On August 31, 2021, one of the greatest fast bowlers to have graced the cricket field announced with a tweet and a song that he was done. No more sore toes and broken bones for him, Dale Steyn would tell the journalists who flooded him with emails and phone calls, he was calling time on “20 years of training, matches, travel, wins, losses, strapped feet, jet lag, joy, and brotherhood.”
The statisticians will do the maths on his 439 Test wickets in 93 matches at an average of 22.95 and strike rate of 42.3. They will tell us how many wickets he might have got if he had bowled as many deliveries as James Anderson or Glenn McGrath. Although feared most for his red-ball bowling, he took 196 wickets in one-day internationals and 64 wickets in Twenty20 internationals, to make a total of 699. The tributes will speak of his scary eyes, his run-up that was poetry in motion, his fierce stare, and his chainsaw celebration.
But they might not speak of why he ended up bowling under 19,000 balls in Test cricket. They might not like to write that he did not close his career with a victory lap, but faded away as injury after injury took over a body that was barely built for fast bowling.
Dale Steyn had grown up skateboarding, far from the elite cricket academies that were South Africa’s colonial legacy. As a child, he was unhealthy, in and out of hospitals with allergies. His introduction to the game he would play for two decades came through Baker’s Mini Cricket in his primary school. It was also the start of his athleticism—he became a runner and swimmer. He remained the fastest South African cricketer over 100 metres when he retired, and surfed seas across the world.
Through his teenage, when most aspiring cricketers were lining up for trials in academies that would prune them for national selection, Steyn lived in Phalaborwa in a house bordering the Kruger National Park, wondering whether he should move to America to take up skateboarding professionally even as he played cricket for his school.
It was only after he graduated high school that he spent a year in a local cricket academy, and a coach from Pretoria who saw him bowl spoke to his father about recruiting him for the Titans academy. The family could not afford it at the time, but the coach promised he would find the money. Within a year, Steyn—not even a provincial player at the time—was bowling in a Titans game against the likes of Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher, and was signed up that very evening to play for the Titans. Within seven first-class games, he got a call up to play for South Africa against England in Port Elizabeth. And it was that 2004 Test that would turn historic, marking the debut of Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers.
The story is a romantic one, but it already has the makings of a tragedy. When Steyn was 11 years old, he came back from a family visit in Zimbabwe to find that in his school, “everyone seemed to be playing this crazy sport called cricket”. Within 9 years, he was a star and would play in 82 Test matches over the first 11 years of his career. He played only 11 Test matches in the last four, and there was barely a part of his body which hadn’t been battered. As a youngster, Steyn’s ability to swing the ball caught everyone’s attention. The academies turned him into a workhorse, pushing him to send down ball after ball with unstinting accuracy, uncompromised speed and unnerving aggression.
It paid off. Steyn wasn’t an instant hit, although the wicket of Michael Vaughn on debut would become the stuff of legend, the stump flying through the air after a delivery that can only be described as unplayable. The year 2008 would become the defining one of his career, when he became the fastest South African bowler to reach 100 Test wickets and went on to be named Test Player of the Year by the International Cricket Council. Over the years, he would craft away-wins in England, Australia and India. The high point came in 2012-13, with the Test Championship and his scalp of 300 wickets.
And that is when the injury-free run drew to a close. Over the next two years, he would suffer a groin strain, a side strain, a rib fracture and several hamstring niggles.
Yet, he came back in great form for the 2015 World Cup, which the South African team was pipped to win. On March 24, 2015, as he sank to the ground after being hit for a six by Grant Elliott, it became almost a metaphor for his career. He would never rise again, one felt.
His spirit seemed to give, and the body followed. He missed out on most of the India series and England series, but the nail in the coffin came on November 4, 2016, at Perth. It was the day he was to have broken Shaun Pollock’s record as the highest-ever wicket-taker for South Africa, and the latter—who was in the commentary team at the time—had bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate the handing over of the baton with him.
But the day would end for Steyn with a 150 kilometre-an-hour delivery that saw him taken off the field, the fear his eyes inspired now turned within, as he touched the shoulder he had been worrying about for a year and a half. He appeared with a sling on his shoulder the next day. He would not take the field for two years.
What had begun to fade in 2015 may have died in 2016. He went on to break Pollock’s record before he retired from Tests in August 2019, and hoped to play in the 2019 one-day international World Cup and the 2020 T20 World Cup. But he was injured in the former, and not offered a national contract for the latter.
One might blame the pandemic, but even without it, Steyn is unlikely to have retired on the field.
The story of Steyn is one of glory, but also one of cruelty—what happens to the sportsmen who give their hearts and souls to a game that brings little money in their home countries? With all the money in cricket concentrated in India, Australia, and England, the only career option is to join the lucrative, burgeoning T20 leagues. The batsmen don’t harm themselves as much from throwing themselves into leagues across the world, but imagine the toll on a fast bowler and the pressure of bowling at 150 km/h twenty-four times in a game, through an entire summer. Imagine the heartbreak of wanting desperately to play for fans and country, only to know a shoulder will not allow one to. Imagine saying goodbye on social media, perhaps relieved the pandemic provided an excuse. Imagine being Dale Steyn. At the end of the life cycle of a star.
Also by the author:
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com