Dale Steyn: The concertmaster of pace

Dale Steyn made a visceral craft an art form. He painted the canvas of fast bowling with radiant colours and his whole sequence — the run-up, the load-up and the release — was one coherent act; you could not separate one ingredient from the other. At 38, he has decided to hang up his boots.

Speed gun: Dale Steyn was explosive and unleashed great balls of fire. Yet the sheer magnificence of his methods, the manner he matched his extraordinary skills with finesse and a fast ticking analytical mind, made him a game-changer and a legend.   -  Getty Images

It’s incredible that someone who bowled at a furious pace also had the lightness of feet, much like a ballet dancer.

Watching Dale Steyn run in rhythmically and with the smoothness of that great African predator, cheetah, accelerating with every stride, and then loading up with venom to deliver thunderbolts with a classical front-on action was as spirit-lifting as they come.

Steyn made a visceral craft an art form. He was explosive and unleashed great balls of fire. Yet the sheer magnificence of his methods, the manner he matched his extraordinary skills with finesse and a fast ticking analytical mind, made him a game-changer and a legend.

READ: Steyn - A South African cricketer like no other

Fast bowling is brutal in nature — and Steyn’s lifters sent batsmen to ICU - yet the South African, an artist at heart, made it a thing of beauty.

Lethal

He painted the canvas of fast bowling with radiant colours and his whole sequence — the run-up, the load-up and the release — was one coherent act; you could not separate one ingredient from the other.

Now, 38, his body ravaged by injuries after he crossed 30, Steyn has decided to hang up his boots. For the cricket world, his shoes would be impossible to fill.

In his pomp, Steyn had everything going for him. He could bowl compelling outswingers at 150kmph, could bring the sphere back sharply from an off-stump line, strike with vicious short-pitched deliveries and unleash a mean yorker whenever he wanted to.

He could be lethal even in the sub-continent as he was in the Nagpur Test of 2010 with his match-winning seven for 51 bowling reverse swing.

Steyn’s 300th Test wicket arrived in only his 61th Test, the same number of matches maestros Richard Hadlee and Malcolm Marshall took to achieve the feat. The man on the fast lane was gobbling up miles and milestones.

And he was ripping through line-ups. Steyn’s astonishing six for eight against Pakistan at the Wanderers in 2013 showcased his destructiveness.

Battered body

Yet, when Steyn, battling fitness concerns in the second half of his career, finished with 439 wickets in 93 Tests, it revealed declining efficiency levels, some would argue marginal, after wicket No. 300.

Remarkably, Steyn’s strike-rate of 42.50 is only behind countryman Kagiso Rabada among contemporary pacemen with over 100 Test wickets.

Steyn deserved to play more than 100 Tests and should have gone past 500 Test scalps at least but his decision to take part in Twenty20 leagues around the world cut into his career for South Africa.

The South African with an unique chainsaw celebration after striking, was troubled by a slew of fitness concerns, a recurring groin strain being the worst of them, and required rest to get into prime shape for Test matches.

Instead, Steyn participated in the Twenty20 competitions including IPL, aggravated his injuries and missed Tests for South Africa.

Steyn’s decision to play in cash-rich Twenty20 leagues was influenced by financial considerations but he had to pay a heavy price vis a vis his career for South Africa.

This is where England’s James Anderson, Steyn’s biggest contemporary rival, scored over him. Anderson prioritised Test cricket, stayed away from the Twenty20 leagues, kept himself fresh for the longest format, and is now at the acme.

But then, when his mind and body were in harmony, Steyn could even put Anderson to shade with his velocity, movement and skill.

 

He was an integral part of the attack as South Africa scored Test series triumphs in Australia and England, its first after readmission to Test cricket.

The manner in which Steyn combined with Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander made South Africa’s pace attack varied and dangerous.

Steyn was fast and bowled a combination of outswing, inswing and bouncers with reverse swing thrown in. He could also be skiddy on occasions.

Beanpole Morkel could get the ball to climb steeply into batsmen and bowled a relentless off-stump line, straightening the odd delivery to find the nick.

Philander was straight and hovering around the off-stump, did not possess the pace of either Steyn or Morkel, but was an outstanding seam bowler with the ability to move the ball either way with very little change in his action.

Steyn was the leader of the pack. When on prowl with Morkel and Philander, the South African attack had a menacing look to it.

The best

Such were Steyn’s qualities that he was rated by many as the best fast bowler of his generation. When this writer put the question to the legendary Michael Holding during a conversation in Johannesburg, his answer was quick. “Steyn is the best, maan.”

When men such as Steyn bowl, they elevate the level of a contest. Steyn operated with verve, skill and that lightness of feet in the Cape Town Test against India in 2018. It was exhilarating stuff.

But then, when in full flow, Steyn pulled up with a muscle strain and was no longer part of the Test. The intensity dropped.

Philander won the Test for South Africa but it was not the same as Steyn performing the demolition job with subtlety.

Dale Steyn, he was a creator of masterpieces.