He bowls like the wind

R. RAGU

Dale Steyn, like his predecessor Allan Donald, simmers with aggression on the field. He does not like the sight of batsmen and can inflict psychological scars on them, writes S. Dinakar.

Match-winners come rare. Dale Steyn can turn a game on its head. He combines speed with control, is high on octane but low on sympathy for the batsmen.

He also compels you to peer hard at history. In fact, the South African takes you back to 1896 when England’s George Alfred Lohmann ended his accomplished career. A medium-pacer of extreme precision, Lohmann scalped 112 batsmen in 18 Tests at an astonishing strike rate of 34.1.

Among bowlers with a minimum of 2000 deliveries in Tests, Lohmann has the finest strike rate. Steyn, at this point in his career, is the next best. In fact, he is snapping at Lohmann’s heels with 117 wickets in just 22 Tests at 35.6. Perhaps, his feats are even more creditable since he bowls in the era of covered pitches and advanced protective gear for the batsmen.

Not many send down better out-swingers than Steyn does. In Ahmedabad, Rahul Dravid saw his stumps being shattered by quite the perfect away going ball. Dravid, a technician, had done little wrong.

Any paceman who can swing the ball away at a furious pace can be destructive with the new ball. Steyn uses his away swingers cleverly, mixing them up with the off-cutters and viciously short-pitched deliveries. He is tall and can extract bounce. With the older ball, he achieves reverse swing. In fact, he has the reputation of blowing away the tail with the short-ball-yorker routine. Crucially, while he might alter his length, he rarely errs in line. He is relentless around the off-stump. Given his pace and movement, the batsmen are often caught at the crease.

Though he bowls with a different action, Steyn’s methods are similar to that of the Pakistani great Waqar Younis.

Is Steyn the logical successor to Allan Donald? Like Donald, Steyn simmers with aggression on the field and does not like the sight of batsmen. Like Donald, he can test a batsman’s technique and threaten his limbs. Like Donald, he can inflict psychological scars.

These are still early days, but Steyn has the ingredients to embrace greatness. His consistency over longer stretches will determine where he ultimately finishes.

Steyn has a lot going for him. A fluent, rhythmic run-up — he gains momentum with every stride — is followed by a semi-open release. He has a still head, the load-up is excellent and so is the seam position. To top it all, he has a deceptively quick arm action.

The 24-year-old South African leads an impressive pace pack. Makhaya Ntini is still firing and Morne Morkel is someone with immense possibilities. Jacques Kallis is an excellent back-up with his hustling ways. When Andre Nel returns, and he rightly should, the South African attack will have greater depth.

Graeme Smith’s team has gained ground in Tests over the last 16 months. The heat was on Smith when his team went down in the first Test to India at the Wanderers late in 2006. Subsequently, the side has managed to turn the corner. South Africa defeated India in the remaining two Tests to clinch the series, went on to beat Pakistan at home and away, brushed aside New Zealand, overcame a determined West Indies at home and Bangladesh away.

And all along, Steyn has grown in stature. His five for 56 in Karachi sank the Pakistanis in the second innings. It also provided South Africa with a rare away-series clinching victory.

Having conquered Pakistan in Pakistan, South Africa now stands on the threshold of a series triumph in India. The side has shown character.

Smith’s South Africa also has a better rounded attack. Some of the former South African attacks had been rather one dimensional. The inclusion of left-arm spinner Paul Harris has lent greater variety. There is no left-arm paceman in the pack but the new-ball pair is one of contrasts. Steyn takes the delivery away from the right hander, while Ntini slants the delivery into the right-hander or straightens it. Their lines are very different and it is hard for the openers to settle into a rhythm.

The days preceding the current tour of India have not been easy for South African cricket. The side’s selection, rather the omission of Nel, shifted the focus back to the selection process in the country.

Dale Steyn with Graeme Smith (left). The fast bowler has flourished under Smith’s captaincy.-AP

While there has been a furore in some quarters — coach Micky Arthur came close to putting in his papers and there were whispers that the influential Shaun Pollock was forced to quit early — the three black or coloured South African cricketers were in the XI for the first two Tests on merit. Hashim Amla, Ashwell Prince and Ntini had earned their places in the side.

The South Africans have come through a difficult, transitional phase and Smith has evolved as captain. He still has his flaws — the South African skipper is not the best user of spin — but is reading the flow of the game better. In recent times, he has been pro-active.

Smith has also shown great faith in Steyn. Bowlers thrive on skippers’ confidence in them and Steyn has responded to Smith’s call with heart and passion.

It was at the Wanderers that a South African scribe whispered to this correspondent, “This Dale Steyn, he bowls like the wind.”

For the batsmen, Steyn has been a storm, or a hurricane. The Ahmedabad Test tells the story.