England v South Africa, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day July 20, 2012

Anti-hero Steyn disproves mantra

He may profess to being just another member of the attack but Dale Steyn once again showed that leadership comes naturally

Dale Steyn maintains that he does not want to be a hero. Having started life in a small town where idols was more than just a bad reality television show, Steyn understood what it was to worship, because he did it all the time. He knew that it meant leaving people with little room to live as reverence so often turned into suffocation.

Since he became worthy of sitting atop the pedestal that he once placed others on, he has done his best to hop off. Even though Steyn regularly does things that put him back on it, such as take two wickets in two overs on the second morning of a Test match that was starting to slip from South Africa, he still shies away from top-dog status. The more he backs away, the more the tag chases him so much so that Morne Morkel confessed that the rest of the attack "follow him".

Steyn wouldn't like that at all. A week ago, he denied being the leader of the attack. He claimed that any one of the four frontline bowlers could knock a team over by themselves. While that may be the feeling in amongst the South Africa management and in Steyn's mind, outside it, where the Kumbaya mentality does not exist, it is certainly not.

Put simply, Steyn's reputation totally precedes him. Obviously, the fact that he is ranked the No.1 bowler in Test cricket is a massive contributing factor but in a sport were something as man-made as standings are often scoffed it, it's what Steyn has actually done that has made him so feared. The memories of him flattening Craig Cummings' cheekbone in Johannesburg, taking twin five-fors at the MCG in 2008 and subjecting India to an unforgiving assault in Nagpur have earned Steyn the responsibility of being the pack's front man.

There's almost a contradiction in that. To say Steyn has earned responsibility is like saying he would prefer to be paid in wickets instead of cash and the IPL has proven that is not true for anyone. But he has earned it nonetheless because along with responsibility has come respect and admiration, two qualities Steyn commands on just about every pitch in the world game.

That could explain why it was so disappointing to see Steyn run in with only half the heart on the first day. He held his pace back and was used in short bursts that were interrupted with un-Steyn-like behaviour such as leaving the field far too often. The rumour that he was injured did the rounds but it was vehemently denied by Allan Donald. Steyn himself made no comments, not even on Twitter, which he has often used as a vehicle for venting.

Being a slow starter is not uncommon for Steyn. Being a 'rhythm bowler', he takes a while to find his feet and the stats prove it. Steyn got just one wicket in the first Test of the 2008 tour to England and seven in the next match. He took four in the tour-opener in Perth that same year and returned with ten in Melbourne. Although those numbers have come closer together in recent years, he also only took two wickets in Dunedin against New Zealand in March then managed five in Hamilton, where the second Test was played.

It was also on that tour that Steyn showed a strange kind of irritability, that one would usually expect of someone with a certain kind of celebrity status. Vernon Philander's meteoric rise resulted in unfair questions being asked of South Africa's lynchpin such as why he didn't take more wickets. The answer was a curt, "Well, there are only 10 wickets in an innings and if Vern is taking them all, it doesn't leave much for the rest of us."

What didn't help Steyn's cause was that he tweeted a picture of his own mangled toe, leading to speculation that he was injured. Graeme Smith had to squash those notions by claiming that all fast bowlers' toes look, as Donald has put it, "like World War Two". Steyn, usually an affable and pleasant person to deal with, had become a brat.

"England's wickets fell through a combination of poor stroke-making and good bowling but there was little doubt that Steyn was the catalyst"

There were signs of all of that again at The Oval. The heavy strapping on Steyn's ankle resulted in similar simmering of a niggle and the bad temper Steyn spewed on to the field was somewhat unbecoming. By holding on to the advertising boards constantly, pulling faces and getting caught up in intense discussions with the coaching staff, Steyn escalated the image of grumpy fast bowler to something a little meaner.

Morkel said there was nothing untoward about Steyn's actions, even though they invited a tabloid-style scrutiny. "I can kill that fire straight away. There was nothing with anyone," he said. "Dale is in a good space."

After his first spell of the second day, that may have been so. Steyn returned with greater intensity and also found some of the other ingredients that make him so obviously the leader of an attack he claims not to lead. He found late swing and foxed Alastair Cook, who had left so well on the first day but was induced into a drive and played on. An over later, Steyn got a nervous Ravi Bopara with a bouncer, proving what Morkel said. "He can deliver something special like that at any time."

The rhythm didn't stay throughout, and his four over post-lunch spell cost 29 runs, but he had made the inroads South Africa needed. "It inspired me and all the rest to follow him," Morkel said. Although England's wickets fell through a combination of poor stroke-making and good bowling, there was little doubt that Steyn was the catalyst.

In fact, he was the bowler Matt Prior singled out as being a challenge to face because of his class and ability. "In a sick kind of way, it's quite enjoyable," Prior said about Steyn. That kind of comment does not get said about someone who does not border close to being a hero.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent