When Dale Steyn had Fakhar Zaman caught in the slips in Centurion, he went past Shaun Pollock's 421 dismissals to become the leading wicket-taker in Tests for South Africa. A comparison of the numbers for these two bowlers reveal some similarities, but also a few glaring differences in the way these champion bowlers operated.
For a start, Steyn reached the 421-wicket mark in his 87th Test, which is 21 fewer than the matches Pollock required to get there. Steyn then finished wicketless in his 88th Test to stay on 421, but even at the end of that Test, he had bowled 6646 fewer deliveries (almost 1108 overs) to get the same number of wickets.
Steyn's biggest strength has been his ability to relentlessly attack the batsman and search for wickets, even at the cost of conceding a few extra runs. His strike rate of 42 balls per wicket is the best in Test history, among the 73 bowlers who have taken 200 or more wickets. On the same parameter, Pollock is at a middle-of-the-table No. 35.
However, few bowlers did accuracy like Pollock did throughout his career. Among the 55 bowlers with 200 or more wickets since 1980 - we need a date filter because the rate of scoring was slower in the earlier eras - only Curtly Ambrose and Joel Garner have better economy rates than Pollock's 2.39 runs per over. On this parameter, Steyn is at a low No. 46, out of 55 bowlers (though he has also bowled in an era where run-scoring has been a lot quicker). So while Steyn is about 27% better than Pollock on strike rate, Pollock is about 26% better on economy. Also, Pollock has two more Man-of-the-Match awards.
In terms of Tests taken to reach the 100-wicket milestones, the gap between them has steadily increased. Steyn reached the 100 in six fewer matches, and 400 in 23 fewer games.
Comparing the two along various other parameters, it's clear that there is little to choose between them in terms of averages, though Steyn is clearly ahead in terms of strike rates and five-wicket hauls. Overall, Steyn has taken 29% of South Africa's bowler wickets in the matches he has played, compared to 24% for Pollock, which is another tick in favour of Steyn.
Both bowlers were terrific in Asia, which speaks volumes of their skills. Pollock toured Asia eight times, and averaged less than 25 in six of those series. It was only in his last two series, when he lost much of his pace and penetration, that he struggled for wickets in Asia. Steyn is the leading wicket-taker among non-Asian fast bowlers in Asia, and has averaged less than 25 in seven out of 11 series there.
As a matchwinner, again, Steyn has the advantage, taking 6.5 wickets per Test win, compared to 4.5 for Pollock. Pollock, though, bagged ten Man-of-the-Match awards in victories, compared to nine for Steyn. A Man-of-the-Match performance in Centurion won't be a bad way for Steyn to celebrate a historic game.