February 26, 2014

Steyn's heady concoction

He has just about every weapon a fast bowler needs but he also possesses an irresistible aesthetic perfection

Steyn: the marriage of substance and style © AFP

One of the interesting things about video games based on sports is that they offer a stark example of the age-old debate between style and efficiency. I can't count the number of football video games I've played where my diamond-formation, intricate-passing sides have lost to cretins who had learnt the combination of buttons required to hit 30-yard piledrivers into the goal. Inevitably, these were also people who knew little of the sport itself, and treated the exercise like any other video game where one has to use various moves to achieve a stated objective.

Those of us trying to play the video game like the sport itself are chasing an ideal style that we would like to see in the sport. In the real world, a similar tension arises, where teams try and strike a balance between playing a certain way and playing to win.

Playing to win involves efficiency and percentages, with an emphasis on increasing the probabilities of winning the game. Playing a certain way, on the other hand, looks at victory as just one objective, since winning only qualifies when it is realised with style. It is not a statistical fact, but teams and individuals pursuing the former end up winning more often than those attempting the latter.

Yet I would argue that when style is realised to its fullest potential, it becomes irresistible and very difficult to overcome: the Barcelona team managed by Pep Guardiola provided a great example of this. Pep's side hoarded possession through continuous passing, and maniacally pressed the opposition when they had possession. During most of the four years of his reign, Barca was indisputably the best side in the world because they realised the absolute potential of their style.

When it comes to cricket, the South African side largely resides in the "playing to win" camp. They have always seemed to rely on systems and statistics, prizing efficiency over effusiveness. Yet in Dale Steyn, they have a player who fits their mould and also transcends it. This is because, like Barca in a way, Steyn exemplifies the absolutely irresistible triumph of a certain style.

Unlike a moustachioed Antipodean whom the world is currently agog about, Steyn has just about every weapon a fast bowler needs - oodles of pace, the ability to swing it both ways in both styles, and if need be, the ferocity to inspire mortal fear. But Steyn's skills are not the only basis for his appeal - there is also the sheer aesthetic perfection of his bowling.

Conventional swing defeats a batsman and exposes his frailties - reverse swing humiliates and debilitates him

He runs in like a big cat - a cheetah perhaps - with his body building up speed even as he seems to be majestically gliding in. His action is physics as poetry, each movement precise and breathtaking.

His most distinctive feature is his wrist, which has what in Urdu is called lachak - a word that conjures up the sort of flexibility that is inherently seductive. And seduction is at the basis of Steyn's appeal. His wrist snaps like a lover's glare and releases deliveries that form sinuous shapes as they travel, cutting arcs so vicious you feel the air would bleed.

Yet Steyn doesn't just look pretty - his deeds are so spectacular that even if he bowled in an ugly, awkward way, he would have still been guaranteed legendary status. He is almost inevitably one of the stars when South Africa win big, and he has shown the ability to wreak havoc anywhere from a dustbowl to a greentop.

And that is an important facet, since style is nothing without substance, and when we enjoy a sporting spectacle, we take several things into consideration. There is the context of the opposition - a win against the best, or a fierce rival, always feels better. Then there is the context of the occasion. How important was the match? Was it a knockout or a must-win? And then we take in the context for the team or individuals themselves - how strong were they and what was their potential?

Having all three come together would get a scriptwriter to cringe because it constitutes the sport's truly great moments. And so on Saturday, when South Africa were looking to avoid defeat against their fiercest rivals in both the match and the much-hyped series, it was time for the greatest bowler in his generation to step up to the plate.

His first wicket - that of Michael Clarke - was certainly pivotal since he was the opposing captain and possibly best batsman, but it didn't get the blood racing. That happened with the other three wickets. Both Ryan Harris and Steve Smith were done in by gorgeous deliveries, while Brad Haddin was bowled by one that achieved an ideal that the previous two deliveries were striving for. On each occasion, the ball shimmied like a pair of lithe, swinging hips and then darted across like a sharp tongue briefly flicking a lip.

The ball was doing all this because the perfect fast bowler had decided that in order to liven up the perfect moment, he would bring in the perfect deception.

Reverse swing has prompted everything from racist headlines to scholarly articles and has done so because its allure lies in its deceit. Conventional swing - of which Steyn is a fabulous exponent - has grace and charm, and can even be dashing and breathtaking. But reverse swing is a shock, a resistance, a subversion. Conventional swing defeats a batsman and exposes his frailties - reverse swing humiliates and debilitates him. Moreover, reverse swing doesn't need to bully a batsman with the mortal fear that bowling short creates. Instead, the batsman's experience is like watching the Matrix collapse - the loss of all meaning and relevance, of all reason and rationality.

The dark art is triumphant no matter whose hand it is delivered by, but when it is in the hands and wrists of a bowler like Steyn it becomes truly sublime. I have little doubt that when I die and go to heaven, I'd be bowling like Steyn. (Only because God would bowl like Wasim, but that's another matter.)

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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