The Steyn on the Proteas shirt

If ever you’re in Tzaneen and see a child wearing an oversized Dale Steyn shirt, chances are it once belonged to the Proteas’ leading wicket-taker in Test cricket.

Where do all the stumps, balls, shirts and other cricket paraphernalia stored as memorabilia go? If you drive out of Johannesburg and head towards Limpopo, you might find out where one cricket star’s collection rests, right in the heart of one of the hottest places in the land, where little boys of all races and spaces play would-be Test matches on their mini ovals, pregnant with imagination.

Some players mount mementos on walls, to serve as a stoic reminder of glory days. Others donate things to the nurseries that nurtured their precocious talents and then watched on proudly as their prospects blossomed into world-beaters.

Occasionally, you will see a cricketer give an old piece of kit to the hordes of little boys and girls who wait patiently by the bus, hoping for a photo opportunity or, often, just a wave goodbye. A glove, a warm-up jersey … anything.

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It doesn’t matter when it comes from a national player. At the end of cricket seasons, most players often unload their well-used gear to the people who quietly play a crucial role in the shadows. Dressing-room attendants, grounds staff and security guards who always greet with a smile.

Or, perhaps, the attentive assistant in the office, who always ensures that the small touches apply. Early check-in. Late check-out. Preferred seating. The little things. In a long season, those little things truly matter, and players always know where to keep their bread buttered.

And then, there is Dale Steyn. If you drive to his hometown of Tzaneen, do not be too alarmed to see a “Steyn 8” replica jersey floating about in a game of street cricket. It may be several sizes too big for the recipient, but that hardly matters.

Mrs Steyn’s good heart

“It’s my mom,” Steyn smiles.

It has been a ritual of South Africa’s leading wicket-taker in Test cricket to send things back home. For mom.

“I would always send her shirts from matches that I have done well in, and tell her that this one is a bit special,” he explains.

But almost as soon as she has stock in hand, Mrs Steyn is rumbled by the sweet faces that she teaches at school. It is as unplayable a delivery as those of her son, and resistance never lasts long.

“She’s got such a good heart and she always gives to those who ask her. Even when I say, ‘Mom, this one is really, really important!’,” he adds with a knowing sigh.

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When Steyn has found time to take the long road to Limpopo, he himself has seen a few of his shirts walking the streets. As he says, it’s a feeling that provides its own depth of joy; as sincere an acknowledgement of his contribution to that part of the world as any material accolade might provide. No need for monuments or public gestures.

The streets have his back, and have put his name on their backs.

When he was on those streets, killing time on skateboards and sampling alternative music, he couldn’t possibly have dreamt that his name would be on the lips and backs of the next generation. No way of possibly dreaming that his name would one day be among those deemed the highest plunderers of wickets the world has ever seen.

“I’ve always just wanted to show that it doesn’t matter where you come from. If you work hard enough at a skill, wherever you are, things eventually happen.”

Crazy eyes

Steyn is not the product of a renowned cricketing nursery. He is the illogical one; a maverick of a man who has swathed a different path. He realised he gave batsmen the hurry-up from his teen years, and then he just kept at it.

Given his vast collection of wickets across the world, and the unflinching respect of a generation of batsmen who have had to look into his crazy eyes up close, it’s safe to say that Steyn has not been short of a significant shirt to send home. Melbourne 2008. Galle 2014. That crazy Test in Port Elizabeth, in early 2014, when he kept using Harry Potter-style sorcery to rearrange Australian furniture.

Steyn has given cricket a flood of memories and the game has loved him back in return. Whether playing on the streets of Bangladesh with gobsmacked locals during a rained out Test, catching the serenity of a long wave on a distant beach or simply having a conversation about the unique art of fast bowling with the next batch of Protea greats, Steyn has remained as consistent as his outswinger.

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He retains a semblance of youth and, like all good bowlers, absolutely loves it when he makes runs for his country. When he came back to one-day cricket against Zimbabwe at the start of this summer, there was alarm at the high speeds he was generating.

“I’ve always been fast. It’s just one of those things that I wasn’t worried about, because it’s always been there from a young age. I’m bowling as fast now as I was 10 years ago,” he says matter-of-factly.

What really gave him a thrill, though, were the runs he clobbered to get South Africa out of a hole.

“Now that was cool! I found the middle of the bat and had a bit of fun out there. I always enjoy batting,” he smiles.

Hitting people in the head

One of South Africa’s most iconic victories was in Melbourne, during the Boxing Day Test of 2008. Everyone recalls JP Duminy’s sublime 166, but Steyn’s brazen 76 on the other end was a priceless cameo.

Beaming smile, full arc of the swinging willow, Steyn loved every minute of the carnage. He was never going to just poke around, waiting dutifully on Duminy – he’s just not wired that way.

Unflinchingly, he is a member of the fast bowlers’ appreciation union. He acknowledges their feats around the world and always encourages kids who may be on a similar path.

“I still love taking wickets, hitting people on the head … bowling fast,” he said recently at Kingsmead.

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And he knows that the game, as much as it keeps slanting towards batters’ needs, absolutely must encourage that passion for bowling. We can’t all be batters using bowling machines. The leather flingers, especially those of great pace, can hold an audience captive during a spell of hostility.

Steyn’s influence has not waned as the years have advanced. He remains approachable to those next in line, happy to share his tricks of the trade. Anrich Nortje, the latest fast bowler on the Proteas scene, broke through during the Mzansi Super League. Despite a pile of wickets, his highlight was sharing a dressing room with his idol and being able to ask him all the questions a man would ask his hero.

“He was my idol growing up, and to be able to share the new ball with him, and sit in the dressing room with him and chat is just incredible,” Nortje gushed at the time.

Fast bowlers are born, not made

Nortje is cut from the same cloth as Steyn, as are Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi. Fast bowlers are born, not made. And now, in the Proteas setup, they have the ultimate ally.

“It’s pretty cool that we have a bowler as a head coach. It’s always the batters who get these jobs, which I don’t understand. But it’s been great having Ottis [Gibson], especially for us as fast bowlers.”

Birds of a feather, they are. Gibson loves having him around, even when Steyn was stricken with injury.

But it’s not all been Guns and Roses for Steyn. There has been pain, the deep, melancholic pain of failed tournaments and unanswered questions.

Unfinished business

Along with the other survivors of Auckland 2015, Steyn has unfinished business. His final World Cup act, four years ago, left him disconsolate on his back, looking up at stars. At least until Grant Elliott put out an empathetic glove and lifted him to his feet.

That night hurt, in a lot of ways. Grown men cried, a nation sighed and a cricket world shook its head in disbelief.

But Steyn will go again. After all, he is a performer.

His kind is reminiscent of a scene from the 2004 cult movie Man On Fire, starring Denzel Washington, when an associate describes the movie’s lead character: “A man can be an artist in anything. Food … whatever. It depends how good he is at it. Creasy’s art is death. He is about to paint his masterpiece.”

Steyn, too, is an artist, of the most flamboyant kind. His art, however, is wickets. And he has one significant masterpiece to paint in the United Kingdom this winter.

He tasted glory at Lord’s in England last summer, winning the Royal London One-Day Cup with Hampshire. He stood on the balcony, spraying champagne and soaking in the joy of victory at the home of cricket.

Come July, he will want to relive that moment, this time alongside the men with whom he has travelled the world. Creating that masterpiece would certainly mean infinitely more to the cricketer who has emblazoned his arm in Protea ink. And who knows on which Tzaneen street such a significant shirt might appear.

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