'Be absolutely relentless on length' - Dale Steyn on succeeding as a fast bowler in England

The former South Africa fast bowler has some tips for Bumrah, Shami and Co

Dale Steyn
Dale Steyn, one of the best swing bowlers of the modern era, has considerable experience bowling in England, and was part of two South African teams that won Test series there, in 2008 and 2012. He talks to Sanjay Manjrekar about dealing with the weather, learning to control the swing of the Dukes ball, and how India should to bowl to Joe Root and Ben Stokes in their upcoming series.
Get your sweat on
I just went out there and tried to get as warmed up as possible. We'd play a little bit of football, I'd do a lot of running around and get a good sweat on. In South Africa, I usually go out and do my warm-ups and then I want to be back in the dressing room 20-30 minutes before the start of play - I might want to have a shower, relax and get ready for a long day's play. In England, it was kind of the other way around. I'd try and get into the dressing room with about 15 minutes to go to play, so that when I went out there to bowl, I was still a little bit sweaty and good to go and my body hadn't cooled off just yet.
That might sound like we're playing in Iceland. It isn't, but you have to get your body going and I would just bowl, do a lot of running around. I wasn't a big fan of sitting there and stretching for long periods of time, like I was doing yoga or something. I wanted to move around, get the body flowing, so when it was time to go, I was ready and sort of clicked into first gear.
Talk to those who've been there, done that
When I was starting off my first-class career, it was a lot more accessible to get yourself over to England, play a bit of club cricket. I know a lot of foreign players that used to go and play club cricket or got themselves into a county - maybe even play for the 2nds, because they play so much cricket: they are playing five, six days a week. When you're doing that on repeat all the time, you get used to the conditions a lot quicker, you get used to the weather and become acclimatised to everything. Nowadays, unfortunately, it's not that easy, but it just boils down to training, really.
You've got to speak to someone who's been there before, who's done well there, or a coach that's been there. Measure the distance where you think the ball is going to be on a good length, get a cone, put it down, and if the only nets you have are indoor nets, practise as though you're playing at Lord's or Durham or Edgbaston. You just create your own environment wherever you are through the help of other people who have been there. That seems to be the way we do it now. I know when I'm preparing for an IPL or something like that, I'm not in India but I have to go to the nets and imagine that this is where I am and this is who I'm playing against, this is the length that I have to bowl. It's different to bowling in South Africa and Australia. I put my cone down and just try and nail it ball after ball.
If you don't control the swing, it'll run away with you
The Dukes ball does tend to swing more and for longer than the Kookaburra. The Kookaburra swings but really late. You speak to somebody who's probably one of the world's best swing bowlers, Jimmy Anderson - I don't think he particularly enjoys bowling with the Kookaburra. He enjoys the Dukes and he's figured out a way to control that ball. But for foreigners, going to a place like England, you get there and suddenly you're swinging it 10 to 15cm more than the ball you're used to bowling with. Now, all of a sudden, to try and get the ball in the right place is a bit of a mission. So just the ball alone can be quite difficult to learn how to control.
In South Africa we used to try and get a bunch of Dukes down here a month before we were going to England or to India with the SG. We'd start bowling with them to acclimatise our fingers - those seams are very pronounced - and just get used to the amount of swing and the volume of swing the balls actually have in them.
The balls these days, especially the white Kookaburra ball, doesn't swing nearly as much as I found it did a couple of years ago. Then you'll see guys get into a Test match and get this Dukes ball and it's swinging. It looks pretty, but the control is a whole other ball game.
Get that wobble going
In hindsight, I wish I'd taken some of the advice that Kyle Abbott [former South Africa fast bowler] gave me later in my career. I went to England and bowled okay. I wish my stats would have been slightly better, but I found that if I'd done what I did when I was with Hampshire in 2018 and just held the ball more almost cross-seam and didn't worry too much about the swing, the ball was still going to swing. It kind of wobbled a little bit and still swung - and it moved a lot later. It looks so pretty when you bowl these big swingers and the guy plays forward and you're going up, "Ooh he's played and missed" - I'm kinda hoping that every ball he plays and misses or nicks it, so it shouldn't really be a surprise for me when he plays and misses!
So I wish that I'd done that earlier when I was in England. I think I would have found the edge a lot more. The ball wouldn't have swung as much, but I think I would have been a lot more effective in the way that I'd taken wickets. We see guys now and they still swing it beautifully but it almost goes too much. Anderson's a master of it. He swings it, swings it, swings it, and then you just see this wobble seam and it confuses the batter. Then the next one he bowls a big swinger and they chase it and nick it off or something like that. Playing in those conditions, he's obviously a lot more skilled than the rest of us, but I wish I'd done that earlier in my career.
Know where to land it to hit top of off
Jacques Kallis used to say, "What's the game plan for any batter? Top of off or the odd bouncer." In every meeting. It just became like this running joke. And it is the truth - top of off or the odd bouncer is going to do many a batter over. The difficult part is trying to find what length top of off is. Different grounds have different bounce. Some are low, some bounce more, and that's something you have to work out, and obviously why you want to go to a stadium a couple of days or weeks earlier to prep and play a couple of warm-up games to find that length.
I was always trying to look for that length where I was hitting the stumps. I found that if I was hitting the stumps, especially for a batter's first 20 balls, that's where I'm going to cause him the biggest amount of trouble. After that I might want to drag my length back a little so that I can get him more on the back foot and then throw the odd one fuller and hope his weight was on the back foot. But ideally the length you're always looking at is where it's going to be clipping the top of the stumps.
