Great, green and greased lightning
"The great, green, greasy Limpopo river ..." Celebrated in Rudyard Kipling's Just So stories as the place where the elephant got its trunk*, and situated on the Zimbabwean border in the northernmost reaches of South Africa, it is not the most likely of places to spawn a Test cricketer - let alone two in a single match. But all that is set to change tomorrow morning, when AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn are expected to make their Test debuts.
There has been no standing on ceremony where these two players are concerned: neither of them has yet completed a full season of first-class cricket, but already their selection belies Kevin Pietersen's assertion that there is no future for young white talent in the South African set-up. Steyn has just seven matches under his belt, including a nine-wicket haul against the Warriors at Buffalo Park in East London, while de Villiers has but one century to his name which, happily enough, was scored in the very week he was selected for the national squad. As wild cards go, they seem precisely the type of hungry young carnivores who should thrive under Ray Jennings's raw-meat-eating regime.
Are they green? Most certainly. Greased? Well, in Steyn's case, his brief dalliances with the speed-gun have recorded a none-too-sluggish delivery of 147.7kph, while de Villiers's penchant for belting the leather off a cricket ball has resulted in some lightning-quick performances in the Standard Bank Cup. And as for "great", only time will tell, but at the ages of 21 and 20 respectively, they clearly have plenty of that on their side - de Villiers especially, who has a useful little sideline as a wicketkeeper.
As befits an opening batsman, albeit a strokemaking one, de Villiers is the more cautious of the pair. He watches all questions carefully onto the bat, and meets the more testing ones with a confident assertion that he will "play his own game", whatever that game may be. But he can certainly play his strokes with dismissive disdain as well. Steve Harmison, surely a daunting prospect for any debutant, is driven straight back down the ground as "just another bowler", while Test cricket itself seems no big deal either - "bigger crowds, a bit more professional, that's it really."
Steyn, by contrast, has a more up-and-at-`em attitude, and plays his cricket in a style not dissimilar to a young Allan Donald, with speed through the air and late movement his trademarks. Though he has been given licence to crank up his pace at Port Elizabeth, he seems mildly disappointed that the St George's Park pitch is unlikely to favour an out-and-out attack. "You need to bowl a fuller length down there," he concedes, "so if they want me to ping a few guys on the head I might struggle. But I'll be up for it I promise you."
Steyn has an interesting admission that belies his surname, and is sure to make readers of Die Beeld wince - he speaks no Afrikaans. "I do try ..." he insists, but explains that his parents were British Rhodesians and so there was never any cause to take up the language. Already, however, his ignorance has stood him in good stead at the crease. Faced with a gutful of vitriol from Nantie Hayward, his fiery forebear in the South African team, Steyn could do nothing but shrug: "I couldn't understand what he was on about!"
They may hail from the same province, and play for the same franchise, the Gauteng-based Titans, but there was little overlap between the pair as they worked their way towards national recognition. de Villiers's home of Belabela is a good 500km from Steyn's stomping ground in Phalaborwa, and by the age of six he had already moved to Pretoria, where his sports-mad family gave him little option but to pursue a career in cricket.
de Villiers continued his sporting education in Ireland last summer, where he played club cricket for Carrick and laid waste to records left, right and centre. Steyn, by contrast, took a much less focussed route to recognition, and it was only once he'd left school that he realised he wanted a career in the game. "They play a bit up there [in Limpopo], but no-one takes the clubs too seriously. It's up to you want you want to do. It's your life."
Though he was mentioned in dispatches for the tour to India, Steyn was wisely left at home for that trip, for the subcontinent is no place for a young fast bowler. But he won't exactly be on familiar territory at Port Elizabeth either - he's never yet played at the ground. Not that he's fazed, of course. "I'm ready to play on any track," he says. "Just to be there at all is a bonus."
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo.
(* courtesy of a tenacious crocodile)