South Africa v Pakistan, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 4th day February 4, 2013

There's no stopping Steyn

There was no chance Graeme Smith was going to get the ball out of Dale Steyn's hands as he raced towards a career-best performance

Dale Steyn took the new ball. An hour and 40 minutes later, he was still bowling with it. In a spell that lasted 10 overs and four balls, Steyn grabbed four wickets to take his match tally to 11 and his status as the best bowler operating on the international stage at the moment to a new level.

Long spells and Steyn have not had to walk the same road for a while. Graeme Smith prefers to use his strike bowler in bursts to get optimum usage of his pace. Today was different.

South Africa earmarked the new ball as being the starting point to end the Test match. AB de Villiers hoped the final wicket would fall just after lunch. Steyn made sure the script was acted out to plan.

His away swingers were perfect, he drew the batsmen forward and then beat them and it took only ten balls for him to find the edge of Asad Shafiq. The first of the overnight batsmen had departed. The next over the same. Misbah-ul-Haq. The second peg plucked.

By the time Steyn had bowled five overs, Vernon Philander had already taken a third wicket in the morning session and there was a drinks break to catch his breath. So he bowled another one. Then Morne Morkel claimed the fourth. So Steyn bowled another. And another. And another. And another.

As the spell grew, so did the questions about when Steyn would be replaced. It was one Smith was not going to ask. "I sort of left it in his hands, it's a bit dangerous for me to make that move when he's in the middle of his spell," Smith said.

Steyn would not be moved. He wanted to finish the job both for the team and himself. "If they were still seven down, it would have been a different situation. It was just that we needed two more wickets," he said. "I wanted to push on. It was about trying to take the last wickets and get off the field. Graeme came and said to me do you want to stop some time, but I said I would just carry on bowling, it's no train wreck. I'm pretty fit."

The final two fell in the space of two overs and Steyn completed the job five minutes into what would have been lunch. The praise was all his but he only accepted fractions of it. "In this team we all want to share the rewards with a win like this. It's nice to have a standout performance but everyone in this team is capable of doing what I did today with the ball."

The South African team that hold the No.1 Test ranking has built its culture on togetherness so to hear Steyn sharing it is not a surprise. What has not been divided is the danger factor, which belongs mostly to Steyn. Although Misbah said Steyn is not the scariest bowler he has ever faced, he acknowledged that the "areas that he bowls makes him special."

It is with that knowledge that Smith hopes Pakistan have been mentally scarred. "I don't know how much getting bowled out for 49 will affect them, but hopefully our bowlers have affect them when they thinking about the type of people that they have to come up against," he said. "Some personal battles were won."

The most obvious of those is Steyn's against the top-order. Recently, he has ripped through tails and Vernon Philander has been largely responsible for dismantling at the outset. This time, Steyn did the damage upfront in the first innings.

His six-wicket haul in the first innings was split perfectly between frontline batsmen and tail-enders to show that his poison remains as powerful even though there are other bowlers to contribute. His standards have remained high and that is what Smith demands from the team as they look to widen the gap on the rankings.

Rather than play simply to beat a team, Smith wants South Africa to impose themselves on their opposition. Since becoming No.1 at Lord's last August, South Africa have not lost a match. The four they have won have all finished inside four days and have been achieved consecutively, something that evaded South Africa since 2010 which was the last time they won back-to-back Tests.

Against New Zealand, both victories were by an innings. Against Australia in Perth and Pakistan in Johannesburg, South Africa recognised the moment where they had to make their advantage count. On the second afternoon at the WACA, Smith and Hashim Amla scored at more than six runs to the over to bat Australia out of the game. On the third morning at the Wanderers, Amla and de Villiers put on 68 runs in nine overs to do the same and prompt the declaration.

Smith called them in because he "did not want to let the game drift," and "another good day would help us land the blow." The decisiveness of Smith's actions points to a new determination to finish teams off in as emphatic a way as possible so that their morale is as dented as their performance.

