A day before the start of this ODI series, South Africa had a long training session. Towards the end of it, Dale Steyn went in to bat, and struggled. The metal stumps were rattled at least once, the attempted big hits didn’t go far, and the timing just wasn’t there. Steyn’s cursing of himself reverberated through the empty practice facility at the Wanderers. As he was leaving, clearly frustrated with his batting, he absolutely demolished a set of stumps in one of the nets with his bat. His coach and other support staff were there, and his captain was there. Nobody spoke a word. They all just quickly stepped aside.
Steyn was angry, no one wanted to bother him, but they must have known it was a good space for Steyn to be in before a big series. It works with Steyn. He once said, jokingly, if somebody ever manages to make his friend and team-mate Morne Morkel angry, he will become the best bowler in the world.
Steyn has let out all that anger on the white Kookaburra in this series, which has conveyed the message to the India batsman. In 15 high-quality overs, he has conceded just 42 runs, and taken six wickets. More importantly, by the time he finished his first spells, the matches were over as a contest. For a young batting unit with little experience of these conditions – an A tour on flat pitches cannot count – it is quite possible Steyn has left a few intimidated. And Steyn says that he has seen that in the batsmen’s eyes.
Alternatively, in Steyn’s eyes you can see that he knows he has the batsmen at his mercy. That he can continue to play with them. Wickets are important, but he is not desperate to get them immediately. Going past the bat, or bowling bouncers that the batsman can do nothing to, is giving him as much joy. “I’ve got you now. You’re mine,” Steyn once said of the helplessness he sometimes spots in the batsmen’s eyes. Sometimes torturing the batsman for a period in the public eye can leave a deeper scar than actually getting him out first ball.
Steyn did that to Rohit Sharma in the first match with his searing quick outswingers. For 15 deliveries Rohit couldn’t touch the ball. He knew he couldn’t chase them. When he tried, he was beaten. The pace had been set. India were now chasing the game. For a shorter period in the second game, Steyn did the same to Ajinkya Rahane. This time with bouncers. They were quick, they were high, but not higher than the shoulder. Steyn was telling him, “Go ahead, try to hook them. If you don’t, I will keep bouncing you, and you won’t even get a no-ball.” What do you do to such bowling if you haven’t been facing such pace and skill all your life?
Hard as it is to believe, this is a new start for Steyn. He has played just 79 ODIs. In the past, Steyn has been used sparingly in ODI cricket by South Africa. They usually keep him for big events such as the World Cup. Which is why this year, with 27 wickets at 15.85 and an economy rate of 3.65, has been his most successful in 50-overs cricket. There is a clear shift in the philosophy. South Africa want Steyn in ODIs, even bilateral series. They might rest him in dead rubbers, but they want him to be part of the core group as they approach the World Cup.
It is going to be a refreshing change in the world of right areas that ODI cricket is. Steyn doesn’t just run up and put the ball in the “right areas”, he goes out there to attack the batsmen. There can be days when he gets too full or too straight. There can be days when the pitch might be a little flat and slow, which makes his natural, aggressive length hittable. Like it happened in Gwalior when Sachin Tendulkar hit the first ODI double-hundred. Steyn went for 89 in his 10 overs that day. The theory that Steyn might not make that good a limited-overs bowler was perpetuated by his first two or three years in the IPL.
However, when South Africa’s ODI ranking began to fall – even as they became the best Test side in the world – they began to preserve their best bowler a little less. Not that they might need to: Steyn is one of the fittest athletes in cricket today, and his action is so pure and smooth he is the least likeliest of the fast bowlers around to get injured. His inclusion back into the ODI side has given South Africa something other teams lack: a genuine strike bowler you absolutely need to play out for little returns if you want to keep wickets in hand.
The results are there for all to see. South Africa can now afford to rest him for the inconsequential third ODI, but Steyn’s importance to the ODI side, and ODI cricket in general, has been established. It might help South Africa further if every now and then their bowlers in the nets keep pinging Steyn’s stumps.