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It took a girl of no more than ten years old to cut to the chase of what it means to be Dale Steyn. "How do you manage to have fun and look so angry at the same time?" she asked him earnestly at a sponsor's farewell before South Africa flew to Australia late in 2012 to defend the No. 1 ranking earned so emphatically in England a couple of months previously.
How indeed? Not for Steyn the despising sneer of Allan Donald, Makhaya Ntini's brooding brow or Shaun Pollock's cool detachment from the blood-in- the-boots business of fast bowling. Instead, like some demented cartoon elf, Steyn's eyes flash frequently with dark wonder at the fact that he is armed with a skill that could kill.
Everyone who faced him in South Africa's Test series in England survived to tell the tale, but only in a manner of speaking. Fifteen times he dismissed his quarry. And he did so as he always has, with deliveries that seemed almost unfair. How could they swing so sharply at such extreme pace? Their violence was clinical, just like his career strike-rate of 41 balls per wicket - bettered only by four men, including team-mate Vernon Philander, in Test history.
Two other factors played a part as well. One was the almost other-worldly experience undergone by Steyn and the rest of the squad before the tour, with South African explorer Mike Horn in the Swiss Alps. Clambering over mountains and glaciers, they appeared to stumble across aspects of their characters they never knew existed. The other was the cruel fate of Mark Boucher, whose career was ended when a bail hit him in the eye on the first day of the trip, at Taunton.
"Going to Switzerland was a revelation for us, and the Mark Boucher incident left a deep impression," says Steyn. "I probably realised things aren't as bad on the cricket field as I sometimes make them out to be."
In short, reality bit like it had rarely bitten before. They stopped being a mere team, becoming instead a band of men united in a cause. "Something changed," he says. "I definitely saw that. There's great bonding and camaraderie between the guys, and it showed in England. We can handle those tough times because we can overcome them."
It was earlier on that fateful day at Taunton that Steyn laid down his marker for the bigger battle to come. He took the new ball, and his first delivery hooked away wickedly from Arul Suppiah's bat. Steyn completed his follow-through with a forlorn raise of the hand, as if to say: "If only he was good enough to get an edge."
Several of those who tangled with Steyn in the summer were indeed good enough - and they paid the price. After crucially halting England's serene progress on the second morning of the series, at The Oval, he took five wickets in the second innings on a pitch still lacking demons, as South Africa dispelled bumptious English doubts about whether they belonged on the same field. Another four crashed in the first innings at Lord's, among them the linchpin wickets of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott; between them, the pair fell seven times to Steyn in the series.
To see him slay another victim with what seemed an utter lack of effort was to see a man live up to his billing. Quite simply, he looked like the world's best fast bowler, and performed accordingly. More than that, he looked as if he had been doing so for most of his life. He is, it has been said before and will be said again, a natural - a bundle of fast-twitch fibres and aggressive intent lurking in a body perfect for its role.
It's hard to imagine that DALE WILLEM STEYN was not already a fast- bowler-in-waiting when he was born on June 27, 1983, in Phalaborwa, a town of fewer than 13,000 souls, in the rural north-east of South Africa. But much needed to be done if he was to fulfil that destiny as spectacularly as he has. Throughout his career, he has been among the best conditioned of South Africa's players; happily, serious injury has left him alone. But the confident, wisecracking athlete he would become is a far cry from the unsure young bowler he once was.
Initially, Steyn seemed spooked by his own powers, hesitant to let fly with all the velocity he had at his disposal. This was most apparent in his first three Tests, against England at home in 2004-05. He bowled tentatively, taking eight wickets at 52. The eight no-balls he sent down in nine overs in England's second innings at the Wanderers sealed his fate: he was dropped.
Perhaps it was not the done thing for country kids to hold the spotlight on the world stage. It was certainly not the done thing for them to play cricket at a high level. But Phalaborwa is also a place of extremes: its open-cast copper mine is, at almost 2km across, Africa's widest man-made hole, and summer temperatures reach 47 ̊C. Steyn's confidence duly caught up with the rest of him. Soon, the man emerged in full.
An important moment arrived shortly after lunch on the first day at Centurion against New Zealand in November 2007, when he put opening batsman Craig Cumming in intensive care with a delivery that hit him in the face and caused 23 fractures. Steyn made a cursory check on his prone opponent, turned on his heel, and went back to his mark to await his next target.
In March 2008, in his 20th Test, Steyn reached 100 wickets more quickly than any South African. A month later, the ICC put him on top of their bowling rankings, where he has remained. He was also the ICC's Test Player of the Year in 2008. Those are the prizes of his carefully aimed anger. Off the field, he has a penchant for retro trainers, fishing, and midnight dashes for ice-cream. That's where the fun comes in. But don't be fooled.