Phalaborwa bullet

In his own subtle ways, Dale Steyn has shown that nice guys do finish first, and at 32, with adequate fitness levels, he is bound to scale more peaks. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

During Dale Steyn’s formative years in international cricket, when there was still talk about whether he will be an apt successor to ‘White Lightning’ Allan Donald or just fizzle out like a comet, Javagal Srinath walked into the press box at Bengaluru’s Chinnaswamy Stadium. The former Indian pace spearhead had just returned after officiating as a match referee in one of the series that Steyn played, and for a man who measures his words while giving his take on the game and its practitioners, our own ‘Mysuru Express’ gushed.

In retrospect, that was not a surprise as Srinath was reflecting on the thrill of seeing a supreme practitioner of fast bowling. It was an insight only a past master like Srinath could dish out: “He is the best right now, lovely run-up, smooth action, almost the right lengths, speed; he looks like a complete package.”

Mind you, those were still early days for Steyn, but Srinath knew what he saw, and in the subsequent years, his words found ample validation. He wasn’t alone as legends, peer group, team-mates and stunned rivals have lauded Steyn, and the accolades gained another impetus when the South African scalped Bangladesh’s Tamim Iqbal in the second Test in Mirpur.

It wasn’t just another wicket as it came with the weight of history and statistics. Wicket No. 400 came with the same rapidity with which Steyn bowls and the record-books were kept busy.

It took Steyn just 80 Tests to reach the milestone and he stands second along with Richard Hadlee, just below Muttiah Muralitharan, who reached the landmark in 72 Tests. Three might be a crowd atop the order but in terms of strike-rate, Steyn is the lord of all that he surveyed.

Chew on this: the man from Phalaborwa reached 400 wickets with just 16634 balls and that is way ahead of Hadlee (he took about 3500 balls more to reach the milestone), and a strike-rate of 41.58 places Steyn as the numero uno, at least for now, from among bowlers who have taken 200 wickets or more.

Surely, Steyn is in a good space now and he is grateful to that, coming as it does after the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand that ended in a heartbreak and the Indian Premier League found him warming the benches more often than scorching the turf. It just shows that icons are not immune to dips in fortune, the vagaries of selection, the resultant introspective phase and the return to success just like the old times.

“I love what I am doing right now, even if it’s in 40-degree heat and the ball is staying ankle high and it’s not bouncing and there’s no seam and it’s very slow. I love it. I would rather be here than anywhere else right now,” Steyn told the media.

He was candid enough to admit that there was a low phase too just before he roared back into form. “There was a period after the IPL when I actually didn’t want to have a ball in my hand. I just needed maybe two or three weeks — maybe four weeks — just to get that love back again. I said before coming here (Bangladesh) that sometimes if you don’t have that love or passion for the game, things kind of don’t go your way. And then, when you have got it you just don’t want to let it go. I just love being on the field right now,” he said.

It is in the fairness of things that Steyn will often draw comparisons with his South African predecessors — Donald and Shaun Pollock. The former was known for his menace (ask Michael Atherton) and the latter was famous for his control and swing that made the batsmen nibble and perish. Perhaps in a tribute to these greats, Steyn has imbibed both their qualities in equal measure. He may not snarl as much as Donald — in fact, he tends to smile more — but there is no mistaking his aggression. And at times he may pitch it a wee-bit short and negate the gains from swing, but more often he realigns his radar and pays respects to the ‘Pollock school of bowling’.

Among the current active bowlers with 400 wickets in their kitty, Steyn is obviously top of the charts when compared with James Anderson and Harbhajan Singh, but the Protean ace needs to buck up quite a bit in limited overs jousts. He has been scalded a few times, especially by AB de Villiers (in IPL), and even in international outings, Steyn has tended to stick to Plan A even when batsmen were flexing their muscles.

However, in Tests, he has been a supreme performer and off the field, he is a nice bloke, curious about the world, wishing to have some fun, and spontaneous too with an irreverence for protocol as his recent impromptu football session with Bangladeshi lads outside his team hotel would testify.

In his own subtle ways, Steyn has shown that nice guys do finish first and at 32, with adequate fitness levels, he is bound to scale more peaks.