A reinvigorated Dale Steyn is relishing the challenge of fighting his way back into contention for a spot in South Africa's travelling party for next year's World Cup. First, though, he'll have to nail down his place in their starting XI in a summer of ODIs against Zimbabwe, Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
"I'm feeling really good," said Steyn three days before the start of South Africa's international summer. "Having played my last game only two weeks ago for Hampshire I feel like I'm going, I'm flying.
"But white ball is a whole new challenge. I've been playing red ball in UK, so white ball is going to be a different challenge. All the skills, batters coming at you, the Powerplays all of that kind of stuff. And I haven't played white ball international cricket for quite some time."
His coach Ottis Gibson holds that Steyn is still "one of the best two bowlers in the country", but 35 is a stately age for an express quick, especially one without much white-ball bowling in his legs in the recent past. The new ball will be difficult to prise from Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi's hands, "and that's good", reckons Steyn.
"It's good to have challenges. I think Lungi and KG would also appreciate the fact that I'm coming back into the side because they would also know that their positions are under threat. We all are. You can only take a handful of these fast bowlers to the World Cup and we're all fighting for a spot."
The galvanising pressure and excitement of a chance to go to England next year will add a little vim to the efforts of the South Africans over the next few months, and Steyn is as motivated as any of them. In fact, he sees it as his job to draw the best out of his team-mates, even as they compete in a zero-sum joust for positions.
"Everyone wants to go to the World Cup and I would love to go to the World Cup, but individually I would love nothing more than to see the Proteas win a World Cup," Steyn said. "And if that means that I don't go, then so be it. I did my job coming in here, pushing guys to perform at their best. Pushing KG, pushing Lungi, pushing Andile, all these guys. I'm just happy to be here, playing cricket, and challenging them."
"It's good to have challenges. I think Lungi and KG would also appreciate the fact that I'm coming back into the side because they would also know that their positions are under threat. We all are. You can only take a handful of these fast bowlers to the World Cup and we're all fighting for a spot." Dale Steyn
In Steyn's absence, Rabada has blossomed into one of the world's best fast bowlers. He's ranked eighth in the ICC's ODI bowling rankings, and second in Tests (Steyn, meanwhile, has slipped to 22nd in Tests and doesn't feature at all in the ODI top 100, having not played for so long). So quickly has Rabada established himself, so full is his mantle with awards already, that it is easy to forget that he is still only 23 and a relative newcomer. Ngidi is younger and greener still, and Steyn urged temperance in the expectations of the fans and the media.
"KG is phenomenal," he said. "Over the last few years, he's won awards that I didn't even know existed. He's brilliant. Lungi is just feeding off that, and he's also great. He's special. He's really young. And the only thing I can ask is that the media and the people of the country just understand that these are two very young men, and they're doing their best to win games for South Africa and they're extremely talented, but they also only have a handful of cricket games between the two of them. So let's not look into it too deeply right now, let's give them the freedom to play and the time to grow because they're special talents."
Steyn would know a thing or two about the harm that undue pressure on the shoulders of a young cricketer can do, having borne plenty of his own early in his career. That is surely just one of many truths he must have learned over his last 14 years as an international cricketer, and while Steyn jokingly accepted the role of mentor that Ottis Gibson has envisioned for him, he's the loquacious type and chatting to his team-mates from mid-off, at the top of his run, or in the nets is something that comes very easily.
"If I'm going to be a mentor they should be paying me more!" said Steyn, with a chuckle. "But I've always been someone who stands at the top of my mark when I'm bowling and I'll talk to the other bowlers. And Morne [Morkel] was also really good at that. Jacques Kalllis, these guys. So I learned from some of the best players in the world. It would be a sin not to pass on that knowledge that I learned from guys like Boucher. Even though he wasn't a fast bowler, you know, we played catch. He was my keeper. If there's anyone who knows my action even better than I know it myself, it would be Mark Boucher. And the conversations I had with him are the same conversations I hope I can share with all these young players coming through."
Steyn hasn't bowled a white ball in an international since he took 0 for 56 from 9.2 against Australia at Newlands almost two years ago. If he has any bad memories from that night, when he also dropped Aaron Finch at third man, or that series (and he can't have had too much fun, averaging 50+ and going at almost seven an over in the ODIs), he's long since forgotten them. What he does remember is that South Africa won 5-0. "It's so bloody long ago I can't even remember it," he said. "What I do remember is that we won five-nil. And it's a team game. And that's all that matters."
Rather more fresh in the memory - and the legs - will be Steyn's time with Hampshire over the last two months. He insisted that he enjoyed his taste of the County treadmill, taking 18 wickets across two formats and managing to stay injury free. Almost.
"It was good to go over and play there, be on the park consistently. You know when you're playing four-day cricket there you play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday you've got Friday, Saturday off and then you start another one on Sunday, with a bit of travelling in between. So you are constantly playing, non-stop. Which is great, because a lot of us play and when you get into good rhythm you actually don't want to wait a week, or five days, before the next one, you just want to carry on going. So it was quite nice to constantly play.
"And I was quite pleased with myself that I managed to get through all of that without really any issues. I had one little groin niggle, which flared up on quite a lot of news sites. The only problem was that it takes 7 or 8 days for one of those little groin niggles to heal, and because of the quick turnaround in terms of games I had to miss a game. But I followed it up again with no issues after that."
Steyn also played four T20s in England, so his mixed bag of limited-overs deliveries should be in good working order and there shouldn't be too much rust to be blown off. All the same, he'll spend the next few days honing his skills and, most importantly, getting his head in the right space.
"In the nets I'll just work on a couple of skills: yorker, a couple of slower balls, and all the skills a fast bowler has in their arsenal. But then it's just mindset. You know, it's getting used to the fact that there is a chance that you could go at eight an over, even 10 an over. A lot of us run in and we think that four and a half an over is perfect. Those days are gone! No bowler runs in and takes 3 for 40 anymore. Bowling in Powerplays is really difficult.
"ODI bowling is really a mindset thing right now. And if you can get into the right mindset and be content with the fact that one day you might go for a 100 and the next day you might be the hero, then you'll be fine. It's just a mindset really when it comes to one day cricket."
That's just the sort of advice he'll be sharing in the nets, too.