Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st Test, Galle, 3rd day July 18, 2014

'Absolutely useless' to absolutely ruthless

Steyn didn't rate his performances in the 2006 Sri Lanka tour too highly. Today he showed what a master craftsman he has become since

Dale Steyn produced a magical spell. Again © AFP

The reason travel remains the best teacher is because it tends to debunk myths we are led to believe are universally accepted practice.

In South Africa, throwing the gates open for free for all five days of a Test match is not the done thing because it is seen as devaluing cricket as a product rather promoting the game or trying to solve the problem of empty stadiums. In Sri Lanka, that has been happening for the last two years. In South Africa, a typical match-day groundstaff consists of a head curator and at most a dozen assistants. In Sri Lanka, it involves many more. And then there are the covers.

In South Africa, there are a handful of protectors whose main purpose is to keep the pitch dry. In Sri Lanka, they are sponge mattresses concentrated on the 22 yards and metres of tarpaulin draped over the entire field.

They are designed that way because it tends to rain harder here than in South Africa, albeit sometimes in short bursts, the drainage is not as good here as in South Africa and there are what seem to be strict instructions not to let so much as a droplet onto the surface. Especially not against South Africa.

The Galle groundstaff took immense care to keep the pitch as parched as possible. Not so much as a puff of white had appeared in the sky when they went on standby. The two snaked rows on either side of the field stood like men on the starting blocks of race, ready to charge as soon as needed, cover in hand. They obviously knew what they preparing for because that whisper of cloud turned into a full blown scream minutes later. The pitch heard none of it. It was safely sealed before the first rain drop had hit the ground.

All that effort was supposed to frustrate and ultimately negate South Africa's pace pack but they barely seemed to notice. For them and specifically for Dale Steyn, it was business as usual with the short ball - a delivery that is not supposed to be as effective in the subcontinent as it is in South Africa - and his inspired spell which combined variations in length with reverse-swing could yet prove decisive in the context of the series as a whole.

South Africa's first major incision was made moments after the brief shower. Before it arrived, Morne Morkel was peppering Kumar Sangakkara with back of a length deliveries, one of which hit him on the chest. The eight-minute break must have eased the pain and the memory because Sangakkara seemed to have forgotten about it when he returned and Morkel dished up another. Sangakkara went after it and played on. Sangakkara's fury was Steyn's cue to fire.

New captain Hashim Amla spotted the right moment to bring Steyn back on and did. Mahela Jayawardene got a delivery which combined some of Steyn's other impressive qualities: the ability to go fast, furious and full. It was quick, nipped in, almost yorker-length, directed at the stumps and the soon-to-be-retiree could not get to it before it thundered into his pad. The seconds between the appeal and Billy Bowden raising the crooked finger saw flashes beamed from Steyn's angry eyes. But the moment the digit was visible, those gave way to pure delight. That was the wicket Steyn wanted because it closed a chapter, eight years after the book was first opened.

Both Sangakkara and Jayawardene had been dismissed which meant that despite Sri Lanka's solid start, there would be no repeat of the 624 runs they put on the last time South Africa played them in a Test series on the island. Steyn was the only bowler of the current attack to have featured in that match, which was also on his first tour away from home.

Makhaya Ntini remembered Steyn travelled to Sri Lanka in 2006 with something to prove about pace both because he had built his reputation on it and because that was what young South African quicks were expected to do. In the first match, Steyn and everyone else were mere sideshows but in the second, Steyn took his first five-for on the road.

Back then, he employed an aggressive strategy with a healthy helping of short balls - not the common recipe for success in Sri Lanka but one that produced the cake anyway - although Steyn admitted there may have been a sprinkling of good fortune involved. "I thought I was absolutely useless back then," he said. "I was just bowling as quickly as I could. Now there is a lot more thinking and planning that's involved."

That was evident in the spell after tea. South Africa had spent the closing stages of the second session containing as the ball got older to set Steyn up for an attack. He began with a series of short balls to test Thirimanne. He punched the first one to point. He shuffled across to fend off the second one. He was surprised by the pace and width of the third and almost lured into an edge.

Steyn had sussed him out with that delivery and discovered which bait he would need to use. At the start of the next over, Steyn bowled it quick and got it to swing away. Thirimanne bit and de Kock collected the takings.

Then Steyn had to start again. A new batsman required a new plan and he started by going full to Chandimal. He drew the outside edge with the second ball and tried to use the reverse swing he had found to sneak through defenses with the third. And the fourth. Chandimal got behind the fifth and sixth but refused to play the seventh, which was outside off. So Steyn went back to default. The eighth was short and Chandimal pulled - straight to short midwicket.

With those two wickets Steyn had defied the conditions by using the short ball to snare batsman in the subcontinent. With the next one, he used the conditions to his advantage. He had seen evidence of reverse swing when he began his assault and used it to find Dilruwan Perera's inside-edge and end a spell that was as magical as they are supposed to be. 5-2-8-3.

That was not the doing of someone who craves nothing more than a need for speed. It was the work of a master craftsman who understands that talent and skill has to be paired with tactics and strategy to being success.

Travel has taught Steyn something too but it also has not made him forget what he already knew. He is still fast, he is still furious and he still gets five-fors.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent