February 24, 2010

Old-school Dale

Hunting and fishing are still part of his life but the rawness and inconsistency have dropped away and Steyn has emerged as one of the best fast bowlers in the world

Dale Steyn likes fishing and hunting and bowling fast. In his time he has caught a crocodile, shot an impala, and caused plenty of batsmen to cower. To him it is all the same - just that he was obliged in the latter activity to learn a few lessons about respectability and other dubious restraints. They don't have match referees in the veldt, or over-rates or pampered batsmen or all these rules and regulations. They don't take any prisoners either, don't ask permission for this or that, don't bother about appearances. And at the end of the long day, as the sun sets, there is fish on the fire or meat being cooked; flies hovering, survival and freedom intertwined. Steyn is at home in that world. He's a mixture of Huckleberry Finn and Harold Larwood.

Steyn belongs to the great tradition of fast bowlers emerging from the back and beyond. In England the fast men used to emerge from the mining towns and working traditions of Nottingham and Yorkshire. They drank pints and had strong backs earned by hard labour. In Australia they came from the torrid, remote outback. On the subcontinent they were raised mostly in the rugged north with its mountains and warriors. In the Caribbean they were the products of hundreds of years of slavery and the strength and athleticism that it unwittingly instilled.

Of course it is a cliché. Not every fast bowler fits neatly into the pattern. Not every boxer was raised on the streets of Mexico or Brooklyn. Some of them were driven to pace by their bodies. Many of them become sophisticates, though Jeff Thomson has been a determined exception. Even so, the combination of youthful vigour and lack of alternatives produces more quick bowlers than any other. Something is needed to persuade a man to charge 30 yards to the crease, hurl down a delivery with all his might and then suffer as some over-praised wretch elegantly raises his bat and allows the ball to pass or some clown in the cordon drops a sitter or some dope of an umpire calls no-ball because the foot had strayed an inch over the popping crease. Often they repeat the transaction 100 times a day and afterwards are rewarded not with a soothing beer but an ice bath.

Something is needed to make this life worth living. Partly it is desperation. What else is a man to do? Nowadays money is a factor. Hell, a speedster can make a million playing Twenty20. Never have the rewards per ball been as high for genuine fast bowlers. Mostly, though, it is the satisfaction that keeps them going. Fast bowlers like the feeling of speed, enjoy the look of alarm in the eyes of opponents, relish the respect they can sense in the rooms and in the stands, rejoice in the feeling of the ball thumping into ribs or distant gloves. They are the heavyweight champions of the game. Of course, it is satisfying. As the years pass, fast bowlers start to think about taking wickets. Captains and coaches talk about things like averages and percentages and dot balls and maiden overs. They don't say as much about blood or bruises. Maturity brings a second rush. Glenn McGrath and Malcolm Marshall count among the greatest constructors of wickets the game has known. Watching them at work was a cricketing education.

But it does not start like that. Pace bowling is essentially primitive. In the past, speed alone might at any rate have accounted for the tailenders. Now all and sundry wear helmets and whatnot, and fast bowlers need to learn new tricks, like reverse swing, slower balls and so forth. Twenty20 has been their saviour. Ask Shaun Tait and Dirk Nannes. Now the trade knows it has a future, and a price.

Steyn is a pace bowler from the old school: raw, slightly demented, confronting, loud on the field and soft-spoken off it. He was born and mostly raised in Phalaborwa, a town of some 130,000 folk, located in neglected Limpopo. As far as his current craft is concerned, it was the ideal place to begin. Phalaborwa means "better than the south". It's a rugged location for tough men. Prima donnas and toffs are thin on the ground. Latte is unknown. It is an old mining town where tribesmen, and later the intruders, have been smelting copper and iron ore for 1500 years. Thousands of years ago a volcanic eruption bestowed upon the area a vast hole begging to be mined. Naturally the locals obliged. Nor has the resource been exhausted. Steyn's father worked in the pits, and he was expected to follow in his footsteps. Adventure and ambition decreed otherwise.

