It took India's batsmen just a couple of hours on the opening day of the Test series, in Centurion
, to figure out how they would deal with Dale Steyn
. They wouldn't. Four of the top six averaged over 50 in Tests, while the figure for VVS Laxman was 47. Yet, one spell was enough to figure out that taking Steyn on wasn't an option. Limiting the damage that he did would henceforth be the key to their series hopes.
It was a sensible decision that allowed MS Dhoni and his men to walk away with a share of the spoils. Yet, despite taking next to no risks against him, Steyn was still, by a distance, the bowler of the series. His 21 wickets
cost just 17.47 apiece and he averaged one every spell (35.4 balls).
His domination of Virender Sehwag was as one-sided as Zaheer Khan's roughing up of Graeme Smith, and he was no less effective against India's other batting titans. When a stirring Indian fightback gave them a slim chance of a draw in the opening Test, it was Steyn who summoned up a spell of supreme menace to break the game open. The delivery that ended Dhoni's resistance late on the fourth afternoon was clocked at 144.9kph and was on him so fast that he did well to fend it through to Mark Boucher.
, where he took 6 for 50 in the first innings, and Newlands
(5 for 75 in the first), Steyn was again imperious, but there was far more to his bowling than the figure in the wickets column. He beat the bat too many times to count, reducing even someone of Sachin Tendulkar's calibre to wry grins and sighs of relief. At one point in Cape Town, he walked down the pitch and politely told Tendulkar that he would "knock his ****ing head off".
That spell in Cape Town - it speaks volumes of Tendulkar's genius that he made 146 against such a magnificent foe - was as good as any you'll see. It offered pretty much the complete fast bowling package. Beautifully controlled outswing, nasty bouncers at the body, the ball cutting off the seam, and stealthy increments in pace when you thought he was just about spent.
Those who grew up in fast bowling's golden era between 1974-75 - the year in which Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson terrorised England en route to a 4-1 Ashes victory - and the turn of the new millennium frequently bemoan the decline in fast-bowling stocks. They have a point. How many of today's West Indian quicks would have been good enough to carry drinks in the era of the fearsome quartet? How many of Australia's current crop are even half as good as Jason Gillespie, let alone Glenn McGrath? What's Wahab Riaz doing in a team that could once boast of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis?
Only in the case of English cricket can you say that things are better than they used to be, though Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick would no doubt argue that they would have been as effective as James Anderson in key matches if they'd had a similar sort of support structure in place.
You look around now, and Steyn apart, there's not one pace bowler you'd think of as an automatic pick for the pantheon. Morne Morkel, his new-ball partner, remains erratic, while Anderson and Stuart Broad have yet to ace the fast bowler's toughest test: a tour of India. Zaheer Khan has carried India's attack for four years, bowling some inspirational spells, but given the fitness issues he has had it's hard to see him carrying on for more than a couple of seasons.
Across the border, the Mohammads, Amir and Asif, have all the tools to succeed, but not the guidance off the field to utilise them properly. Amir, whose effervescence lit up a gloomy English summer before the no-ball shame, had the potential to be as good as Steyn, combining searing pace with controlled movement.
For the moment, though, Phalaborwa's finest is out in front on his own. After 46 Tests he has 238 wickets, at a strike rate (39.9) that's superior to anyone else in the modern era. And while sheer pace has played its part, it has gone hand in hand with an incredible ability to make the ball do his bidding. At Kingsmead he was asked how much skill it took to bowl the way he did. "A lot," he said with a big grin.
In a conversation with Sanjay Manjrekar, I asked why several young batsmen who appeared at ease in the one-day arena struggled so in the five-day game. "Simple," he said. "There, you don't have to face the prospect of Dale Steyn bowling three hostile spells at you in a day"
Those who watched his debut series, when he was as scattergun as Morkel is now, will remember the delivery to England's Michael Vaughan in Port Elizabeth
; the ball that marked him out as one to watch. He has come up with it time and again since, including to Vaughan again, at Lord's
in 2008. Poor Cheteshwar Pujara got one in Cape Town, pitching on leg stump and poised to take out middle and off if his pads hadn't come in the way.
It's the sort of delivery that coaches usually tell bowlers not to even try. Get it wrong and the batsman will clip you for four through midwicket. Get the action even slightly wrong and four byes down the leg side are a near certainty. Yet Steyn serves it up regularly, pitching it on leg or middle and swinging it away from the right-hander. When it doesn't uproot the stumps, it usually takes the outside edge, as Rahul Dravid found out in Durban.
Unlike Morkel, who gives you plenty to leave because of his height, Steyn specialises in making batsmen play. In that, he's remarkably similar to Malcolm Marshall, another who wasn't especially tall, but whose skiddy style made him a handful on every kind of surface.
In six Tests in 1983, Marshall took 33 Indian wickets
at 18.81, striking every 40 balls. Steyn's strike rate in India after five Tests is 34.5
, and when he gets it right, as in Nagpur in February 2010, batsmen make a beeline for the non-striker's end.
Like Allan Donald, the other great fast bowler South Africa produced in the post-isolation era, Steyn is far more comfortable in the Test arena than in coloured clothes, where the various restrictions stifle him. In a conversation with Sanjay Manjrekar a few months ago, I asked why several young batsmen who appeared at ease in the one-day arena struggled so in the five-day game. "Simple," he said. "There, you don't have to face the prospect of Dale Steyn bowling three hostile spells at you in a day."
He didn't say "fast bowler". He said "Steyn". From the rhythmic action to the way he works a batsman over and then gets him out, Steyn is now the gold standard for pace. Since Marshall's heyday, we've seen a few. Wasim came closest in terms of hustle and variety. Waqar shone in patches but was never the same once he hurt his back. Curtly Ambrose was impossible to face on his day, but took longer to line up his victims.
Some credit goes too to the South African selectors and their management of his precious talent. In six years, he's played just 44 one-day games. Contrast that with someone like Ishant Sharma if you want to know why each Indian pace-bowling hope ends up a flash in the pan.
Ian Chappell talks of how Lillee used to go into a funk if you tried to take the ball off him. Steyn is the same, and at one press conference during the India Tests, he spoke of begging Smith to give him "one more". It's that durability and hunger, as much as the skill, that makes him the perfect role model for any aspiring quick bowler. Watch him while you can. There's no one like him.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo