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Missing Dale-a in the time of India v South Africa

Scenes from an alternate universe where Dale Steyn is playing Tests, and charging in to bowl at Virat Kohli

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
Dale Steyn gets into his delivery stride, South Africa v India, 1st Test, Cape Town, 1st day, January 5, 2017

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty

He looked so tiny. Until he started running in. Then he was a blur. And so was the ball. Eventually he made his way down to the boundary and suddenly he was larger than life. So close to the crowd and me that the only sensible thing to do was that old third grade trick. "Tell him to tell her to tell him to tell her to tell that guy in the green shirt that I love him".
Dale Steyn was right there, within throwing distance of a piece of paper with the words, 'Will you be my bowling hero?' and yes or no check boxes. The message tree technique wasn't quite as foolproof as I thought. One ill-timed glass of champagne had been enough for it to crash and burn. He was probably too busy to notice anyway.
But maybe now he has a little more time on his hands. Isn't it ironic that the greatest fast bowler of our generation had to retire just when things are starting to get awesome? Helpful pitches. Insane new talents. Riveting head-to-heads. We've already been spoiled rotten but to think we could have had Dale Steyn v Virat Kohli to follow Jofra Archer v Steven Smith... Come on, Dale-aaa. Ambati Rayudu un-retired. Couldn't you? I want to see you at the top of your mark again, and the batsman trying so very hard to look everywhere but in your eyes.
"Okay. A small village's worth of people in the slips." *Gulp*
"Some stragglers in the outfield." *Meh*
"And that vein-popping guy out in the distance getting ready to run straight... at... me..." *GULP*
Everyone has their own reasons to be swept away by genius. And Steyn, in 14 years of playing Test cricket, offered us a free for all. The wickets (439). The skill (an outswinger nicked from the gods). The aura (even the great Michael Holding rates him one of the best ever). The wit (Rohit Sharma: Come to India, we'll show you. Steyn: Shut up, I have more runs than you. Rohit: X-over-mouth emoji. Us eavesdropping: jaw-drop emoji) But for me, the thrill of Steyn was in the anticipation.
Back when I had an arm that didn't turn into soggy rice pudding every time I bowled, I'd go out to the backyard, little brother in tow, to mimic/mutilate his action, his celebrations, his stare, and, on a good day, his vein. There was one time when I rode this high for weeks: the 2009 Australian summer when South Africa went over with Steyn as the ICC's Test Player of the Year, won and then invited them back home for the re-match. That series got done in January and the return bout was only in February and I dragged lil bro out every single evening until eventually he threw his bat into the bushes, picked up a stray rock, drew three squiggly lines on the wall and yelled, "What the eff do you need me for?! Hitting that is all you care about."
I felt a semblance of this rush taking hold again as this India v South Africa series approached. Steyn had broken down again at the World Cup and, until the announcement, everything was lining up to make his comeback perfect. We were all hopped up on quality fast bowling thanks to Archer, Jasprit Bumrah, Pat Cummins and more. And as fun as it was watching the pretenders, I couldn't wait until it was time for the king to reclaim his throne.
It was destiny that it was India, too. This rivalry, though never cutthroat, has been endlessly compelling because it plays out in conditions that are almost always bowler-friendly. And while even the prospect of walking onto those sun-roasted turners at Visakhapatnam, Pune and Ranchi has to be exhausting for most seamers, it seemed the most natural backdrop for a man who has never needed any help from any pitch.
All it ever took to turn Dale Steyn on was putting a cricket ball in his hand.
Now just close your eyes and imagine the first day of this series. India two down early (Che's still at the crease, obviously) and he runs out into the sunshine. That bat is just gleaming in his hands, hungry for runs, and he soothes it by practicing a couple of punchy straight drives. Bam! Four! Bam! Four again!
And over by the pitch, he is impatiently waiting, his body in proper fighting order. It feels like the one that helped him play 85 of the 111 matches that South Africa played since his Test debut in December 2004 all the way up to that day in Perth when he walked away clutching his shoulder. The crowd has gone quiet. The tension keeps building. Eventually that bat starts tapping on the ground and those feet start pounding the turf.
Kohli v Steyn. One of the best now v One of the best ever. And it doesn't even need actual cricket to be gripping.
Would've been nice though. Especially considering the other subplot. It took shape in the West Indies earlier this year. The birth of a new outswing demon. Jasprit Bumrah says he always had it, that he just needed time to polish it so that it fit at international level. Well it does. There's a brow-beaten off stump somewhere in Antigua that is non-living proof of that. How cool would it have been to watch him square off against Steyn? Stupid frail human physiology. You've robbed us of not one but two absolute superstars. Sigh. At least we still have Kagiso Rabada, the bowling armada.
So where was I? Ah yes. Constructing an elaborate alternate universe where Steyn is still playing Test cricket. Come back, Dale-a. I miss you so much I started making weird memes and posting them on reputable cricket websites.
#PostYourSteynMeme #BringHimBack

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo