There must be a reason why South Africa are knocking teams over for scores normally seen in the first round of a local inter-school tournament. And, in relative terms, finishing matches as quickly. Quite apart from having four batsmen (Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers) who might feature in their all time top ten (now there's a list in itself!) they have three bowlers - Dale Steyn
, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel - who between them take a wicket every seven overs, and are forming a team that threatens to be among the best in recent times (my vote for the last similar trio is Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie).
The leader of their attack sends a tingle down the spine of most batsmen and makes spectators sit on the edge of their seats. It is human nature to underrate the present and grossly overrate the past, but if you outlaw that trait, the time has come to place Steyn among the greatest fast bowlers of the game.
He's going at
over five wickets a Test (323 from 63), averages under 25 (22.67) and takes a wicket in less than 50 balls (40.8). Those numbers for bowling averages and strike rates are acknowledged to be possessed by the best
, and if you add another cut-off (25 Tests, to take away the anomaly of one or two great years only), he makes the top ten on any criterion. (In the lists that follow, I looked at bowlers since the Second World War, since the numbers of those who played before then are terribly skewed, almost suggesting that batsmen took a bat along like a senior citizen might a walking stick: only in case of an emergency!)
So looking purely at strike rates the hall of fame
for fast bowlers has Dale Steyn, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Malcolm Marshall, Allan Donald, Colin Croft, Fred Trueman, Joel Garner, Richard Hadlee and Michael Holding. And if you choose the bowling average as your preferred indicator, the list changes
, but only somewhat. Alan Davidson, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Curtly Ambrose, Neil Adcock (perhaps he wasn't mourned as much as he should have been: 104 wickets at 21), Fred Trueman, Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, Richard Hadlee and Dale Steyn. Only one player who is on both lists is playing today, and he is enriching our game.
There are few sights more thrilling in sport than a fast bowler in full flow running in. And thrilling is only one of many words you could use to describe Steyn when he is in rhythm.
He doesn't look like a gym addict. Indeed, he is more Daniel Craig than Hulk Hogan - wiry and athletic. As were Brett Lee and Malcolm Marshall. And every time I see him, I am reminded of what Michael Holding told me about fast bowling many years ago. He had asked if he could borrow my t-shirt to do a piece to camera (on-air branding, remember!) and when I expressed surprise that a fast bowler should fit into my t-shirt, he reminded me about how fast bowling was not about size but about rhythm. ("Never wore an 'L', Haasha, never," he laughed.) The days he bowled at his quickest was when he didn't realise he was bowling quick, he said.
It is so with Steyn too. Possessed of an action that doesn't place too much strain on him and is easily reproduced, he allows himself to get into an excellent rhythm. And when the ball snakes away from the right-hander at pace, cricket is a game to be enjoyed by everyone but the man at the other end.
It is human nature to underrate the present and grossly overrate the past, but if you outlaw that trait, the time has come to place Steyn among the greatest
And he wants to bowl fast. They are a bit like fighter pilots, these fast bowlers, looking down at anything that dilutes the thrill. (When asked if he would fly commercial aircraft for several times his salary, my cousin who flew MIGs sneered and said, "Anyone can fly that, even the plane itself.") These guys will sneer too if you ask them to run up and bowl medium pace at three-quarter lengths. It is a more comfortable life, like flying a jetliner, but it isn't them.
Many years ago, when Waqar Younis was still a tearaway and one of the great sights in the game, he went to play in England, where the importance of a steady line and length was being impressed on him. "Naw" he said (and he was still shaking his head sideways in the interview, looking back), "I don't do that. I am a fast bowler." Steyn, for all his accuracy, is a fast bowler. It is Philander who does that other job (and mighty well too for South Africa).
And it doesn't seem to matter what form of the game Steyn is playing. His over to Richard Levi
in the last IPL was, to me, the highlight of the event. The ball came fast, straight, and snaked away from the batsman at the very last minute, with the bat, as often happens in such situations, completely irrelevant.
Three hundred and twenty-three wickets don't look as daunting as they might have done when Fred Trueman was huffing and puffing his way to 307. Is 500 possible? Steyn is 30 now, and at a stage when every year matters. South Africa don't play Tests from March to November. Maybe his body will ask questions, maybe he will have to do line and length. Or maybe he will only play for as long as he can bowl fast, for as long as he can be in the cockpit of the fighter jet, and not worry too much about the three-quarter length and about "putting it there" at 132 kph. Till he is doing that, Dale Steyn will be the bowler of his generation.
Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here