TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg
A nation shuddered when Dale Steyn headed for the dressingroom at Kingsmead in December having sent down only 23 deliveries in England’s second innings.
We had, after all, been shot in this movie before – most recently in Mohali in November, when Steyn didn’t bowl after completing his 11th over in India’s first innings.
At Kingsmead it was a groin problem. At Mohali he broke a bone in his shoulder.
Having spent his first 30 years keeping in check the aches and pains that come with bowling fast for a living, Steyn’s next three years have read like a list of what could go wrong with an athlete’s body.
Was he done? This reporter wrote that he was, and told his beating heart to be still.
Even the most jaded of cricketwatchers have to stop themselves from sitting bolt upright every time Steyn approaches the bowling crease, carried there on the wings of talent, skill, experience and the sheer force of a personality that has remained distinct in a herd of modern players bred as corporatised cardboard cutouts.
Was all that magic about to be consigned to memory?
“It was really a case of two unlucky injuries right after each other – there was no doubt that about me being able to play this game anymore,” Steyn told a roomful of reporters at Centurion on Tuesday.
Minutes earlier he had bagged a match haul of 8/99 against New Zealand, five of them in the second innings to help SA clinch the series.
That helped the home side reclaim two of the rankings places they have lost since January, when they were No. 1. Now, they are fifth.
“It is disappointing to go from the No. 1 team in the world down to No. 7,” Steyn said.
“We lost to England and we lost to India (in series last season) and we are where we are.
“The culture has had a change; I feel like we’re back on the path again.
“Players know what they’re playing for again, where we want to go.
“Maybe after the (2015) World Cup (where SA lost to New Zealand in the semi-finals) we stopped – we didn’t know what we wanted to achieve.
“Why do we want to win games? Do we just want to win a series? What does this mean?
“We needed a bit of something to happen for us to open up our eyes.
“We’re in a great position right now and what a wonderful story it will be, maybe in two years’ time, when we go from No. 7 to No. 1 in the world again.
“That’s the focus. Results like this prove that’s where we want to go.”
What might the future hold for Steyn himself, who on Wednesday went from third place in the bowling rankings to the top?
“I might wake up in a month and I can’t do it anymore,” he said.
“I might wake up in four years’ time and realise I can’t do it anymore.
“This is what I feel like I’ve been put on this earth to do.
“I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can.
“I do not know when to pull the plug or even when that decision will come into my mind.
“The body feels fine.
“There are wickets in the wickets column.
“I’m making batsmen jump around.
“The pace is up there.
And he is six wickets away from surpassing Shaun Pollock’s total of 421 and becoming the SA’s record test wicket-taker …
“I’m not going to sit on my couch when I’m 70 and go, ‘I was the leading wicket-taker’,” Steyn said.
“I really don’t give a shit about it.
“But I will remember tonight.
“I will remember when we beat New Zealand in Durban and we had the whole New Zealand team in our dressingroom.
“We had a fines meeting and everyone was sitting there – great banter, great chat.
“I will remember winning in Australia.
“I will remember winning in England.
“And hopefully I will remember winning a World Cup, too.
“But I will not remember being the leading wicket-taker.”
Bottle those words!
Preserve this man in amber!
Steyn looks stronger than he has done for several seasons and seems chastened by his recent troubles, and he means more to SA now than ever.
Thank the gods, then, for this: he is not done.