Steyn's 'angry eyes' South Africa's trump card
That Dale Steyn still deserves to be called the best bowler in the world was evident during New Zealand's first innings in the Port Elizabeth Test. That he is still Graeme Smith's go-to man was obvious as well.
Steyn has been a priceless performer for many years, but with Test matches and series often rolling into each other there has not always been time to reflect on his achievements. In this series, Steyn claimed his 300th wicket in his 61st Test. At his current rate of five wickets a Test, he could become the joint-fastest seamer to 400 and 500 scalps and second fastest on the overall list, behind Muttiah Muralitharan.
At St George's Park, the same place that he made his debut, Steyn his took his 19th Test five-for to put him second on the list of South African five-wicket haulers, one behind Allan Donald. It speaks of his consistency to make breakthroughs and increase his intent when it is needed but also of his individual quest for success.
Steyn clearly wants more, regarding this as just another milestone on the road of the "many more Tests," he hopes to play. Ask him what the 19th haul means and he has a prudent way of comparing himself to another player in the South Africa XI whose hunger for achievement appears to know no bounds. "It means I am on level terms with Hashim Amla's hundreds," Steyn said.
Amla and Steyn's 19th both came in the same match and while Steyn continues to sit atop the bowling charts, Amla is not far behind in batting stakes. The latest ICC rankings have him in second position and he has the opportunity overtake Michael Clarke in the upcoming series against Pakistan.
That would give South Africa the world's best batsman and bowler to add to their status as the No.1 ranked Test side and it is that sort of unit Steyn is savouring being part of. "Everybody just plays their part in this team," he said. Steyn's part contributes heavily to South African success and he was willing to indulge in a few moments of self-reflection as he looked back on his proudest moments so far.
Steyn could point out two five-fors which meant the most to him in his nine-year career. Interestingly, neither were at home or in helpful conditions.
"There was one in the West Indies in 2010 in the first Test," he remembered. "I was coming around the wicket and the ball was reversing. They had a couple of left handers and guys were leaving the ball and I got a few wickets. I thought to myself then I don't think I couldn't have bowled any better and everything just worked out perfectly."
Steyn's 5 for 29 included four left handers: Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Narsingh Deonarine, Suliemen Benn and Ravi Rampaul. He made the crucial breakthrough when Chanderpaul was going about a repair job and then nipped out the tail with three wickets in two overs.
"And then there was Nagpur where I got seven. Just getting somebody like Sachin Tendulkar... but also I got the ball to swing both ways that day on a really flat deck," he said. That performance won Steyn ESPNcricinfo's award for the best Test bowling performance of 2010. Again, he was hostile to the lower order and plucked five wickets in four overs to finish with 7 for 61.
Even against New Zealand, Steyn went hard at their tail and seems to have made a habit of returning to sweep lower orders away quickly although he said it has not been intentional. "I try to run in and bowl quick every time and I don't really pick and choose who to run in and bowl quick to, it just sort of happens.
"Sometimes you're up for it, sometimes the body doesn't quite agree. I've been fortunate that in this match the body has said yes. I was also able to make the ball swing and Vernon wasn't so there was more for the taking," he joked. "But the back end batters; you're not expecting them to go out there and score heaps of runs so it's good to get over with fast."
Steyn also has the advantage of being able to bowl in short bursts with maximum effort while his team-mates do the donkey work. Over the years Graeme Smith has learnt how to read Steyn better and to bring him on when the angry eyes start flashing.
"It's about understanding him tactically," Smith said. "Once the batsman shows him something and gives him a little opening, he has a wonderful ability to drive it home. When he is steaming in at 145kph and swinging it, it's great to be in the slips and be a part of that. It's not so great when we have to face him in the nets."
His aggression is what Smith said "lifts the whole team," but what motivates Steyn himself? Knowing that he can meet the challenge of performing where it will be tough.
"Those two five-fors that stand out most for me even though there have been big games like against Australia in Melbourne in 2008 when I picked up ten because those two were completely different," he said. "Melbourne was always going to offer something like a little bit of bounce. But when you are playing in places like West Indies where there is not a lot of bounce and in India and subcontinent; it's more memorable."
Those who appreciate the combination of swing and pace will hope there are many more memories to be made.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent