Dale Steyn’s genius might never be fully known

The cricketer’s retirement has triggered a flood of tributes not only for the superb athlete he was, but also for being a genuine mensch.

A young South African fast bowler returned from his maiden trip to Australia battered by the brutal power of the hosts, particularly in a one-day international at the Docklands Stadium in Melbourne on 20 January 2006. His figures were five overs, one for 58, with two wides and seven no-balls, confirming the demons dancing through his system on that day. “That will never happen to me again,” he resolved.

He was fast, he was young – but he was raw. The champion Australian side of the mid-2000s preyed upon any weakness and opener Phil Jaques didn’t spare the upstart who had come from a place that they couldn’t even pronounce. But by the time the young man returned to Australia for his first full trip, during the 2008-2009 campaign, he was living up to his resolution to always be the hunter and never again the prey on the international cricket savannah.

Dale Steyn grew up in Limpopo in the town of Phalaborwa, what Australians might refer to as the cricketing outback, a far-flung corner of the country. Little did the people of Phalaborwa know that South Africa’s brightest Test cricket star, arguably in history, would be one of their own, a kid raised on the roads linking him to Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Tzaneen and anywhere else where he could find a decent game.

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“People don’t really understand what we had in Dale. One day, perhaps, we will look back properly and realise just how incredible he was,” says Richard Pybus, one of Steyn’s former coaches at the Titans. “In terms of strike rate in Test match cricket, it was him, Waqar Younis and then daylight before the others.”

Pybus worked with Steyn from his second season at the Titans, when he was still figuring his way into the game alongside Morne Morkel, who considers Steyn a brother in the game. “What made him so great was that he was coachable. He was open to listening and didn’t think he already had all the answers at that age,” Pybus says.

“Of course, he was a superb athlete. He had fast-twitch muscles, a great build, was physically tough and able to sustain high levels of intensity. He was similar to Makhaya Ntini in that sense.”

Just being Dale

Morkel hit it off with Steyn right away at the Titans Academy and says the human is more compelling than the cricketer ever was. “Dale was always genuine. The way he spoke to and treated people, the way he went about life – I valued that more than his cricketing ability. He was just genuine.” 

As part of the South African Test team that eventually rose to number one in the world, Morkel often had a close-up perspective of the Steyn effect in absorbing moments of a Test match. “The way he used to charge in, with perfect rhythm, and bowl with the speed of light on a flat pitch to lift all of us was just incredible. I would be at mid-off, sensing that Dale was about to slip into another gear.”

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The measure of Steyn is that he cast so many frankly ridiculous bowling spells around the world, in all conditions, providing his irresistible combination of speed, swing and sincerity to define matches and series.The 10-wicket haul in Melbourne in 2008. His seven-wicket turn in Nagpur. The six-for-eight against Pakistan at Wanderers in 2013.

Whenever he found an abrasive surface that would encourage reverse swing, Steyn would get a certain twinkle in his eye. One such occasion was in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 2014, when he made sure that Hashim Amla celebrated his first Test as captain in style. 

That victory was celebrated with a team dinner and, incredibly, one drink at a ramshackle hut at the end of Unawatuna beach. Steyn stood in the centre of the modest Chilli Cafe by the rocks, recording on his GoPro, and declared it one of the most beautiful bars he had ever seen. He was a man of the people, a player capable of hijacking the hearts of even the opposition’s fans. 

More to give

As Morkel says, Steyn was genuine. He lived for the game and it loved him all the more for it. When the injuries set in, world cricket bemoaned the absence of his class. When he finally called time on his career, the plaudits flooded in like the 699 wickets he claimed across formats for his country. “I think if he had been better managed, like Jimmy Anderson has been by England, we would still be enjoying his craft,” sighs Pybus.

At 38, Steyn still has much more to give the game. Having been influenced by quality coaching across his career, he is an ideal mentor. He is obsessed by the minor details, wanting to turn good into great. As the game has grown, the cricketing world has got smaller. More familiar. Steyn’s influence across T20 change rooms as a senior pro could not be overestimated.

In the history of cricket, few players have maintained his incredible quality and consistency for quite as long as he did. His reign at the top of the bowling rankings, even as his team’s fortunes started to dwindle, confirmed him as an all-time great. His thoughts and methods are coveted, and rightly so.

