Dale Steyn had made a promising start to his Test career in 2004. By the time New Zealand visited South Africa for a two-Test series in 2007, he had 51 wickets from 13 Tests. A wicket every 46.5 deliveries. A very healthy strike rate, but nothing the cricketing world hadn't seen before.
The touring New Zealanders themselves had a tearaway pacer - Shane Bond - who had a much better start to his career. At the end of the Test in which Bond completed 50 wickets, his strike rate was a phenomenal 37.30. Mohammad Asif too had completed 50 Test scalps a week before Steyn, striking every 42.1 balls on an average. Steyn's strike rate of 46.5 early in his career was very good, but not extraordinary.
What followed in the series against New Zealand was every bit extraordinary. Steyn took 20 wickets at a measly average of 9.20. His strike rate of 16.80 was a throwback to the era of uncovered pitches. The only bowler to better Steyn's performance in this series was from that era was George Lohmann, who took 35 wickets at a strike rate of 14.80 during England's tour of South Africa in 1895-96.
That series marked the beginning of the bowler Steyn was to become. In 50 matches starting with that series, Steyn took 272 wickets. Only three other fast bowlers enjoy a more productive run in their best sequence of successive 50 Test matches in terms of wickets.
Only one among the 50 bowlers who have taken at least 200 wickets in successive 50 matches have a better average than Steyn's. Waqar Younis, with a strike rate of 38.70, and Steyn at 39.80 are the only bowler who struck more frequently than every seven overs during their best phase.
It wasn't that Steyn was an ordinary bowler outside those 50 Tests. In the rest of his career, Steyn took 167 wickets at a strike rate of 46.60 and an average of 25.70 - good enough to be among the best bowlers from his era.
Since 2000, only Kagiso Rabada has taken 150 or more wickets at a better strike rate than Steyn's. Which is why overall, Steyn ends up above Waqar in terms of overall strike rate. No bowler with at least 200 Test wickets has had a better strike rate than Steyn.
Steyn's ability to run through batting sides was the highlight of his career. Amazingly, it didn't come at the cost of control. At his peak, Steyn was more miserly than his contemporaries were. From the start of the New Zealand series in 2007, when he took the first of his five ten-wicket hauls, until the India tour in 2015-16, Steyn took 351 wickets at an average of 21.43 in 68 Tests.
No bowler with even just 50 Test wickets (not even 20 wickets) in that period averaged lower than Steyn. He was the second highest wicket-taker during this phase too: only James Anderson took more wickets than Steyn did in those eight years. However, Anderson played 23 more matches for 15 more wickets.
South Africa's tour of India in 2015-16 was possibly the beginning of the end of Steyn's illustrious career. He pulled up with a groin injury in the first innings of the Mohali Test and missed the remaining three Tests on tour. In eight years before that series, Steyn had missed an equal number of matches out of the 71 South Africa played. Beginning with that India series, Steyn managed to make appearances in only 12 of the 39 Tests that South Africa played until his retirement.
It was ironic in a way that the curtains were starting to come down in India. He'd enjoyed tremendous success there, his previous two visits produced 26 wickets at an average of 22.23. In fact, Steyn's record in Asia is among the best for any pacer with 50 or more wickets in the region. In terms of strike rate only Waqar and Richard Hadlee did better in Asia.
Overall, Steyn was almost as good away as he was in South Africa. Among bowlers with at least 200 Test wickets, only 12 have managed to average under 25 both home and away. Eleven of them began their careers, and played most part of it, before the turn of this century. The 70s and the 80s saw Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall ply their trade. The 1990s had three of those 11 in Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose and Allan Donald.
Glenn McGrath's career spanned across the turn of the millennium. The twelfth in that list is Steyn. The only one among them with his career spanning entirely in the 2000s. Steyn racked up numbers that would arguably compare with the best in the golden age of fast bowling. Think again if you reckon that he was among the best - if not the best - in just his generation.
Steyn was a matchwinner to boot. His ability to win matches for his team is evidenced by the fact that 22 of his 26 five-wicket hauls came in wins. No other pace bowler in Test history has more such hauls in winning causes. In terms of percentages of career five-wicket hauls coming in wins, only R Ashwin matches Steyn among 23 bowlers who have taken at least 20 five-fors in their career.
*Min. 20 five-wicket hauls
One could argue that Steyn owes much of his bowling record to a strong South Africa pace attack that he bowled with for most parts of his career. It may have been so, but he more often than not outperformed his mates to leave his own imprint.
Steyn averaged nine runs fewer than the rest of the South Africa bowlers in the Tests he bowled in. Among those to take at least 300 Test wickets, only three bowlers outperformed their team by a bigger margin. Those bowlers were arguably the leaders of weak bowling attacks. It was perhaps easier for them to stand out. Not so for Steyn. Think again if you are of the opinion that Steyn's greatness as a fast bowler is limited to only his generation.
*Top average difference among bowlers with at least 300 Test wickets