the Limpopo province for their son. For it not only allowed arguably the finest fast bowler of his generation to unleash his special skill on cricket fields all around the globe without the straightjacket that has contained some of his teammates, but to also live every day to the absolute fullest while remaining the humblest of souls.
For many, Steyn is “the people’s fast bowler”. The guy that never refuses a selfie, is seen in the local grocer doing his weekly shopping, and surfs the wave right next to you.
I have been fortunate enough to witness Steyn’s persona close up. And my very first experience was in Nandos of all places. It was March 2009 in Port Elizabeth. Soutth Africa were in the midst of a glorious summer and Steyn was possibly at the peak of his rock star status.
He had long shaven off his golden “sunshine” locks, and matured from his indifferent Test debut in the same city five years ago. It was now time to celebrate after just playing another starring role in helping South Africa complete an ODI series victory over the arch-enemy Australia.
It was like Christmas has come twice within a couple of months after Steyn had already bowled the Proteas to a maiden Test series victory Down Under over Boxing Day in Melbourne.
All the “manne” - Smith, Boucher, Kallis, Gibbs, De Villiers – had gone in search of Port Elizabeth’s finest water holes. But not Steyn. Instead he wandered down from the Garden Court Hotel to the roast chicken eatery and stood alone in the queue waiting for his meal.
I happened to be sitting with former assistant coach Vincent Barnes and Hashim Amla at the time – very much the tee-totalling members of the Proteas side – and saw Steyn looking rather lonesome.
It was a moment I would never forget. The world’s greatest fast bowler having just accomplished one of the most memorable feats of his career just content to spend the night after with himself and not among people congratulating him every other minute.
Steyn sheepishly joined us at the table that evening. We shared great laughs over a quarter chicken that night and the moment was forever etched in my memory.
It would not be the only time that Steyn would surprise me with his humbleness. Due to social media, and particularly Instagram, Steyn had developed a special relationship with his adoring fans due to his fondness for adventure sports.
Whether it was climbing up a mountain, jumping out of a plane or swimming with sharks, Steyn was the ultimate action junkie.
So, can you imagine how frustrated he must have been on the Proteas Test tour of Bangladesh in 2015 when he was close to reaching the 400-Test wicket mark, but was instead forced to spend hour after hour stuck in the hotel due to the monsoon season severely impacting the series.
I very seldom feel sorry for professional sportsmen and women. They live the lives we could only dream of when we were children. Travelling the world, living in the best hotels, sponsored, getting paid for playing the games we love … why would I feel sorry for them?
However, any tour of the subcontinent is a supreme test of patience. The hotels may be five-star, but the security measures are genuinely insane. No player is allowed can step foot out of the hotel without a security entourage that the President of any major country would be ashamed of.
Did anyone pass the memo to Steyn though? Not a chance. Cabin fever set in properly for Steyn and soon he was out in the streets playing football with the children of Chittagong in the rain.
When I asked him if I could film it, his response was “Why bro, I am just playing a bit of footie!”
Moments such as these make Steyn just so much easier to like. And it was for this reason that I felt compelled to travel halfway around the world to bear witness to him achieving major landmarks in his career.
Along with just one fellow South African reporter, we celebrated with Steyn in the middle of Dhaka’s Shere Bangla Stadium when the rain subsided just long enough for him to claim his 400th wicket sporting a white headband that would have been the envy of every 1970s’ tennis player.
From there I made my way to Perth, bunking on the couch at my uncle’s house, to see Steyn get closer to Shaun Pollock’s all-time national record. And when tragedy struck in his first Test at the WACA that ruled Steyn for almost two years, I was back at Newlands for his comeback against India.
Again he was denied when an ankle ailment stopped Steyn in his tracks. My spirit never faltered though and cleaned out my savings account to get on a plane and head off to Sri Lanka to finally see the seminal moment.
Sri Lanka is one of Steyn’s favourite countries to tour. He just loves getting in a tuk-tuk and disappearing off to one of the nearby beaches with his board.
Again it was not to be though. But maybe that was “Mother Cricket” using her powers to ensure that Steyn would eventually break the record in front of his own people and at the stadium that he grew up at.
I happy to say I was there. In the crowd, singing “Simply the Best” at the top of my lungs. For in my book, Steyn will always be the best. And that’s without even delivering one of his famed out-swingers.@ZaahierAdams