The human Steyn

Sunday Times


WE give up. Is that Dennis Lillee or Bjorn Borg opening the bowling for SA in Bangladesh? Whoever, it sure as hell doesn’t look like Dale Steyn.

Neither has Steyn looked like Steyn since the start of the World Cup. His tattoos have glared brighter than his eyes and he has bowled like a man who would rather be somewhere else.

But, with his 15th ball of the second test in Dhaka on Thursday, Steyn announced his return. Tamim Iqbal played something that looked more like a man trying to catch a butterfly in a gale than a cricket stroke, and a delivery that had embarked on a full, wide tangent and should have been drilled to the boundary was edged and flew straight at first slip’s sternum.

Hashim Amla cupped the ball with both hands a centimetre or so below his beard. The rest was history.

Strangely, given the cartoon madness he has conjured more or less 399 times previously, Steyn did not trumpet his 400th wicket.

Instead, he flipped off that nerdy headband – an upgrade, believe it or not, from the dinky little Alice-band he wore briefly in the first test – said something to the stands or the sky or no-one in particular, raised a hand snarkily to the same, and awaited his teammates’ congratulations.

They arrived in a flurry of smiles and slaps. Steyn accepted them without fuss as he stood there, his pale, almost blank face framed by limp bangs of sweaty hair.

That would have pissed off Faf du Plessis – “I want to see those veins popping. I’m always on his case if he doesn’t celebrate in that manner.” – and surprised Morne Morkel – “He can go from a calm Dale to a guy I don’t even know, and I’ve been playing with him for 12 years.”

So, what was that all about?

“It’s pretty cool to take a wicket and get the headband off and the hair out,” Steyn told a press conference. “I think I’ve taken some abuse about my hair. Funnily enough, it doesn’t influence the bowling at all. So, I guess, shut up.”

Ah. That’s what it was all about: Steyn being Steyn, a cricket immortal who refuses to be anything more than mortal.

Most cricketers click through the cliches in their press conferences, desperate to veer away from anything that could be construed as interesting. Steyn peppers his pressers with profanity and the crackling honesty of a bloke you’ve bumped into in a bar and are unlikely ever to see again.

Most cricketers on tour in places like Bangladesh venture out of their luxury hotels only to train and play. In Chittagong, Steyn took to a rainswept street in a baseball cap, wifebeater and shorts to play football with the locals. He was barefoot. He was beautiful. He was befok.

Most cricketers are not Dale Steyn; a person first, a player second.

This is how we will remember him once the tattoos sag: as the cutter and not the cookie. Unless he goes all Clive Rice on us.

Isolate Rice as a player and you see one of the best. Look at him in the fullness of his world, before and after he bestrode the game, and you see a man who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand that his privilege and others’ subjugation was vital to his making and their failing.

If Steyn, who despite everything lives in a sadly similar South Africa to the one that created Rice, does not yet know this, best he learn quickly.


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