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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gopal on February 28, 2014, 6:45 GMT

    Im an Indian... I have been reading all your articles Mr.Ahmer.... Everytime when i visit cricinfo, i just search for your new article..... The most wonderful thing which i loved was "The existential Dread of a Pakistani fan"... As a fanatic of Pak team, it really moved me deeply... Meanwhile, "The Beauty of the Maghribh chase" is also worthy enough for the readers to bow their heads for you...Now, this one seems to surpass the effect which your former articles have made in my mind... Steyn should be grateful enough to God for he had got a person who could acclaim his credentials utopically... Even his own biographer could not be as effective to describe it...

  • Dummy4 on February 28, 2014, 3:43 GMT

    Thanks Annus Khalid, I am working on my knowledge. (Before the start of that series Akram had 176 wickets @23 and Waqar had 102 @19) - see I am increasing my knowledge, but agreed, have a long way to go. @James Pears "Yet there are those who still doubt his position in the game??? BTW, I'm an Aussie." I thought you must be knowing more as most doubters are from Aust. I used to wonder why Aussies are very conservative in their assessment of a few bowlers like Imran/Hadlee/Marshall/Donald/Murali (a few more!) and now Steyn. Even Glenn who in my list is 2nd best (among all kinds of bowlers) that I have seen, behind Malcolm, never got his due from former players and possibly the general public in Australia. Though I have my own hypothesis, would like to hear your opinions, as you don't seem to be a person who is driven by media hype.

  • Dummy4 on February 28, 2014, 0:26 GMT

    I am an Indian fan, but Wasim was the God of swing bowling. I would pay money to go back in time and enjoy Wasim's magic live (just not against India). Steyn may become as capable as Wasim as he is still very fit and not injury prone. I hope he does, as it isn't enough that the world has only a left-handed God of swing and pace to worship.

  • Yugandar on February 27, 2014, 22:38 GMT

    Great job Naqvi saab! Steyn, the moment he debuted in 2005?!, looked special and don't blame me as glory hunter but he reminded me of the greatest ever 'Macko' not in bowling action but in effect. Terror wise Macko still has no equals. Greatest_Game....keep it going buddy. But aren't you a tad harsh on Mo....the spanking Hash wouldn't be alive if not for the helmet in the 1st test. I was trying to explain why Mitch seems extra fast/dangerous when he pitches within tramlines....his run up doesn't give batsmen any rhythm for reflexes and boom all the muscle and energy is only in delivery stride/arm and the ball thuds on to you before you say Jack Robinson. But if the radar is not working a minor nudge from the bat will send scudding to the pickets. If the 3rd test is played on bouncy track then watch out....the ungainly Mitch might still maul SA really badly!

  • Vikas on February 27, 2014, 22:31 GMT

    @ Annus Khalid What is wrong with these Pakistanis ! Do they think Wasim and Waqar were the only two good bowlers. Get the facts right on the subcontinental pitches ! In pakistan in 2007/2008 Steyn picked up nine wickets at 24.66 in 2 tests. In bangladesh in 2007/2008 for two tests he picked up 14 wickets in the series at an average of 12.57. In india in 2007/2008 in 3 tests he picked up 15 wickets in the series at an average of 20.20 In indian in 2009/2010 he picked up 11 wickets in 2 test matches at an average of 20.27. Stop questioning his legacy in subcontinent.Steyn's record is subcontinent is better than both Wasim and Waqar.

  • Viper on February 27, 2014, 20:56 GMT

    i told u fans once that steyn is waqar younis of this era and above article proves it. somebody said best bowler in country by miles i say best bowler in world by miles.... i just get mesmerized when he steams in. we pak just love this guy..... im his hardcore fan. massive respect to him and his land and his fans always !!!

  • Shanmuganathan on February 27, 2014, 14:38 GMT

    Very poetic.!! Thanks for describing each and everything starting from his Run-up till he bowls. Thoroughly enjoyed the methaphors !!

    As everyone said, my respect for for Steyn has been increasing after every such match!!

  • David on February 27, 2014, 14:27 GMT

    @ karachikhatmal. Mitch has me in stitches too. Watching his run up is the funniest sight in cricket. A Stegosaurus would look gainly in comparison. However, when he lands his uniball it is a viscous monster, although AB negotiated it with his usual calm and grace. I do believe that Hash - described by a reader as having " the beard of rage" in response to Mitch's "mighty Mo," is back in form and I expect both to pulverize MJ at Newlands, as they did in Perth.

    We will have the delight of watching the funniest run up & delivery in cricket being spanked all over the ground, again, as it has been for most of his career. He has been found out, and his 6 match reign of terror is over, Clarke knows it too. That is why MJ bowled so little in PE. His confidence is shot - he knows he has been found out and negated. He knows he will be spanked again, and will become once more the laughing stock of cricket.

  • Ahmer on February 27, 2014, 10:07 GMT

    Thank you all some riproaring comments here.

    Greatest Game you should open a blog that Mitchell description has me in stitches!

  • Dummy4 on February 27, 2014, 9:58 GMT

    @ Ariz Khan knowledge is power but little knowledge is dangerous. You with your glasses on cannot see the whole picture. 1. 1993 Akram and Waqar were just starting out not at the peak 2. they played half the time on flat tracks, let steyn do that and then we can compare the records. 3. Did Jayasuriya had a good record against pakistan in SA or AUS grounds?

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