It was more on feel for me. I wanted to feel the ball out of my hand and I could almost close my eyes and feel, yep, that's it, I've got that length, just make a note in my brain that that's where I need to let it go. Not everybody can do that and it's not a very easy thing to coach. However, you get a coach like Ottis Gibson, who was brilliant. You could go to the Wanderers, you could go to Chennai, you could go anywhere and he'd pull out his little book and give you the exact measurements in metres from the stumps as to what length you have to bowl for the ball to hit the top of the stumps. Then he'd go put these little markers out there and say, "Boys, this is your length." You'd be playing in Australia and you would go from Perth to Hobart and it could change by 30 or 40cm, almost half a metre in length, though you're playing in the same country. Ottis was fantastic at making a note as to every ground where you went to what was the length bowlers bowled to hit the stumps - especially in the last game you played there.
Length, length, length
Different batters do different things. You look at Virat Kohli and others - they are coming out of their crease now and they're trying to negate that swing. So it feels like you have to drag your length back, but the moment you do that, the ball is not hitting the stumps anymore.
So you have to find ways of getting the batter back in his crease. You might go two overs or three overs where you go a little bit shorter and you're forcing him to say, "Okay, cool, he's not going to go full, I'm going to have to go back in my crease." And the guys at point or square leg will send a message to mid-off or mid-on to tell the bowler that the batter is batting a little bit out of his crease or he's batting deeper in the crease.
For me, I always felt like it didn't matter whether the batter was coming at me or going deeper in the crease. I still needed to hit the stumps. I needed to find the length that was going to hit the stumps because regardless of where he was batting, if the ball wasn't hitting the stumps, my bowled or my lbw was out the window. Then I'm only looking for one mode of dismissal and that's not what I was about. I was always looking for caught behind, lbw and bowled. So then I'd have to figure out a way of getting the batter into a position where I could find that length again.
I think just being absolutely relentless on length will be the biggest thing. In England, it really always boils down to length. The pitches aren't particularly fast, so when you drop it a bit short, it does tend to be a bit spongy and a little bit slower. Glenn McGrath was absolutely relentless in bowling that length. He made you play every ball. You just felt that every ball he bowled, he was in business and you were in trouble, and that's why he was so successful.
India's pace line-up: plenty in the quiver
I like what they have got right now. All those bowlers bring something different to the party. My advice is to stay fit. Five Test matches - that requires a lot of bowling. It's a lot of wickets to take, and if you're going to rely on your seamers to do a lot of bowling, you have to stay fit.
I like Shardul Thakur. He does swing the ball beautifully, and when he learns how to get the ball that stays straight on batters, that's when he might find a lot more edges. He's another guy like Tim Southee that can swing it beautifully, but he needs to learn how to bowl that kind of scrambled ball that just holds the line and he can find the edges.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar is fantastic. He can bowl in any ground in the world and he could be successful because he bowls such a wonderful length. He can swing it and he's got the skill in his wrist to be able to seam the ball too. India have all the arsenal they need.
Mohammed Siraj is somebody who could come in. I think he brings a good attitude to the game. That's another thing we tend to forget when you're playing in England conditions. It's not just about where you put the ball but also the attitude you bring, getting in people's faces, making them play shots they don't particularly want to play - I think Siraj is somebody who can do that. I saw parts of that little bit of fight when he played in Australia and I immediately knew he's going to have a good Test career. Don't forget about the attitude of a fast bowler too. Maybe that's something India would have really relished in the World Test Championship final, but it would have come with the sacrifice of some more runs.
Umesh Yadav - quick through the air, swings it beautifully. And then you can decide whether it's Umesh or Mohammed Shami you pick. For me, they do a similar kind of thing - similar heights, both swing the ball. It just boils down to who's bowling better in the nets, who's higher in confidence, in the better mental space.
How to deal with Stokes and Root
Against the best players in the world, you almost have the same plans - Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root, AB de Villiers, you're looking to get them out with those three modes of dismissal, lbw, caught behind and bowled. You throw in the odd bouncer every now and then.
You just become aware of where they like to score their runs. Root might score more runs through third man, so you might go, "Okay, we don't need the cover [fielder]. We're going to put him in gully". I'm not going to say Root is a nick-off candidate, but a lot of the ways I have seen him get out are caught behind or caught at slips, especially in England, where there is a bit of cloud cover. In the three Test matches I have watched so far in England this year, the ball has been swinging. Probably the one area I'd focus on primarily is to get him out caught in the slips or caught behind.
Ben Stokes - depends on what mood he's in! Such a good player. I know that when we played against him, we liked to come around the wicket at him. He's comfortable against right-arm seamers coming over the wicket, so coming round the wicket and trying to straighten the ball was an option we liked. But it depends on what kind of mood you get Ben Stokes in. If he's in a free-scoring kind of mood, he could score really quickly, but he'll give you chances. If he's in a defensive kind of mood, he can knuckle down. Not in the way Cheteshwar Pujara does, but Stokes puts a lot of value on his wicket.
It might come down to the spinners
Maybe it's out-of-the-box thinking here from me, but I think we're putting a lot of emphasis on the seamers when someone like R Ashwin might be the biggest key for India. As these five Test matches go on, I think spin will be the difference. Ashwin is the kind of bowler that bowls tons and tons of overs. Teams like England and Australia, who are so good at playing seamers and seamer-friendly conditions, don't tend to play spin particularly well. So Ashwin might be the biggest trump card that India have going forward. And the same thing for England - can they find somebody who can spin out Rishabh Pant? So it might be the fight of who the better spinners are in the series.