Dale Steyn is angry. Spurned at the recent IPL auction, beaten in last week’s final of the Mzansi Super League T20, and running out of years after a complex shoulder injury sustained in Australia in 2016, South Africa’s greatest fast bowler is tearing at the leash.
Still slim as a girl, but lithe and strong as the boy hunter-gatherer who first bowled cricket balls alongside the Kruger National Park in the North West province before the turn of the last century, the now 35-year-old champion makes light of the work at training and of the young pretenders around him who are routinely embarrassed. Steyn is moved by the game he loves and motivated by the endless challenges it puts before him. Incredibly, he is just one wicket away from passing Shaun Pollock to become highest wicket-taker for South African but in 26 fewer Test matches. There can be no more satisfying Christmas present than to claim number 422 on Boxing Day, in Centurion, closest to the home that formed him and in front of an audience shabby maybe after the excess of the day before but eager to share the moment.
The opponents are Pakistan, a group coached by one of South Africa’s own. Of all cricketing men, Mickey Arthur will know the threat set before his team. Arthur saw the raw Steyn at first hand, and during his time at the helm of the Proteas, felt many a 150kph missile slam into his baseball glove. As Steyn developed skills, justified potential and advanced beyond his peers, the team Arthur and Graeme Smith built rose from the ranks to be crowned champions of the world. The two achievements were not mutually exclusive.
On December 26, Steyn will lead an attack shorn of Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi, an injured pair of pacers, and of Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott, whose fortune was to be found elsewhere. He cannot wait. At the scan of his shoulder in Perth two years ago, the doctor asked if he had been in a motorbike accident, though a skateboard was more likely. The message was loud and painfully clear: it was a long road home.
After some ordinary fare in Sri Lanka a few months back but a more promising burst of activity against Zimbabwe in October, he bowled with gusto during the one-day matches in Australia and then with fire and brimstone for Cape Town Blitz all the way to the final of the new local Super League. Not for the first time, the batsmen – those wretched glamour boys – let him down. In defence of just 113, he ripped out Ryan Rickelton’s middle stump and whizzed outswingers past the outside edge of the form horse, Reeza Hendricks, with a sense of purpose hitherto unseen since the early overs of the Test in Perth that was to set him back for so long. This splendid new-ball bravado wasn’t enough to change the course of the match but it proves to Pakistan that a clear and present danger has returned.
Steyn belongs to a great tradition. Fast bowlers have mainly been men hewn from the blue-collar folk of English mining towns, the Australian outback country, the mountainous posts of Pakistan, northern India, and, in the Caribbean, from a history of subjugation where strength of mind and body was required to pass through each day. Steyn is from the South African veldt; from Phalaborwa, a small mining town in Limpopo.
, where his father worked the pits. It might have been so with Steyn too, but the ambition rooted within was already elsewhere.