Is it okay to be rusty?
The question is: why were they rusty and is that acceptable in modern sport? They are professional athletes and this is their chosen, highly-paid profession. It is their professional responsibility to turn up to work ready to perform at their best (barring illness, injury or bad luck).
Imagine if a surgeon was operating on you and said "well, I've been on sabbatical for a few weeks so I'm feeling a bit rusty. Haven't really kept up with the latest surgical techniques. Hope you don't mind".
Or a pilot announcing on the intercom "Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts as we approach the runway. I've been using the autopilot for a few months now so haven't really practised my own landings and am feeling a bit rusty so please forgive me if we don't quite make this landing".
Jokes aside, the point I'm trying to make is that professional athletes now have an obligation to prepare themselves so that this "rustiness" should never happen again. It's not like they live tough lives, working down coal mines or breaking rocks in the hot sun. On one hand they keep talking about fatigue and workload and the need for plenty of rest. They cite the fact that it's not just the playing days but also the arduous training regime they follow which justifies their incessant calls for more rest time by the beach (despite the fact that they work a lot less days per year than the average salaried worker).
Fair enough but if that's the case, make sure you do enough work in the nets to ensure there's no rustiness when the time comes for you to perform on the big day. Like any other employee turning up to work, you should be ready to perform at your optimum. Have your holidays and rest time if you like but make sure you prepare yourself to be 100% tuned by the time your working day begins.
It's like those bowlers who waste the first few overs of a game "easing into their work" or warming up. Why didn't they do that before the game started? Those first few balls are when they are most likely to get the batsman out. With all the support staff around them, they should treat their profession like any other job and be ready to work at maximum efficiency from the first ball. We wouldn't accept a poor quality meal from a restaurant just because this was first meal of the night and the chef hadn't quite got into his stride.
It's hardly the crime of the century but it really amuses me when professional athletes (not just cricketers) keep justifying their earnings by claiming to be highly-tuned professionals but then act like casual amateurs. If it's a job, treat it like one and be ready to fire at the start of the shift.
In fairness to Steyn though, he didn't really hide behind any mystery illness or lame excuse. He just admitted that they probably weren't quite as prepared as they should have been for one of the biggest Tests of their careers. His old-fashioned honesty and the way he plays the game makes him very hard to dislike. From the outside looking in, he seems like a helluva nice bloke, albeit a tad rusty.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane