In the mid-December 2017, when CSA had announced that the time was for Dale Steyn to dust off his old whites to take on India, there was a sense of hope in the air. Leaving behind the troubles of the past, for the first time in more than one year, SA had a full strength team to choose from.
2017 was a difficult year for the well-wishers and stakeholders of the South African cricket as they had learned to live without their two talisman AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. At times, they also had to play without Kagiso Rabada, who was suspended for a Test for accumulating demerit points or without Faf du Plessis, when he was injured. But 2018 had promised them a whole lot more. ABD was returning, Steyn gun was ready to fire the bullets, and India
Steyn was Steyn and watching him bowl, as we have come to expect, with that natural aggression is a purist’s delight. Perhaps, no other bowler operating in the current age has developed the magnificent control, the late swing, and the movement of the seam that Steyn has and India learned in a hard way in the Newlands Test.
However, once the first innings was done and dusted, South Africa’s nightmare came true and Steyn had to bow out of international cricket once again with an injury, although not as threatening as the one during the 2016 Perth Test against Australia which meant he had to stay away from international cricket for a period of 14 months. Nothing can be a bigger shame to a cricket lover than being devoid to watch the greatest bowler of this generation firing on all cylinders and that’s exactly the reason why Steyn’s comeback for the upcoming Sri Lanka Tests garnered more attention than usual.
But, looking back, it actually started with an inauspicious of beginnings. When Steyn had started taking his first stride in the international cricket in December 2004, he was quickly termed as another wayward bowler to have come out of SA’s franchise cricket. There was no control over the ball, and despite taking 32 wickets from the first eight matches in the following two years, he conceded runs at an average of 35.13, which had no trace of a bowler who was supposed to fill in the big shoes of Shaun Pollock in the following years. But once the Steyn Version 2.0 emerged, he had been a tour de force of exquisite skill and inexplicable audacity.
The two-year period from December 2006 to April 2008 saw the big man taking 88 wickets at an average of 16.68 and the world saw the arrival of a man, who was there to take the legacy of South Africa’s great pacers like Allan Donald, Lance Klusener, Makhaya Ntini, Mfuneko Ngam forward. While the number of wickets and average are just insane, the strike rate revealed a lot about Steyn's character.
As mentioned on the above table, one can easily note that Steyn’s career strike-rate of 41.50 is an astounding number, the like of which hasn’t been seen as often in the history of the game. However, more than the figure itself, Steyn has achieved this through a career that has already spanned 86 Tests over 14 years. To understand the importance of Steyn’s numbers, let’s do some further number crunching. Considering all the bowlers to have played a minimum of 30 Tests, the closest to Steyn’s strike-rate is the inimitable Waqar Younis, who has a strike rate of 43.5 in his glorious career. Given a 20-Test limit, only English great Sydney Barnes comes closest with 41.7.
The great bowlers of the 90s, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, and Curtly Ambrose had been at their terrific best when big-hitting in Tests was not a convention, but since the T20 dawn, the cricket world has seen a rise in the batting strike rate. However, Steyn still managed to soar over every best bowler of the 90s. The number speaks volumes of what Steyn brought to the table, but Steyn has been much more than that. Despite the world going gaga over Kagiso Rabada’s incredible journey on the international stage, Steyn is still one such commodity that demands respect in the dressing room with the sheer power of threatening the opposition with his hostile pace and swing.
While none would cease to admit Steyn’s ability with the red cherry, he has unfairly been blamed as an injury-prone player. But a fact to be noted that until November 2015 Test series against New Zealand, he had mostly remained injury-free and continued to be a part of the South African jigsaw, in every match - pretty much like Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, two great South African bowlers who faced niggles but remained injury-free for impressively long periods of their careers.
But, the law of average caught him soon enough as he became a bowler vulnerable to the shoulder injury. However, as a matter of fact, he has still been that lethal best with the ball and can put fears of god into the mind of best of the batsmen in the world and is still the master of swing and movement off the seam. The Sri Lanka series may prove to be the last riddle for him to prolong his glorious career, one that has seen everything, and mostly, the highest peak. Indeed, his legacy will not be decided by how he performs in the Emerald Isle, but this is definitely, going to be an emotive experience for all cricket fans, who have missed the greatest bowler of the generation for the longest time. This is the chance to celebrate one of the finest exponents of the modern-day cricket.