February 8, 2013

Hail Dale

It's time to acknowledge that Steyn is among the all-time great fast bowlers

There must be a reason why South Africa are knocking teams over for scores normally seen in the first round of a local inter-school tournament. And, in relative terms, finishing matches as quickly. Quite apart from having four batsmen (Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers) who might feature in their all time top ten (now there's a list in itself!) they have three bowlers - Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel - who between them take a wicket every seven overs, and are forming a team that threatens to be among the best in recent times (my vote for the last similar trio is Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie).

The leader of their attack sends a tingle down the spine of most batsmen and makes spectators sit on the edge of their seats. It is human nature to underrate the present and grossly overrate the past, but if you outlaw that trait, the time has come to place Steyn among the greatest fast bowlers of the game.

He's going at over five wickets a Test (323 from 63), averages under 25 (22.67) and takes a wicket in less than 50 balls (40.8). Those numbers for bowling averages and strike rates are acknowledged to be possessed by the best, and if you add another cut-off (25 Tests, to take away the anomaly of one or two great years only), he makes the top ten on any criterion. (In the lists that follow, I looked at bowlers since the Second World War, since the numbers of those who played before then are terribly skewed, almost suggesting that batsmen took a bat along like a senior citizen might a walking stick: only in case of an emergency!)

So looking purely at strike rates the hall of fame for fast bowlers has Dale Steyn, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Malcolm Marshall, Allan Donald, Colin Croft, Fred Trueman, Joel Garner, Richard Hadlee and Michael Holding. And if you choose the bowling average as your preferred indicator, the list changes, but only somewhat. Alan Davidson, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Curtly Ambrose, Neil Adcock (perhaps he wasn't mourned as much as he should have been: 104 wickets at 21), Fred Trueman, Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, Richard Hadlee and Dale Steyn. Only one player who is on both lists is playing today, and he is enriching our game.

There are few sights more thrilling in sport than a fast bowler in full flow running in. And thrilling is only one of many words you could use to describe Steyn when he is in rhythm.

He doesn't look like a gym addict. Indeed, he is more Daniel Craig than Hulk Hogan - wiry and athletic. As were Brett Lee and Malcolm Marshall. And every time I see him, I am reminded of what Michael Holding told me about fast bowling many years ago. He had asked if he could borrow my t-shirt to do a piece to camera (on-air branding, remember!) and when I expressed surprise that a fast bowler should fit into my t-shirt, he reminded me about how fast bowling was not about size but about rhythm. ("Never wore an 'L', Haasha, never," he laughed.) The days he bowled at his quickest was when he didn't realise he was bowling quick, he said.

It is so with Steyn too. Possessed of an action that doesn't place too much strain on him and is easily reproduced, he allows himself to get into an excellent rhythm. And when the ball snakes away from the right-hander at pace, cricket is a game to be enjoyed by everyone but the man at the other end.

It is human nature to underrate the present and grossly overrate the past, but if you outlaw that trait, the time has come to place Steyn among the greatest

And he wants to bowl fast. They are a bit like fighter pilots, these fast bowlers, looking down at anything that dilutes the thrill. (When asked if he would fly commercial aircraft for several times his salary, my cousin who flew MIGs sneered and said, "Anyone can fly that, even the plane itself.") These guys will sneer too if you ask them to run up and bowl medium pace at three-quarter lengths. It is a more comfortable life, like flying a jetliner, but it isn't them.

Many years ago, when Waqar Younis was still a tearaway and one of the great sights in the game, he went to play in England, where the importance of a steady line and length was being impressed on him. "Naw" he said (and he was still shaking his head sideways in the interview, looking back), "I don't do that. I am a fast bowler." Steyn, for all his accuracy, is a fast bowler. It is Philander who does that other job (and mighty well too for South Africa).

And it doesn't seem to matter what form of the game Steyn is playing. His over to Richard Levi in the last IPL was, to me, the highlight of the event. The ball came fast, straight, and snaked away from the batsman at the very last minute, with the bat, as often happens in such situations, completely irrelevant.

Three hundred and twenty-three wickets don't look as daunting as they might have done when Fred Trueman was huffing and puffing his way to 307. Is 500 possible? Steyn is 30 now, and at a stage when every year matters. South Africa don't play Tests from March to November. Maybe his body will ask questions, maybe he will have to do line and length. Or maybe he will only play for as long as he can bowl fast, for as long as he can be in the cockpit of the fighter jet, and not worry too much about the three-quarter length and about "putting it there" at 132 kph. Till he is doing that, Dale Steyn will be the bowler of his generation.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Wiqar on February 11, 2013, 17:22 GMT

    Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the present era but we have to be careful when we compare him to all time greats. There's no beautiful scene in cricket right now than the outswingers he produces at deadly pace but let's just go back to 90s...If I have to compare some one to Wasim and Waqar who produced such outstanding stats in both ODIs and Tests and the fact that those results came mostly on dead subcontinental pitches is just awesome. If subcontinental batsmen are tagged as flat track bullies then the fast bowlers on those pitches must be incredible. I dont think ODI stats count much but for a bowler, bowling in ODI is also a big challenge and Steyn's stats are a bit lighter in ODIs. These are observations which favor W&W and I'm sure there are certain things which favor Steyn but we should be careful when comparing one generation with other. That said, I'm sure he'll go down as one of the all time greats in history.

  • Justin on February 11, 2013, 10:35 GMT

    Hope Cricket SA organise some more test matches in mid year or Oct. we can't be the best team and play 6 tests a year.

  • Shulz Van on February 11, 2013, 8:22 GMT

    Wow how greatly said "It is human nature to underrate the present and grossly overrate the past' beautiful quote...and is so TRUE.....thank u Harsha

  • Casper on February 11, 2013, 6:18 GMT

    I think our current problem is our batters do not get enough practice if we win with an innings - maybe the one reason smith decided to bat and not force the follow on. The bowlers is taking the wickets so fast that our batters suffers for it :p

  • Dummy4 on February 10, 2013, 15:42 GMT

    I agree with Harsha. Steyn is definitely one of the all time great fast bowlers,.

  • Vincent on February 10, 2013, 13:28 GMT

    A just article. Attitude comes foremost for a tearway fast bowler and combined that with his natural skills it is as potent a weapon in itself like a ram rod Black Mamba. Awesome stuff Dale!!. Its how he keeps the intensity going for every delivery, every over which stands out like a beacon. Truly Edge of the Cliff rather Harsha...Great!

  • diren on February 10, 2013, 10:20 GMT

    @fastbowling and all the other people commenting saying that steyns average and strike rate is good because he plays most of his games in SA conditions...well in the same light we can say that if Jaques Kallis played most of his cricket in india (flat wickets) he would have an avearge of over 65 with more hundreds and runs than Sachin Tendulkar...Kallis would be the god of cricket and not Tendulkar??? am I right?? anyway I still think Kallis is the MVP in world cricket and the greatest cricketer of all time. its only in 20 years time when you look back you will realize I am right....KING KALLIS is the best.

  • Casper on February 10, 2013, 10:04 GMT

    Even the great Glenn McGrath were knocked off the number 1 ranking spot a few times during his career. Though he got back to it eventually he did not stay there for the whole period he were number 1 since he got to number 1 the first time. I do not say it will not happen to Steyn (since he got already competition in Philander that is closing in on that number 1 spot). However since Steyn got to the number 1 position nobody else has been able to take him off that position (yet) and that says a lot of his accomplishments. Not to take away anything from what other bowlers accomplished in the same time, it were just not good enough to take the number 1 spot away from Steyn. A great player and I for 1 will be at the Centurion match to support the Proteas in the last test - hopefully get some signatures too lol. Note to self be there on Day 2 ;) Just for interesting sake next test is at the home ground of Philander, Steyn, Smith and Kallis. Philander did destroy the NZ team there Good Luck.

  • greig on February 10, 2013, 8:56 GMT

    @Tests_always_66 I couldnt have said it better myself if I tried. You summed everything up perfectly and in full perspective.

  • Marius on February 10, 2013, 6:26 GMT

    The best fast bowler, I have seen. Funny that people always believe a current player needs to prove more, more of what 323 wickets, blistering rate of 41, which is actually unreal, at a pedantic averge of only 22. oh, and btw only been the number 1 bowler in the world for 4 years. He is not as good as the west indian bowlers was, he's better, he bowls in an era where the pitches and commercial viability dictates that matches should go the distance, he would be banned on pitches as in the eighties as he would just spoil the game for all, we don't want the game over in 2 days and bones broken, it wouldn't be cricket. Please give the guy the label he deserves, he is already a great. Do yourself a favour and attend a match while he is still around, the whole stadium feels the tension, from side-on the wicketkeeper seems miles away and the ball flies with a thump into his gloves as if to suggest he is still to close. mmm..nothing better