SA need to think beyond declining Steyn

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

IF Dale Steyn wasn’t Dale Steyn he would be ridiculous. An almost 32-year-old skater punk who puts more ink than skin on display and harbours penchants for profanity, petulance and peacocking? Grow up already, Peter Pan.

But he is Dale Steyn and that makes him magnificent, a tattooed matador who instead of bulls slays batsmen with a flourish of personality and aggression in lieu of a cape and a sword.

Thabo Mbeki was president when Steyn became, officially, test cricket’s top bowler on March 4, 2008. He is one behind James Anderson as the leading wicket-taker among current players despite having bowled more than 1000 fewer overs than the Englishman.

“Dale has reached the stage where he understands every bowler he bowls with as well as his own bowling and his own body,” former SA bowling coach Vinnie Barnes said.

A fast bowler for the ages, that’s Steyn. But he also an aging fast bowler. Or, as Barnes said, “He’s just got to get through the next couple of years to maximise his position.”

In his last 20 test bowling innings Steyn has finished wicketless four times, just as often as he has taken at least five. He ought to have been SA’s spearhead at the World Cup. Instead he was the shaft of a splinter-prone spear.

Further evidence of Steyn’s human frailty came this week. “At this stage of my career I’d rather be saving myself to go and participate in the major tournaments rather than wasting the few balls I have left in my career in a Bangladesh match,” he told a website, Wisden India, to explain why he preferred to opt out of the limited overs component of SA’s tour to Bangladesh in July.

A good many of Bangladesh’s population of 157-million administered a virtual smack upside Steyn’s head for that. But the lesson was not learnt.

“I see some people have misunderstood what I said in a recent interview,” he tweeted. “Sorry if u feel offended, now go re read and try understand. Peace”

Oh, the hubris. Steyn should heed the cautionary tale of Kevin Pietersen’s sad skulk into the shadows – those who tout as their chief virtue an ability to play sport well are tolerated only as long as they do so.

And soon SA must replace the declining Steyn, not yet in the attack but as its leader. Is Morne Morkel hard-arsed enough? Vernon Philander is, but will he do the business when the ball is old and the pitch is flat? And how will Steyn accept the truth of his twilight?

Barnes knows how Steyn feels. As the fastest, fiercest quick the non-racial Western Province side put on the park in the 1980s, he took 323 wickets, a half-dozen 10-wicket hauls among them, in 68 first-class matches at 11.95. Smokin’, or what.

“I felt there was a responsibility on my shoulders to go out and win the game for my team and to get the other guys to bowl as a pack,” Barnes said.

“All I wanted was to get the ball in my hand and take wickets. If I went two games without getting somebody out I wanted to quit the game. But you learn that there are days when the batsmen decide to keep you out, days when other bowlers take the wickets.”

Who steps into the breach Steyn will leave?

“Morne Morkel,” Barnes said. “He’s not that nasty but he has earned a lot of respect in the Proteas’ environment. Morne takes fewer wickets than Dale or Vernon but his input into the team is phenomenal. It’s not all about going onto the field and bowling at 140kph.”

Damn straight. It’s also about magnificence and ridiculousness in unequal measure.

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