The once-in-a-lifetime brilliance of speed star Steyn

Dale Steyn: Up to speed. (Carl Fourie/Gallo)

Dale Steyn: Up to speed. (Carl Fourie/Gallo)

Dale Steyn used to be a Coke addict. He’d lug around those hefty two-litre bottles of the stuff between engagements and was especially partial to Coke on the road.

Sensing that he had a fast bowler in his midst who’d balloon if he didn’t control his habit, the then Titans coach, Richard Pybus, took Steyn aside. “It was quite a thing to wean him off his two-litre bottle he used to sip in the car and persuade him that a proper breakfast was better fuel for the day,” remembers Pybus, now the director of cricket for the West Indies Cricket Board in Antigua.

Steyn, who took his 400th Test wicket in Bangladesh last week, arrived at the Northerns Academy with talent to burn.
He had been at the academy under Chris van Noordwyk for a year or two when Pybus arrived at the union in 2005, and was only in need of some strength work and subtle tinkering, so unique was he as an athlete and technician.

This said, it’s wrong to fall into the trap of reading Steyn as the perfectly-formed fast bowling genius immediately capable of scything through the best batting line-ups in the world. His first two Tests, against England in December 2004, were, for example, undistinguished, despite the perfect delivery with which he bowled Michael Vaughan in the England second innings in Port Elizabeth.

His match analysis at St George’s Park in his debut was three for 146 in only slightly more than 30 overs, an expensive return made worse by the fact that he bowled 16 no balls in the first innings.

Ray Jennings, the then coach, retained him for the second Test, but his second innings figures of 25.3-2-122-1 with seven no balls strained patience and credulity. He was dropped for the third Test and although he played in the fourth, he was one of the casualties of the loss.

With fast bowlers such as Andre Nel, swing bowlers like Charl Langeveldt and bustling all-rounders such as Andrew Hall in the frame, the rough Phalaborwa diamond was sent back to his franchise to be polished.

Pybus and his skipper, Martin van Jaarsveld, banned Coke and prescribed winter training for Steyn and Morné Morkel.  “Martin [and I] sat down with him and Morné after my first season and suggested a winter training programme to work on strength and skill, specifically to get them strong enough to carry a fast bowler’s workload and become injury-proof,” said Pybus. “They also did a fair bit of skill work to improve control of length without having to cut back on pace. It paid dividends – neither has looked back.”

The rewards were not immediately apparent. In the first home Test of the 2006-2007 season – against India at the Wanderers – Steyn struggled with injury and went wicketless, the Proteas losing as a result of their customary slow start. Steyn didn’t play in the second Test but took six wickets in the third (including four for 30 in the Indian second innings) as the Proteas, after having levelled up at Kingsmead, marched to a 2-1 series win.

It was only a full season later that Steyn really began to find his mojo. After having cut a swathe through the New Zealanders in the early home Tests, taking 20 wickets in the two-Test series, he turned out for the Titans against the Eagles (as the Knights were once called) in early December 2007.

The match was an important one. Both sides were contenders, with the Eagles holding a significant lead at that stage of the championship; the two respective coaches – Pybus and Corrie van Zyl – approached the game very differently and the Eagles’ batting line-up, with Dean Elgar, Boeta Dippenaar, Jacques Rudolph and Morné van Wyk, was among the land’s strongest domestic outfits.

Reputations were of no concern
Reputations and subtexts were of no concern to Steyn. He took 14 wickets in the match, broke Rudolph’s hand in the second innings and largely contributed to the Eagles being restricted to 89 and 154, the Titans winning the match by over 200 runs. A couple of months later they took the SuperSport Series title.

It was a heady couple of months for Steyn. In taking 10 wickets at the Wanderers against the Kiwis and 10 wickets at home in Centurion, he’d largely contributed to a notional 10 days of Test cricket being cut to seven. Then it was on the road down to Bloemfontein where he eviscerated the Eagles.

“I always said to him that he was a land-locked surfer when we were at Titans,” says Pybus. “Being an upcountry boy from the bush he didn’t often get an opportunity to surf but that was his sensibility – he was always so laid back, like the surfers I grew up with in Sydney. So when he moved to Cape Town and became a big surf fan, I had to laugh. He’s really a humble guy, not attached to fame. He loves his pets and is happiest in nature.”

In taking his 400th Test wicket last week, Steyn did it seven Tests faster than Glenn McGrath and 12 faster than Shane Warne. He reached the milestone in 16 fewer Tests than Wasim Akram and 24 Tests quicker than Jimmy Anderson.

The flipside of the endless hand-wringing that comes with every performance is our myopia when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime brilliance. Steyn is stellar – an artist and an artisan rolled into one.

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