Phalaborwa grips you the moment you set foot there. The rustic charm plays with your senses, in a way, most endearing to any onlooker. It comes as a surprise then, that, such idyllic environs have gone into the making of a man who plies a fearsome trade. This area has the widest man-made open cast mine in all of South Africa and also boasts of being home to one of the finest bowlers of all time, Dale Willem Steyn.
Bass fishing and skateboarding occupied a pride of place in his daily schedules. When you live with such fantastic outdoors for company, it is little wonder that sport would be the easiest to get addicted to which he duly did.
He first took to cricket at 11, and was always looked at someone with a bit of pace about him coupled with talent hard to be ignored. His debut for the Northerns in 2003 wasn’t exactly the kind of start he would have wanted. A strong performance in his next season earned him a call-up to the Test squad and he was duly ejected from the squad three tests later courtesy an unimpressive showing against the Poms.
The disappointment aside, Dale Steyn turned out for Essex in the 2005 county season and came away with meagre returns of 14 wickets from the season at a less-than-healthy 59.85. What was important about this stint though, was his association with Ian Pont, a noted bowling coach, who is presently the bowling coach of the Bangladesh cricket team.
“Dale Steyn going on to become the deadliest bowler in the world. I would have thought you were mad if such a thing had been mentioned during his Essex days. He was short, and did not have the accuracy to even enter a genuine fast bowler’s league. But what he did have was a heart, and the ability to bowl fast” - Ian Pont on Steyn.
Following a strong showing for Titans next, he was recalled to the test squad in 2005 for the New Zealand series. 16 wickets from 3 tests and a scorching five-wicket haul in the first test at Centurion meant he had finally taken flight and looked the part.
Away tests against Sri Lanka followed and he didn’t do too badly. He picked up his second five-wicket haul eventhough South Africa were clinically defeated in the two-test series.
“Back then, he had a quick bowler’s aggression, but I have seen plenty like those who strayed and ended up doing nothing useful in cricket. He seems to have taken our advice seriously, as Dale’s youthful aggression has been channelised into perfecting the art of fast bowling, and there are none even half as good as him in cricket today,” says Pont.
It was evident that he was growing in stature with every match. His lengths were impeccable and every ball of his was an event in itself. He could be brutally driven on one ball and he would still come back and send the stumps cartwheeling!
Teams slowly started taking note of him as not just a bowler, but a clear and present danger each time their openers would take guard.
Each time this South African hurtles up to the 22 yards, ecstasy is the one word that describes his sprint. If jaws dropped while watching Nadia Comaneci script a perfect 10 on the uneven bars at Montreal almost forty years back, Steyn pretty much does that to people each time he clocks those 90-miles-an-hour howitzers; making heads turn time and again!
His eyes mirror a certain joy that he proudly flaunts. The feeling of doing what he loves and is the best in the world while at it, is something he talks about the most.
“When I fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town and look down at my country, it’s amazing to think, ‘Out of all the people to bowl fast for South Africa, they picked me,” - Steyn.
Trent Bridge, Centurion, Melbourne, Nagpur, Port-of-Spain have all seen him come good over his 65 test career. He breathed fire at Trent Bridge, cut open line-ups at Nagpur on a batting paradise and smothered batsman with his lifters at a Melbourne, Centurion or a Port-of-Spain.
At 41.1, he possesses the fifth-best strike rate of all time. Since his test debut, his 332 wickets so far have been the most by anyone comprising of 21 five-wicket hauls and 5 ten-wicket hauls.
They say everyone has their moments in the sun some time or the other but it appears the sun never left Steyn. One of his most memorable spells came in the 2011 World Cup against India when he finished with figures of 5/50, but more importantly was instrumental in packing India’s last 9 wickets for just 29 runs as the eventual champions India succumbed to their only defeat of the tournament.
Being the world’s best bowler for almost four years now has come as a shot-in-the-arm for his brethren. Fast bowlers have a pride of place these days even with the lusty hitting that is so commonplace now. Steyn’s swing and pace to go with it have meant renewed interest in the dying breed of fast bowlers and the dying art of fast bowling.
The cramped FTPs(Future Tour Programmes) inked by the ICC has meant a lot of fast bowlers being regularly consigned to the physio’s table but Steyn stands out for his exemplary fitness and level-headed understanding of his body. He attributes his success to not pushing the limit too much but knowing his limitations and bowling within them.
He is already being placed in the pantheon of all-time greats to have ever played the game and not many are averse to that thought. The boundaries have got smaller, pitches flatter, willows have more meat in them, batsmen have let go of any and every inhibition; yet a fast bowler holds centre stage for four years and more as the world’s best means something phenomenal.
He is still raring to go, itching to perform and yet does it all with a smile most genuine. There are not many sights in cricket more enthralling than a batsman beaten all ends up and the stumps flying around. It’s a sight that’s not going to go away in a hurry is my belief. It’s not often that you meet a fast bowler who smiles at you after getting one past you!