The Crocodile Hunter
Dale Steyn has taken much from Australia of late. A home Test series, a No. 1 one-day international ranking and no small amount of pride were among the non-declarable, though immensely valuable, items the South Africa fast bowler carted through Customs last month on his return flight across the Indian Ocean.
And he has not stopped there. Not content with raiding the nation's trophy cabinets, Steyn has taken to an extreme a pursuit popularised by the late Steve Irwin and identified by the world (well, Americans) as iconically Australian. Allow him to explain.
"I caught a croc," Steyn said. "He was a little, naïve one and he went for the [fishing] lure. We rolled him in the boat and made a video of it. It was fantastic."
As if Steyn had not established a fearsome enough reputation with his 150-plus kph thunderbolts, he can now count himself among the few, the mad, to have earned the tag of "crocodile hunter". The encounter with the hostile reptile occurred last week on a fishing expedition near the Zimbabwean border, not far from the Limpopo town of Giyani, during a break between Test series against Australia.
The fishing-cum-wrestling exercise, Steyn said, had revitalised body and mind ahead of the return clash with Ricky Ponting's men.
"There were no phones, no hassles," he said. "It was the perfect thing to clear your mind. I haven't bowled a ball since Adelaide, so I've now had a bit of time to reflect on our achievement. But the series starts all over again now. We have achieved great things, but to perform well against one of the best teams in the world on our own soil would be one of my career highlights."
That highlight reel has expanded immensely in recent months. Steyn's 18 wickets at 26.16, including a 10-wicket haul in the series-clinching Melbourne Test, helped South Africa break a near-century-old hoodoo to defeat Australia on their own soil. Those efforts rounded out a 2008 campaign in which Steyn claimed a world-best 74 wickets at 20.01 in 13 Tests across five countries. Performances do not come more virtuoso.
Steyn's efforts in Australia have clearly imbued him with confidence. The lingering questions concerning his temperament after a difficult trip to England were largely dispelled, and the responsibility he shouldered throughout the tour of Australia - particularly deep into the limited overs series, when fatigue and injuries were taking effect on the side - has convinced a once dubious South African public that he is the man to lead the attack when the indefatigable Makhaya Ntini finally hangs up the spikes.
To speak to Steyn before the series in Australia was to encounter an understated man with a quiet, firm self-belief. Though still short of chest-beating, Steyn nonetheless discusses personal and collective achievements with noticeably more bravado. If not yet fluent in championese, he is certainly conversational.
"In the last few years, people have compared our attack with others in the past, but hopefully one day people will use our attack as a benchmark," he said. "We have developed a really good partnership. You will see that one of us is always standing at mid-off or mid-on when another quick is operating. We know each other's strengths, plans and what spurs them on. It is a very good partnership.
|Though still short of chest-beating, Steyn nonetheless discusses personal and collective achievements with noticeably more bravado. If not yet fluent in championese, he is certainly conversational|
"The one thing that is really noticeable about our group is the belief that has crept in. We now have the belief that we can dominate games rather than just sitting back and waiting for things to happen. We know that we can grab a game by the scruff of the neck and make it ours. If you look at that last series, we won nearly all of the key moments. If we can do that again, I'm confident we will go on to win the series at home."
On paper, Australia will field a far weaker side at the Wanderers than the one that turned out at the WACA Ground in December. The retirement of Matthew Hayden, injury to Brett Lee and ongoing issues of Andrew Symonds will ensure tremendous pressure is heaped upon the young shoulders of Phillip Hughes, Doug Bollinger and Andrew McDonald. Indeed, four uncapped players will board the Australian team flight to South Africa on Monday, along with four other players who have a combined 10 Tests' experience. Hardly an encouraging stat for a team desperate to defend its No. 1 Test ranking.
Steyn, unsurprisingly, fancies South Africa's chances in familiar climes, and against a revamped Australian side yet to forge its identity. His duel with Hughes, the free-scoring and highly rated rookie opener from NSW, will prove particularly intriguing, and Steyn has wasted little time in testing the youngster's mettle.
"We don't need to put pressure on him," Steyn said, opening the psychological skirmishes ahead of the series. "I think trying to replace Matthew Hayden and fill those massive shoes will place enough weight on his shoulders. I wish him the best for his career, and obviously if Australia believe he is good enough to play international cricket, then he has our respect. But I guess we'll find out what he is made of in the next month or so. I will not be going out there trying to break him down verbally. We'll just stick to our gameplans and try and apply pressure that way."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo