The first time Dale Steyn bowled to Ricky Ponting, he was a 22-year-old kid playing his very first game of 50-over cricket for South Africa. He started with a no-ball, and followed it up with a second soon after, then a third, and a fourth, until his captain Graeme Smith finally decided to pull him out of the attack.
Steyn finished with five overs for 58 runs. Years later it wasn’t the pain of how poorly he had played that stayed with him but the way Ponting treated him later on, after Australia had won. He blanked him as they were shaking hands. Ponting, who was already the best batsman in the world, likely didn’t think twice about it but Steyn, who wanted to be the best bowler, never forgot the insult.
“I was furious inside,” Steyn said a decade later. “I was like: ‘I am going to get this guy, I have got my eye on you, buddy. I am coming for you.’” In the next six years, Steyn dismissed Ponting six times, had him bowled, caught behind, lbw – the best of them a duck in the second Test at the Wanderers in 2011, which left Ponting sweating over his place and fretting about his technique. Steyn once said it was the most satisfying wicket he took. “Every time I play against you, I want you to remember who I am,” Steyn explained, “I want you to go to bed at night and know when you are playing South Africa tomorrow you have to face me.’”
Anger is an energy. “Dale,” said his teammate Morne Morkel, “has enough of it for the two of us.” It wasn’t just Ponting, he felt the same way about all the great batsmen. “Ricky, Virat, Michael Clarke, Alastair Cook – I want them to go at night time thinking, ‘Ah, I have to face this guy tomorrow.’” Steyn got Kohli four times, Cook five, and Clarke 10, but then Clarke once made the mistake of calling Steyn a “cheat” during a game at Newlands. Now, after 15 years living inside the minds of the world’s best batsmen, Steyn has finally decided to move out. Last week he quit Test cricket, after 93 matches, with 439 wickets at just under 23 runs each.
Something snapped in 2007. He had already been playing Test cricket for three years, had taken his first 51 wickets in 13 Tests at 30 runs apiece. That winter, New Zealand came on tour. They had a guy called Craig Cumming opening for them. A couple of years earlier Cumming had faced down the fastest spell Brett Lee ever bowled, when a couple of his deliveries had been clocked at 99mph on the speed gun. But Steyn was something else again. Not faster, but harder. “The pull and hook were shots I played through my career,” Cumming said. And he was set, on 48. “Before I knew it, I was taking off my helmet with a bit of blood pumping out my face.”
The harder it got, the more it hurt, the more it hurt, the angrier he was, the angrier he was, the better he bowled
Cumming retired hurt. He played another five years for Otago, but only one more Test. Steyn took 20 wickets in that series, five for 34, five for 59, four for 42, six for 49. It was the cheapest, deadliest bowling anyone had seen in more than a hundred years, since George Lohmann finished. And he was only just getting started.
In the next eight years, Steyn took 351 wickets in 68 Tests, average 21, strike rate 41. Few players have taken as many wickets so cheaply, none have taken them so frequently. And Steyn did it in an era when batsmen were averaging more runs per wicket than they had done at any time since the 1940s, and quicks were conceding more runs per wicket than they had done at any time since the 1920s. There had never been a worse time to be a fast bowler.
Which is why everyone else was fretting about the decline of fast bowling, worrying about whether the pitches were too flat or the bats too big or the workloads too heavy or the schedule too busy or the laws too unfair. It didn’t deter Steyn, but seemed to spur him on. The harder it got, the more it hurt; the more it hurt, the angrier he was; the angrier he was, the better he bowled. It’s why he always seemed to go so well on flat, thankless pitches in the subcontinent. “I always need that fire,” he said. “If anybody tries to extinguish that fire or make me be different, then I am not going to be any use to a team. I need the mongrel, the aggro, in my game.”
He finished as the only man in history to take five-for against nine Test nations, who has, in his time, run through every team he has played against. Five for 67 against Australia at the MCG, five for 51 against England at the Wanderers, seven for 51 against India in Nagpur, he got the better of the best batsmen of his generation. He was too good for his contemporaries, so best measured, instead, against great bowlers who came before him.
Steyn was just a few days ahead of his teammate Hashim Amla, who retired from all international cricket last week. If Amla, who made 28 Test centuries, was one of the great players of his generation, then Steyn was one of the greatest, an unequivocal pick to open the bowling in a 21st-century World XI.