Typical of the neighbourhood in many ways, Steyn was also a little different. He wanted to be a photographer, and was prepared to travel. Although happy at home, he was keen to attend boarding schools, and it took the pangs of a crestfallen family to bring him back to the nest. From the outset he knew he wanted to break out. Just that it took him years to realise that fast bowling was his most obvious gift and his opportunity.

And so Steyn headed south in search of advancement. Whereas most fast bowlers take the scene by storm, his progress was fitful. He had little understanding of the activity. Nor did he know anything about professionalism. Heck, he did not have any adequate boots - he borrowed Shaun Pollock's in his first few matches in national colours. He just charged in and let go. His potential could not be missed but he lacked the skills needed to succeed.

For years Steyn's promise outstripped his achievements. He played for provinces and counties and his country in various forms and was dropped almost as often as he was chosen. His bowling was hit or miss. Irresistible at his sharpest, he was expensive the rest of the time. He was naïve. Rhythm came and went mysteriously. It was a frustrating time for all concerned. Steyn sweated and occasionally soared. Fast outswingers count among the deadliest deliveries in the repertoire. But he was inconsistent.

Something is needed to persuade a man to charge 30 yards to the crease, hurl down a delivery with all his might and then suffer as some over-praised wretch elegantly raises his bat and allows the ball to pass or some clown in the cordon drops a sitter or some dope of an umpire calls no-ball

Gradually he learnt to harness his ability and use his wits. He learnt about his action, and putting overs and spells together, and old balls and new balls, and using the crease and all the tricks that others absorb on the climb. He learnt to bowl on green tops and feather beds, in India and England, in 20-over and five-day cricket. Slowly he added the understanding required to maintain a high level of performance.

Now the speedster is in his pomp and stands acclaimed as the best fast bowler around. Despite the patchiness of his early years his strike-rate is better than anyone else's barring George Lohmann and Shane Bond (among those who have played 10 or more Tests). He has taken wickets in India and Australia, has been at his best against the best and in the most demanding conditions.

Some players, though, cannot be contained by comparisons and records. At heart Steyn is a match player. He thrives in the heat of battle, and proved as much with his two most notable performances, impressive contributions that led to thrilling triumphs.

About a year ago, South Africa arrived in Melbourne with a 1-0 lead in the series, a position secured with a superb fightback in Perth. Despite Steyn's five first-innings wickets, all appeared lost at the MCG as the Proteas subsided to 141 for 6 in pursuit of Australia's 394. Within 48 hours the visitors had coasted to victory. Steyn played his part, putting on with a partnership with JP Duminy that brought 180 runs. All told, he faced 191 balls and scored 76 runs. For hour upon hour he refused to budge. It was an astonishingly resolute and patient effort. Nor was that all. He took another five wickets in the second innings as the Australians wilted, and finally was able to relax as the batsmen knocked off the runs. For the first time, South Africa had beaten the Aussies on their own patch. Steyn was nominated as Man of the Series, an award he has collected on three occasions.

Steyn's second decisive contribution came in equally august company. His burst in Nagpur a fortnight ago confirmed his adaptability and stature. Again it was a showdown between the two highest-ranked teams in the game. Again Steyn was predatory. Bowling fast and straight and using inswing with the old ball and away-swing with the new ball, Steyn took 7 for 51 in the first dig and followed with another sizzling spell as India were beaten by an innings. Confirming his temperament, now wearing coloured clothes, and using the bat as cannily as he had used the ball, he almost took his team to an improbable success in the opening ODI in Jaipur.

Altogether Steyn has travelled a long way from his hometown. Not that he ever quite left. To the contrary he remains a bushie to his bootstraps. After all, Phalaborwa has other attractions, with a lot more appeal to him than digging metal. It offers nature reserves and rivers where Steyn and his ilk can hunt and fish at their leisure, where they can admire the majesty of the animal kingdom at nearby Kruger Park and generally immerse themselves in the life of solitude that suits them - life without trappings or pretence or parameters or illusions. Steyn's heart is vast but it belongs in the outback. For him the glory lies not in shattered stumps but in the integrity and beauty of nature. After the Australians had been beaten he went back to home and hunting. Probably he lingered too long. South Africa's defeat in the return series was partly due to his loss of form. His lesson was clear. As a bowler Steyn has to be nurtured. It has been the story of his career.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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