Australia A v South Africans, Sydney November 1, 2012

Steyn's masterclass in durability


Though modesty caused Dale Steyn to shy away from the assertion that he is the best bowler in the world, it cannot be disputed that over the past eight years he has been the best managed. Despite a method that relies on delivering the ball at high speed with near to maximum effort most of the time, Steyn has missed remarkably few Test matches for South Africa.

Since he became an established part of the team, only two Tests in England in 2008 stand out as major matches Steyn has been unable to take part in, and those were not for any bowling injury but a broken thumb. As Australia's hierarchy wrestle with the matter of how best to develop the talent of their young fast bowlers, notably the increasingly injury-afflicted Pat Cummins, Steyn's example stands out for its good sense and its simplicity.

Put simply, Steyn's schedule is prioritised around Test series and major ODI and Twenty20 tournaments. The glut of bilateral series that exist around them are scarcely his concern, something borne out by the fact he has played just 66 ODIs and 28 T20Is. By picking Steyn's battles carefully, South Africa's coaching and selection staff have ensured that at 29 he is still around to help them win the war - driving the national team to the top of the ICC's Test rankings.

"I think I've been managed well. We've got a good trainer - Rob Walter - and I think our coaches that we've had over the last couple of years ... the messages that have been sent back to the coaches from the trainers have been the right ones," Steyn said. "I've only played a handful of one-day internationals - I've only played like 80 one-day games. For someone that's been playing as long as I have in my Test career I probably should have played double that at least. So they've managed me bloody well. I'm pretty stoked about that."

There was some circumstantial help earlier in Steyn's career. One of his least happy memories is of being taken for 58 runs from five furious overs against Australia at Melbourne's Docklands Stadium in January 2006. While Steyn was chastened by the experience, it also encouraged selectors to choose other bowlers for many of South Africa's ODI assignments, leaving him fitter and fresher for Tests.

"At the start of my career there were guys like Polly, Makhaya and Andre Nel, so it was a bit tough to break into that team," Steyn said. "Those kinds of [management] conversations are happening now, more so with the Champions League, the IPL tournaments. I'm playing one game for Brisbane Heat.

"Those kind of tournaments that I'm taking part in just mean that I'll be playing more cricket, so Cricket South Africa understand that and want us to play in the big tournaments I think ... World Cups, ICC trophies and games like that."

Self-knowledge has helped too, of course. The brash young Steyn who was humiliated by the blazing bat of Phil Jaques at Docklands also spent plenty of energy by bowling at the top of his register in the nets, something he seldom resorts to anymore. Those former Australian players who have bemoaned the fact that young bowlers do not deliver enough overs in the nets may be surprised to know that Steyn's workload is monitored just as carefully.

"Our trainer tries to keep us down to a minimum, yesterday I probably bowled more overs than I should have, but today I'll take it easy because of the game tomorrow," Steyn said. "It's about man management, you've also got to know your body. When I was younger I probably over-bowled myself a lot because I just wanted to bowl and bowl and bowl.

"Now it is about managing myself and knowing my best deliveries I've got to bowl in the game and save all my strength for the game. So just managing myself - you don't see Usain Bolt breaking the 100m world record during training sessions all the time, and it's the same thing for me, there's no point breaking the speed barrier all the time."

With durability has come maturity, and Steyn is happy to admit he has mellowed somewhat from his earlier days. That includes his humble view that other bowlers around the world can deliver better balls than he does, but may not be able to do so for as many Test matches in a row.

"In all honesty I think there is probably better bowlers than what I am," he said. "I think I'm one of the guys that have consistently played for South Africa and performed well. When Graeme needs a wicket or something like that he kind of hands me the ball and I've been fortunate enough to take the wickets for him.

"If I'm playing every Test match and taking wickets those points rankings mean I'm always going to be up there. But it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm the best and most skilled bowler in the world. I think there is probably better bowlers out there."

Of course, there is still plenty of aggression to go with the forethought. But Steyn has learned to channel that, too. "I think cricket brings out a more aggressive side in me in all honesty," he said. "Where else in the world do you get the opportunity to basically kill someone with two bouncers an over? Or try, legally. That can bring out the anger in anyone. I think off the field I'm pretty chilled, but on the field it's all business."

A business made less risky by shrewd management.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Billy on November 4, 2012, 22:25 GMT

    @Meety, totally agree. Steyn strikes at a quicker rate than Ambrose but that doesn't mean much when he gives away a boundary every over. Hence Ambrose averages 3.5 runs less than Steyn.

  • Andrew on November 3, 2012, 22:10 GMT

    @ jb633 on (November 02 2012, 01:28 AM GMT) - I agree, watching Ambrose was amazing. You always felt a wicket was coming. Watching Steyn - it is similar, you are expecting him to get a wicket (or two) every spell, the diffeence being - batsmen can pick up a boundary or two while they wait to be executed. Ambrose, (my fav WI pacer, just ahead of Holding - well actually I admired & dreaded them all!), never seemed to ever give you anything to hit. He was a meaner, (on the field), more dangerous & skilful version of McGrath IMO, (& that says a fair bit)!

  • Billy on November 2, 2012, 6:59 GMT

    @vik56in, please, since when has the "great" benchmark now gone to averaging below 30? In most cricketing eras, there are only ever one or two standout fast bowling greats. There are two exceptions: in the late 1970s to mid 1980s and in the mid 1990s. For example, McGrath was the standout from 2000-2006 and your comment about the lack of bowling pitches also applies to that period. And McGrath averaged 20.5 in that period, three runs less than Steyn.

  • Kush on November 2, 2012, 4:20 GMT

    Dale Steyn is the one truly outstanding fast bowler of this generation who stands shoulder to shoulder with the greats of the past, the last of whom was Glenn McGrath.

  • Ron on November 2, 2012, 2:43 GMT

    This article by Daniel Brettig and the comments that ensue regarding whether Steyn is indeed the best bowler in the world remind me of the fascinating debate launched by Don Bradman in the 30's when he claimed that Bill O' Reilly was the best bowler ever. The English of course disputed this, claiming that their champion, SF Barnes was the best ever. Barnes, who was at his peak at the turn of the century yet had watched Bill O'Reilly had his own different opinion. " Barnes was a great bowler," said Bradman, "he could bowl everything, but he never bowled the googly. O'Reilly bowls everything that Barnes did, including the googly. " To which Barnes responded, "Yes, Bradman is correct. I never bowled the googly. I never needed it!!" The same goes for Steyn. Well capable of bowling at 150km he bowls according to a plan, so why bowl at 150km when 135 does the trick? Of course he's human and I'm sure he can tell many stories when the plan has failed but he remains a remarkable bowler.

  • michael on November 2, 2012, 1:38 GMT

    Gregg22. This article is about fast bowling and managing injuries. The last time I looked England and India and all the other test playing nations have fast bowlers! Philander had a good start to his test career but will soon plateau out. He didn't do anything special in England so lets see how he does over the next 18 months or so before we call him the greatest.

  • Nasser on November 2, 2012, 1:38 GMT

    As a Pakistani, I am really impressed with the thoughtful and scientific approach of the SA cricket board. Steyn for me is the world's bowler and Kallis the best allrounder. The rest of the team are not passengers though; are they? For some unexplained reason they do not do themselves justice in world tournaments of limited-overs cricket. But in test cricket, which is real cricket, they are easily the best. But always watch out for Australia, though!

  • Jon on November 2, 2012, 1:28 GMT

    Come on taking nothing away from Steyn, but is really the greatest ever. Watching Curtly Ambrose in his prime was IMO the best sight in cricket. Steyn has dominated the current set of fast bowlers but fast bowling has been relatively weak in the last ten years. Steyn's great attribute in test cricket is that he can both contain and attack. In test matches there are periods where he will drop his pace and do the job of holding the innings for his skip, going at maybe one or two an over. However we he has a new bat in his sight or SA need a wicket before the close he can always muster the energy to crank up his speed and produce a hostile, match changing spell for his skipper. He is certainly the best bowler in world cricket at present because he is successful in all conditions. The issue with Ajmal for me is that as yet he has proven nothing in England, Oz or SA whereas Steyn has produced in India UAE.

  • Vikas on November 2, 2012, 1:00 GMT

    Steyn's achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that an avg below 30 for bowlers is the benchmark now to be considered a great. A decade ago it was an avg below 25.And Steyn manages an avg well below 25.Also the cricket workload is immense now than in the past.There are no more bowling pitches unlike in the past.Both Sabina Park and Perth have evened out.It is hard now for a fast bowler to be consistent.In a batsman's game of cricket ,Steyn is the superstar.

  • Dummy4 on November 1, 2012, 23:47 GMT

    I hear you Gregg22. Although, we do have an Indian telling us 29 year old Steyn is greatest ever bowler, which seems to me a reworking of Tendulkar/ Sehwag/ whoever is better than Bradman and also I argee the Philander is currently better and he'll tear Australia apart. Top bowler is Steyn. To me, he's a better (although only slightly... I'm an Australian) vesion of Damien Fleming i.e. an old school outswinger bowler. I like the Zuid Afrika cricket side. Steyn's classic swing, Philander's a pure seamer bowling heavy balls and watching Amla or Kallis bat is like watching some B&W footage of 1950's cricket.

    I was interested in Manie Meyer's comment about the pitches Australia is supposedly preparing. What's the South Africa media saying? The early season FC games currently happening in Australia have been pretty high scoring affairs.

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