Dale Steyn made me fall in love with fast bowling

Seeing the legendary cricketer in action as a young child provided the necessary fire in the writer’s belly to pursue a career as a pace bowler, even as he was being advised against it.

“Stop the noises, Steyn has come to bowl!” my maternal Kaka (uncle) yelled while turning up the volume on the television set. I had gone to my maternal home, which is just a few steps away from my residence in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, to watch some television. All of a sudden the room full of children and adults went quiet as Kaka seemed to be enjoying the live action. 

I was 10, and watching cricket back then meant seeing either Pakistani or Indian teams on the field. But hearing the name Steyn and seeing both teams dressed in all-white kits, I was confused and wondered whether he was an Indian or Pakistani cricketer. However, I was too afraid to ask Kaka, who didn’t like any interruptions while watching television. 

Meanwhile, as this young man with a strong physique ran in to bowl, I figured out he wasn’t either. His hair was partly brown and the scorecard showed India was batting. And I was sure it wasn’t Pakistan bowling because then the neighbours would have come over to watch the game too. Later, I discovered it was India hosting a match against South Africa.

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Every time Steyn delivered the ball, he looked into the batsman’s eyes and flaunted a sharp smile. I hadn’t seen many bowlers do this before. Apart from the white band around his left wrist, the other thing that made me focus on him was the fire he seemingly carried within himself. Before running to bowl, he would look extremely serious, harshly rubbing the leather of the ball against his trousers. And the effort with which he threw the ball on the pitch was different to other bowlers’ as well. 

Everything about him seemed different, but I was too young to understand the science behind his play. All I could understand was that this guy wasn’t just another player. The only cricketers I had heard people talk about were batsmen, with India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Pakistani Shahid Afridi being the most popular. So to me, like most other kids, cricket meant watching batsmen hit fours and sixes, followed by the celebration from spectators. It was the first time I enjoyed watching bowling. And from that day onwards, I would volunteer to bowl instead of fighting to get to bat in street cricket. 

24 March 2014: Dale Steyn celebrates running out Ross Taylor to win the ICC World Twenty20 group 1 match between South Africa and New Zealand at Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong, Bangladesh. (Photograph by Gareth Copley/ Getty Images)

A turning point

I no longer wanted to be a Tendulkar or an Afridi. I dreamt of bowling like Steyn. I dreamt of running in just like him, destroying the stumps and celebrating it by jumping over them, again and again. Every time I held the ball in my hands, I would remember how Steyn bowled and try to imitate his action. With time, my love for him and fast bowling only grew. 

I clearly remember that once I cried for hours, asking my mom to buy me a wristband so that I could wear it on my left arm just like Steyn. After days of pleading I finally got it, and I couldn’t hold back my joy. I refused to remove it, even at night, and after many days, when my mother forcibly took it off, its shape was imprinted on my arm. 

It was years later when I finally got to know this hunk’s full name was Dale Steyn and he represented South Africa. At that point, bowling was no longer just a fun thing to me – I had made up my mind to pursue cricket as a career. It wasn’t a good idea, according to many, as my physique wasn’t “that strong”. I didn’t have big muscles or a dominating height, which was considered a must for pace bowlers. 

Everyone, including coaches, told me to either shift to batting or spin bowling because of my physique. However, nothing could stop me. I kept bowling fast and, without a doubt, Steyn was one of the major reasons behind it. 

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Although I couldn’t do much as a cricketer, the impact Steyn has made on my life can’t ever be forgotten. On 31 August, when he decided to retire from all forms of cricket, I felt shattered despite the fact that he wasn’t playing much cricket already. I paused multiple times while reading his retirement note, which said: “Today I officially retire from the game I love most. Bittersweet but graceful. Thank you to everyone, from family to teammates, journalists to fans, it’s been an incredible journey together.”

His smooth-as-silk run-up and fast-as-light action flashed in front of my eyes. I wanted to thank him – for giving me unforgettable memories, for making me a passionate person, for filling that fire in me with his bowling and, finally, for making me fall in love with fast bowling. 

I am sure I am not the only one Steyn has inspired with his stellar career – one that involved 439 Test, 196 one-day international and 64 T-20 international wickets. He finished as the fastest pacer to reach 400 Test wickets and as the only player to be named in the International Cricket Council Test Team of the Year eight times. 

There are many budding and veteran cricketers who have been motivated by his fierce bowling and unyielding nature. He might no longer be seen on a cricket field with that ball in hand, but the contribution he has made to the cricket world will remain as long as cricket exists in this world.

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