Dale Steyn, the greatest fast bowler of the century

Just how good is Dale Steyn? Outstanding, right? Almost everyone will agree he is an all-time great. But as he stands on the verge of breaking the record for South Africa’s most Test wickets, requiring one more dismissal to go clear of Shaun Pollock, the numbers suggest he has been even better than he is in most people’s estimation. It may be that Steyn is not merely great, but is actually among the finest half-dozen quicks to ever have played the game.
We will eventually measure Steyn’s record in relation to the best quicks through cricket’s modern history, but before that let’s look at how he compares to his 21st-century peers. Among fast bowlers who have taken over 200 wickets since 2000, Steyn’s average of 22.42 is third-best, behind those of Glenn McGrath and Vernon Philander. While McGrath was experiencing a late-career harvest (his overall numbers are slightly worse), Philander is buoyed by spectacular numbers while playing at home – he has been nowhere near as effective as Steyn outside South Africa, and his returns in Asia have been particularly modest relative to his exploits elsewhere.
Where Steyn is a clear leader, however, is in strike rate; no one else on the list gets close to his 41.6. He is also the second-highest wicket-taker for this period, with 421 scalps. Only James Anderson has been more successful, but Anderson’s average (27.23) and strike rate (56.2), are not in Steyn’s league. This is no real surprise – although Anderson has been a supremely skillful bowler, Steyn could do pretty much everything Anderson could do, but at 10kph faster.
How Steyn stacks up against other fast bowlers of his era Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Among Steyn’s clearest claims to greatness have been his performances in Asia, where quicks generally encounter the least helpful surfaces. He has 92 wickets in the continent, well clear of Anderson, who is the next-most-successful non-Asian seamer this century with 59 wickets. Among quicks to have played at least 20 Tests in Asia since 2000, though, Steyn’s numbers compare favourably even with those of Asian fast bowlers. His numbers are virtually indistinguishable from those of Shoaib Akhtar, with other wonderful Asian quicks – the likes of Chaminda Vaas and Zaheer Khan – sitting way back.
We have now established that Steyn is the most penetrative and versatile quick of the last 15 years, but let’s now look a little further back and bring the great ‘90s bowlers into the frame. To do a meaningful comparison across eras, though, we must account for varying conditions and trends. Although bowler-friendly tracks have made a roaring comeback over the past few years, much of Steyn’s career was played in an infamously batting-friendly period. So instead of merely stacking up these players’ averages and strike rates against each other, let’s look at how much better each bowler was than his peers, by calculating the difference between each bowler’s numbers and the mean bowling numbers in his career span (that is, the mean bowling stats from between the bowler’s first and last Test).
From among a group of eight truly outstanding quicks, Steyn has the best average differential, though he is neck-and-neck with McGrath.
from McGrath, however, is via that incredible strike rate. Only Waqar Younis had a better strike rate differential than Steyn, but then Waqar was more expensive as well.
How much better is Steyn over others in his era? Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Where Steyn’s versatility – owing probably to his mastery of reverse-swing – really become clear is when his figures in Asia are compared to those of the best visiting quicks through cricket’s history. His raw average and strike rate in Asia is staggering enough, but throw the differential numbers in – that is, compare Steyn’s stats to the mean for his era, while doing the same for the other non-Asian greats – he comes out ahead of the pack in terms of average.