Dale Steyn used to be a well-scrubbed bloke who wore a goofy grin that wobbled harmlessly under starry, starry eyes. He was polite and cheerful, and he could bowl a bit.
He probably never said ”Well, golly gee.” But if he did, we would have chuckled heartily and ruffled his hair as if the lot of us were in a Spur commercial.
That time has passed. Steyn is no longer cricket’s own Huckleberry Finn; not after the events of a muggy morning in Centurion last November when he became someone and something else. And it wasn’t a pretty sight.
The transformation was effected in the shard of time it took for Craig Cumming’s synapses to fail him when he needed them most.
Steyn steamed in to bowl and Cumming fumbled through a flaccid stroke that was neither a pull nor a hook. Ball did not meet bat. Instead, it crashed into Cumming’s cheek with such destructive force that the New Zealander spent the night in intensive care.
The medico-speak for his injuries would bore us all to golf. Suffice it to say that Cumming was going home in search of a new face and, it is to be hoped, a safer way to earn a living than batting in the top order of a team representing a nation that really should stick to less violent pursuits. Like liberal politics and rugby.
In that awful instant Steyn became a fast bowler. Of course, he has been exactly that for several summers now. But there’s nothing like spilling someone else’s blood on live television to force people to take you seriously.
Just ask Osama bin Laden and George W Bush, and whoever their successors might be.
Fast bowlers come in a variety of flavours. Allan Donald, his eyes all aglow like a pair of matching swearwords, seemed to struggle constantly with a seething monster within.
Shaun Pollock breezed through his career like one of Wordsworth’s daffodils, gathering a host of golden wickets as he went. Andre Nel will soon, surely, sign an endorsement deal with Disneyland.
Steyn brings an uncommon freshness to his profession, a sense that he is a human being of normal height and build at once amazed and disturbed by his ability to take someone’s head off with a shiny, stitched orb.
Not for him the mustachioed madness that Merv Hughes and Dennis Lillee brought to cricket along with all that biker leather and the brazenly bared chests and big hair that, 30 years ago, might have been a hit at your friendly neighbourhood gay bar.
Steyn is certainly no English fop in the way of Graham Dilley, but rather that than the Poms’ modern yob squad, represented by the likes of Andrew Flintoff — who else would answer to the nickname of a prehistoric cartoon character? — and Steve Harmison, who, in the words of former England coach Duncan Fletcher, ”gets homesick when he fetches the paper from his postbox”.
There is nothing remotely Ambrosial about Steyn, a fact that might melt Curtly’s permanent glare just a touch, and he is probably not in danger of waggling his noggin in the way that Waqar Younis would when a screaming yorker veered from outside off-stump all the way to the fine leg boundary.
No matter, because what connects all these fine bowlers is a dash of the quick stuff: speed, and not the kind that will get you arrested.
Steyn isn’t short of gas, but he has another arrow in his quiver: ”He swings the ball, that’s what makes him so dangerous. He bothers left-handers by swinging the ball into them, and if you’re quick and you swing it away from right-handers you are going to take a lot of wickets.” Robin Jackman knows of what he speaks.
”I was 5 foot 9 and-a-half when I started playing cricket, and 5 foot 9 about a million overs later,” Jackman said of his career as a fast bowler for teams as diverse as Surrey, Western Province, Zimbabwe (yes, all right — Rhodesia, in fact) and England.
An unripe Steyn made his test debut in 2004 and faded from view after three matches against England in which he took eight wickets and conceded more than 400 runs. He had another go early in 2006 and, since then, he has become to batsmen what standing on the edge of a cliff must be to vertigo sufferers. His reward has been a total of 105 wickets in his 20 tests.
Steyn’s potential to join the very best who have marked out a run-up with murder in mind is common cause. ”He might be more accurate on a regular basis than Donald was at the same stage of his career,” according to Jackman — but he remains some way short of the finished article.
”I think the big test for him will come in England this winter,” Jackman said.
”Maybe it will swing too much and he will struggle to control the ball; maybe the pitches will be a bit slower and perhaps that won’t suit him. But he’s played county cricket before, he knows what it’s about.”
And if he should approach you wearing a goofy grin and starry eyes, do not be fooled: he is a nasty piece of work.