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But it was proving harder in a time of such uncertainty, with the global Covid-19 pandemic affecting everything in the world. Steyn spoke of the mental health challenges, the isolation and the silence that went against so much of what made him who he was on the cricket field. Eyes bulging, arms pumping and feet skipping towards the crease, Steyn was a modern gladiator built for arenas filled to the brim. He fed off the energy, and often played up to the crowd with a gesture.

Pybus says the making of Steyn was when he realised that international cricket was about the mental game more than anything else. The making of Steyn was, in a sense, that baptism of fire in Melbourne. 

“He is just a lovely guy, had virtually no ego, but he quickly learnt that at the highest level, confidence was key. As his confidence developed, you could see his ability to sustain that quality for longer periods, and he was able to put on a masterclass so often,” says Pybus.

Blessed but fragile

Morkel and Steyn might have been world-class bowlers, but they loved nothing more than the cheek of making runs. After all, the language of the game has long hinted at where the priority lies. Bowlers are in the service industry – one delivery at a time. Batsmen, however, are the stroke makers, fawned over for the elegant manner in which they redirect the toil from 22 yards away to all parts.

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes may form part of a nursery rhyme, but those aching parts of Steyn and Morkel will be tattoos of hardship forever. Cricket has evolved constantly over the years, but so much of the game has always remained weighted towards the bat. Which is perhaps why Steyn and his body of work is lauded in the manner that it has been.

Bowlers are not supposed to be that good, for that long. Fast bowlers are supposed to be like Ferraris – blessed with beauty and soul but cursed with the fragility of so many parts. It simply is not sustainable. Somehow, Steyn’s engine purred on for an extended road trip, ticking over meticulously.

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Of course, given his extended service to South African cricket, Steyn has not been shielded from trauma. The near misses at tournaments hurt him deeply, particularly the 2015 World Cup semifinal defeat to New Zealand. It was the deep wound inflicted on that Auckland night that compelled him to push himself in order to get to the 2019 World Cup in England. He wept deeply and openly when his World Cup career ended abruptly, through injury, in Southampton.

There was one last hurrah on the horizon, though. The T20 World Cup in Australia was initially set for late 2020, but the pandemic saw that being shifted. And so, the fairytale ending for Steyn and the rest of the generation that he travelled and dominated the Test world with was simply not possible. There is a great sadness in that, of course, but there is also a sobering sense of reality.

The perfect predator

Steyn grew up surrounded by and besotted with nature. He surfs and fishes whenever he can, and takes as much joy in landing a catch as he did in removing a set batsman at the crease. He is also fascinated by the ways of the bush. This is unsurprising, given that he grew to be a perfect predator, blessed with the speed of a cheetah and the heart of a lion. When Steyn sensed proverbial blood at the crease, his ears pricked up. His pace suddenly quickened exponentially, and he pounced with a propensity for plunder that enthralled those who followed his fortunes. He was savage, incisive and decisive.

The Australians who roughed him up very early in his career taught him that life at the sharp end of the game was as cold and as calculating as Mother Nature. It was a lesson he never forgot, hunting for wickets around the world for a decade and a half.

Now that his wicket-taking days are over, Steyn can surely look forward to a lucrative career in broadcasting and perhaps some coaching. He speaks instinctively, and is generous in his praise of skill that is shown by others, regardless of where they are from. After all, he was the rank outsider in the early stages of his career. He knows that talent can be found in the unlikeliest places, if you take the time to look.

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He will likely be spotted a bit more often at Steers, feeding his guilty pleasure that is their milkshakes, a taste no doubt developed on those long trips looking for cricket as a youngster. It is apt that he found the game and fed that internal curiosity about just how good he was. In return, the game may well yearn for the next Dale Steyn forever.

Sport often looks back when a champion signals time on their career. In the case of Steyn, however, the reflection started when his Ferrari fragilities started to surface. His records may get surpassed, but his influence and his infectious attitude to his craft will linger in the memory like the unmatched rumble that a naturally aspirated V8 engine sings to an appreciative ear.

As climates and cultures have changed, the motoring world simply doesn’t make engines in the manner that it once did. There is a great sadness in that, but it makes us appreciate what we were privileged enough to see when the world was simpler. The true classics really do leave a Steyn forever.

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