As Test cricket's most experienced captain, the only criticism of Smith was that he was sometimes too passive. That has changed too. His confidence now allows him to take the initiative, instead of allowing it to come to him and it is a good thing his premier bowler understands that too. "The key thing is that we don't get complacent if we want to keep dominating cricket," Steyn said.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 9, 2013, 13:35 GMT

    Steyn will be hailed as the best ever, by the time he ends. I think he could top 500 wickets. Statistics dont lie, Steyn has the best strike rate of the 200 plus club, and is only topped by philander and bond beneath it. You have to give credit where its due, Test cricket has made a massive revival over the last two years, and I'd like to think that Steyn has played a big part in that. Love or hate, hes entertaining to watch - and when hes red hot, against the best batsmen out there, its a battle we all love to see.

  • shaikh on February 7, 2013, 14:27 GMT

    Surely one of d greatest fast bowler ever and for me he is greatest coz i didn't watch the holdings garners roberts nd others

  • Amol on February 7, 2013, 8:08 GMT

    I think achieving 300+ wickets (that is, MORE THAN HALF of career wickets of most Fast Bowlers) is enough to decide whether anybody performed below, on or above par to the greatest bowlers of All-Time...Steyn has left NO doubt that he is ABOVE par and one of the greatest, considering he achieved it played so many less tests and in mostly a batsman-friendly era of T20...At THIS stage, McGrath the Highest, is 25 wickets behind. And Lillee the Fastest, is just 5 ahead. In this form Steyn will overtake Lillee by leaps and bounds. Conclusion...For me...: Steyn IS a legend...already.

  • Gavin on February 7, 2013, 8:05 GMT

    IAS2009 - Marshall, holding etc did not play against dominating teams either, they WERE the dominating team. Same goes here, you can only play against who is there at the time and be judged by that.

    @Blufunk - Yes what a loss Amir is to world cricket, he looked a real talent. That wouldnt change the fact that Pak needs to get some decent test batsmen though.

  • shashwata on February 6, 2013, 16:04 GMT

    The article's title says it all.Dale Steyn is easily the world's best fast bowler in tests and I am not saying this due to a handful of recent performances.The guy has been consistent to death and has a special knack of delivering at key moments , be it his 5 wickets in the first test against England in 2012 or his five-for against Australia in the third test recently. He is the prime reason for SA to be at the top of the list just as he himself is. He is right up there with the all time greats of fast bowling and there is simply no denying that.We don't have to wait for him to retire to get to that top list .He is already there.Statistically he may not be as good as many other bowlers of the past but the impact he has on the opposition is splendid. Take a bow man and keep STEYNGUNNING the opposition batsmen !!

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2013, 10:02 GMT

    Steyn's abillity to get late swing makes him a slippery customer to handle. He lets you play balls you could have left as the swing is so late and you feel you need to play the balls as at first glance looks like its heading to the stumps and you might feel that one may just not swing and you get bowled. Add to this the abillity to get seam movement as well and that pace and you have little time to make your mind up to leave or to play. And because he is not that big you cant really leave on bounce as the ball goes through lowish and you never know when you can get bowled. He is a legend in the making if he stays free of injuries and keeps up his wicket taking bowling. All test nations wish they have a bowler like him.

  • Billy on February 6, 2013, 7:41 GMT

    More of these performances from Steyn and less of the wayward inconsistent stuff and he will make his way further and further up the all-time rankings. He has improved his economy rate recently which is a good sign. Calls that he is the best ever currently are ridiculous but they are plausible now depending on his career during his 30s.

  • Amol on February 6, 2013, 5:11 GMT

    In fact...I always feel, Steyn is going to get a wicket for every ball he bowls. Such is his intensity and relentless dedication for every ball he bowls.

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2013, 2:03 GMT

    @samukele really who and when did steyn disrespect any saffa?

  • varsha on February 6, 2013, 1:13 GMT

    @ballonbat - Steyn said what he did because SA culture (unlike the Indian mentality, for example), is not to make stars and cult heroes out of individuals. SA has had world class players in cricket, rugby, golf, swimming, athletics - but you don't see their faces all over the country on TV, billboards etc selling everything from soda to soap. Can you imagine if Kallis played for India? Or Steyn for that matter. They would have had a million times the hype the hoopla surrounding him. Media and sponsors would have made him larger than life in the psyche of the public. SA media/culture/public just does not operate that way, they don't get fanatical and individual success is not celebrated anywhere near team success. In India, many people don't mind a team loss so long as Sachin gets his 100th 100, or billionth run or whatever. So Steyn is not being falsely modest, it's just their mentality not to hog individual credit and distribute praise over the time and not over any one person's ego