Unrelenting Steyn mutes power hitters
Marlon Samuels kicked his left leg in disgust as he head-banged his way back in denial after an erroneous shot selection. The previous delivery, he had thrashed a Dale Steyn length ball coming into him for a four over midwicket. Next ball, Steyn improvised, changing the length, pitching fuller. Samuels went for the same stroke and was embarrassingly bowled.
It was a highly charged atmosphere. Samuels, in the company of the best finisher currently in Twenty20 cricket, Kieron Pollard, had pulled West Indies back in to the match after West Indies found themselves in a desperate situation playing catch-up with the D/L par scores since the departure of Chris Gayle in the 12th over. At the 15-over mark, West Indies were still adrift by a massive margin of 144 runs.
A couple of overs later, West Indies opted for the three-over batting Powerplay. Steyn had bowled a tight three-over first spell, allowing just 12 runs including the wicket of Johnson Charles. Surprisingly, AB de Villiers had bolted his best racehorse till the third over of the innings, having started with the offspin of JP Duminy. Realising that Charles' raw aggression could backfire the experiment badly, Steyn replaced Duminy.
It was the first time Steyn was playing in the tournament. He had been declared fit only two days before the match hence he had some free allowance. But the look of disbelief on Steyn's face after Gayle punched a fuller ball on the middle stump to the straight boundary was stunning. It only helped him up charge up quickly.
Against Samuels he understood that as long as he did not bowl short, he would be fine. And the batsman too paid respect to Steyn. Thirty-five runs had come against Ryan McLaren and Robin Peterson, so Samuels knew the only way he could defeat Steyn was by remaining quiet. But Steyn has the ability to force you out of your comfort zone and take him on. Samuels was the victim today.
The beauty about Steyn is not his run-up. His beauty lies in his speed. No matter which format of the game, whatever the pitch or the conditions and whoever is the batsman, you can bet on Steyn being unrelenting. Friday was the same. De Villiers brought Steyn on whenever the best batsmen were threatening to steal the match away: Gayle, Samuels, Pollard - each of those batsmen failed to take the attack to Steyn and that proved to be the decisive factor.
Two balls after removing Samuels, Steyn, bowling slightly wide of the crease, bowled it short of a length. But it was the speed, 90 mph, which surprised both Pollard and de Villiers keeping wicket and even threatened the spider cam, which retreated safely in time as the ball raced for five wides. Steyn was absolutely livid that de Villiers had failed to pouch that. Like an edgy boxer in a spaceship, Steyn hopped twice before raising his hands in anguish.
Steyn is an intense bowler. He does not dabble in too many variations. You rarely see Steyn dumbfounding batsmen with slower balls. You do see him regularly confounding batsmen with extreme speed coupled with subtle movement. It also helps if you can bowl lines and pitch lengths like clockwork.
It is just not his unerring accuracy but also the quest to pitch the ball on that length, which Allan Donald described as "fuller than normal", that makes Steyn unplayable. "You can't get to him. You can't get a big stride to him. He suffocates you in the crease, and that's where he gets people nicked off, because he bowls a fuller length and swings it at high pace," Donald said.
Steyn can be an interesting yardstick to measure how good a batsman you are. Take Pollard, who can smash most bowlers to smithereens. However, against Steyn he has rarely succeeded. Check Steyn v Pollard during Sunrisers Hyderabad's away match against Mumbai Indians. Pollard won the match for Mumbai by smashing the pedestrian pace of Thisara Perera after Steyn had played him like a puppet. Even today, Pollard faced the most deliveries from Steyn, but managed just nine runs off 11 balls faced, including frequent hits-and-misses.
With his exhilarating pace and penchant to attack the off stump, Steyn brings the Test match mentality to the limited-overs game. With such an attitude, Steyn makes his captain's job easier.
"It's great to have Dale back. He's definitely an X-factor for us. I called on him a few times today, especially the last spell into the wind, and he picked up a vital wicket for us," de Villiers said. "So, the way he handled the pressure and the way he actually gave his best for the team was very inspiring.
"I think everyone learnt a lot from that, and he made the whole bowling unit follow him, and like I said, they stuck together as a team today, right from Robin Peterson, the way he bowled was amazing, right through to a guy like Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Ryan McLaren, to Chris Morris. They all had something to aspire to, and it worked out, so a lot of credit has got to go to him."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo