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How good was Dale Steyn, the white-ball bowler?

He's been among South Africa's most successful short-format bowlers but his brilliance in Tests eclipsed the rest

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Who remembers Steyn's last-over heroics against New Zealand in the 2013-14 World T20?  •  Getty Images

Who remembers Steyn's last-over heroics against New Zealand in the 2013-14 World T20?  •  Getty Images

Remember the time Dale Steyn beat Rohit Sharma's bat 15 times in a row? In an ODI? When Rohit finally made contact, he got a jeering round of applause from the Wanderers crowd and a sneer from Steyn.
Remember the time Steyn defended six off the last over in a T20I by bowling five dot balls, taking two wickets and effecting a run-out to keep South Africa in contention for a semi-final spot at a T20 World Cup against the team that had knocked them out of a major tournament three years before?
No? Of course you don't.
Because the name Dale Steyn is synonymous with Test specials like Nagpur 2010 and Galle 2014. You remember a South African quick who bossed the subcontinent like no one else. You remember a red-ball magician who could swing the ball both ways, rip out the stumps, and stare down the batter for good measure during and after. You remember the scary eyes that speak, as Hashim Amla put it, of a spirit strengthened by the simplicity of humble beginnings and hard work; a bowler who broke the South African record for most Test wickets, at first with unmatched skill and in the end through sheer determination to fight back from a shoulder injury; you remember a champion cricketer in whites.
Inevitably, that means his shorter-format game pales in comparison. The most memorable moment of Steyn's white-ball career, which ended with his retirement announcement on Monday, came from the depths of despair at Eden Park. He lay on his back, his left hand cradling his head, his right outstretched to meet Grant Elliott's. The South African-born Black Cap would pick a tearful Steyn up off the ground amid a million what-ifs.
What if Steyn had bowled that last ball fuller? Or shorter? With only four runs to defend, why did he choose hard length for Elliott to get under and hit over long-on for the six that put New Zealand in the final and South Africa out of another World Cup?
To some degree, we can understand why Steyn bowled the ball he did. The yorker hadn't worked earlier in the over when Daniel Vettori made room and steered it to third man, and if Steyn missed - a distinct possibility because the ball was wet - the straight boundary was so short it was an almost certain maximum. We may never know why he didn't default to the bouncer, which had beaten Vettori's pull, except for the fact that it was not Vettori facing. Steyn had already bowled 8.4 expensive overs and there was a lot riding on the next ball. So much that maybe the what-ifs should be that minute.
What if South Africa had picked a different team? What if they didn't have outside interference in their selection? What if someone else had bowled the fifth over, the one in which Steyn conceded 25 runs? Or what if someone else had bowled the last one? Not a chance, on the last of those. As Steyn himself has said: "I was always going to bowl that over." Whether that was stubbornness or pulling rank, ultimately, South Africa didn't have anyone better for the job.
Steyn's economy rate of 6.45 between overs 41 and 50 in ODIs is the third best among pace bowlers since he made his ODI debut in 2005. Of the 45 seamers who have bowled at least 100 overs in 50-over cricket, only Jasprit Bumrah (5.91) and Mitchell Johnson (6.41) have more miserly numbers. It's an obvious reminder that as a limited-overs cricketer Steyn was better than just good. He was exceptional.
But against the record of his red-ball heroics, his shorter-format game has been overshadowed, even though that was the focus of the last phase of his career.
Steyn retired from Tests in 2019 to pursue a World Cup dream that he has now confirmed will remain unfulfilled. He fell out of South Africa's T20I plans as early as April last year when he was not given a national contract despite making his commitment to white-ball cricket clear. (As an aside, South Africa don't seem keen on offering any of their greats limited-overs deals and neither Faf du Plessis nor Imran Tahir appears to be in contention for the T20 World Cup despite being available). At that stage, Steyn had played in five out of 11 T20Is for South Africa between March 2019 and February 2020 and before that, he had not played a T20I since the T20 World Cup in March 2016 thanks to a spate of injuries, a focus on breaking Shaun Pollock's record as the leading Test wicket-taker in the country, and an unprecedented four-year gap (which has become five-years thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic) between the ICC hosting T20 World Cups.
Still, Steyn remains South Africa's most successful T20I bowler to date, and has the second best death-bowling economy rate in the world. Of the 34 bowlers who have delivered at least 200 balls between overs 17 and 20 in T20Is, Steyn's economy of 7.27 is second only to Bumrah's 7.23. Those numbers only pose more what-ifs. Like, what if Steyn had played more white-ball cricket at more crucial times?
Steyn's first ODI was for an Africa XI, and he did not play ODI cricket for South Africa for about a year after making his Test debut. In the first two and a half years of his ODI career, he only played six ODIs and he was not part of the squad for the 2007 World Cup, where South Africa relied on an experienced attack made up of Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Charl Langeveldt, Jacques Kallis, Justin Kemp and Andrew Hall. In the first six years of his white-ball career, Steyn played in only 55 of South Africa's 120 ODIs and 21 of their 39 T20Is.
Perhaps it was all part of a master plan because, in that time, Steyn enjoyed his two most successful years as a Test bowler - 74 wickets at 20.01 in 2008 and 60 wickets at 21.41 in 2010 - and was part of the South African Test side that reached No.1 in the rankings.
Accidental or not, Steyn's workload management early on would doubtless have played some part in the champion Test bowler he became and perhaps the ODI and T20I team South Africa didn't. The opposite also needs to be considered. If Steyn had been managed even further (or at all, considering that the word only became part of the professional sporting lexicon in the last few years), would he have played even less white-ball cricket and more Tests?
Though Steyn was never one to turn down game time in any format, South Africa could have strategised a situation in which he played at least 100 Tests and pushed for 500 wickets, approaching his career the way England have for Jimmy Anderson, who has not played an ODI since the 2015 World Cup. If that had happened, would the Steyn-Anderson match-up still be playing out on the field today? Maybe, but luck had other ideas.
The first of Steyn's serious injuries was in November 2015 in the series in India, where he only played one of four Tests; South Africa went on to lose their first series on the road in nine years. The second was a shoulder issue later that summer that would go on to blight the remainder of his career and virtually obliterate his white-ball game.
It took Steyn eight months to recover, only to break his shoulder again. Then he needed more than a year to come back. By that point, Steyn was returning for only one thing: to break Pollock's Test record.
His limited-overs participation dwindled to a trickle. In the last three years of his ODI career, he only played 13 ODIs and five T20Is, but his desire to keep contributing never dimmed. And so, to franchise leagues it was, where they got the best of Steyn off the field, but not on it.
Steyn's nice-guy demeanour always lurked in his Test career but blossomed as he mellowed on the T20 scene. Never one to shy away from a chat, Steyn has made a habit of informal mentorship. At the PSL earlier this year, Steyn spent significant amounts of time sharing his knowledge with a clutch of young Pakistani quicks, who relished every second of it. Fortunate for those hoping to learn from him; less so for cricket watchers. The result was that Steyn spent much less time bowling and when he did, it wasn't always with good results.
He played only three matches for Quetta Gladiators, and in his first, conceded 44 runs in four overs, including 21 in his final over when Wahab Riaz hit him out of the park for back-to-back sixes. He improved by the next match, taking 1 for 20 in three overs, and then signed off with 1 for 34 in 3.4 overs in his final outing.
At least the last moments of Steyn's white-ball career were a success, albeit not for South Africa and not in a global tournament. With 24 to defend and two wickets to get off the final over against Multan Sultans, Steyn conceded just one run from the first two balls and had two wickets fall off the next two - a run-out and a catch. Gladiators won their first match of the season. It's no World Cup semi-final, but at least there are no more what-ifs.
If we remember anything from Dale Steyn's 18 years as a professional sportsperson, it will be that. He left it all out there. The emotions, the struggles and, most of all, the success. To borrow from his team-mate Amla again, that reel, on a loop. The legend will always be.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent