TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
NEW Zealanders knew Dale Steyn would become Dale Steyn before he did – before he had the tattoos, the eyes, the hairstyles, the attitude and most of his test wickets.
They knew it at Centurion on November 16, 2007, when one of their opening batsman, Craig Cumming, had the bones in his face broken in 23 places by a Steyn bouncer.
Steyn himself was first on the scene of the crime. But not for long: he came, he saw the blood, he was conquered by what he had done and turned away.
Sixty-seven of his 82 tests, 349 of his 406 wickets and nine-and-a-half years later, you get the feeling Steyn might whip out a straw and slurp up the blood he spills.
Steyn has built his success on more than skill, speed, swing and skid.
Were his gifts limited to those he would have been a fine fast bowler. But he has added to them the kind of aggression that could wipe the smirk off Jacob Zuma’s face.
That has earned Steyn cricket’s rarest achievement: to be garlanded as great before the end of his career.
For most of Steyn’s time as a test player South Africa have leaned on him to be the bad guy.
Seldom will that have been as true as in the test series against New Zealand that starts on Kingsmead on Friday.
South Africa have won only one of their last 10 tests, consequently crashing from No. 1 to 7 in the rankings. Steyn has missed six of those games through injury and, at 33, he would seem to be saddling up for the sunset.
Those are compelling circumstances for drama in Durban, where Steyn will want to be the sharp edge of South Africa’s axe.
“For his own self-confidence Dale has to produce in this series but he’s definitely got what it takes,” former test fast bowler Brett Schultz said. “He’s the best thoroughbred fast bowler we’ve produced.”
Was the absence of Steyn’s fire a major missing part of the South African puzzle last season?
“Hundred percent,” Schultz said. “Fast bowlers lift their own sides and create tension in the opposition, a feeling that something’s going to happen.”
Schultz knows of whence he speaks, having scared the bejaysus out of batsmen in 60 first-class matches – nine of them tests – from 1990 to 1997.
“The best fast bowlers have always had aggression,” Schultz said. “Some have it in their demeanour, some in their verbals, some in their bowling style.
“But they’ve all been aggressive. Without aggression there is no fast bowling.”
New Zealand coach Mike Hesson, having presided over his team’s 2-0 thumping of Zimbabwe this month, would agree.
“A lot of our players naturally play an aggressive brand of cricket,” Hesson said. “Our job as support staff and leaders in the group is to make sure we don’t dampen that down.
“If someone’s able to get their best level of consistency by playing an aggressive brand of cricket then I’m all for it.
“You pick players because of what they can do. You don’t pick them and then try change them and get them to suit your style.”
Neil Wagner, for instance, was a bouncer bazooka in Zimbabwe and took 11 wickets at 17.
But South Africa are not Zimbabwe, perhaps the least aggressive team in cricket.
New Zealand, meanwhile, are following the trail blazed by Brendon McCullum at the 2015 World Cup.
Stand back. We don’t know how big this fire will get.