The last that Dale Steyn bowled in an international was way back in 2019. In that Port Elizabeth Test, the right-arm express pacer emerged wicketless. Not a pleasant sight. Since then, he’d never recur on the pitch. That’s two and a half years of not being witness to a charisma who was born to disturb the team at the wicket, bully them with sheer speed being a force of nature sworn to destruct batsmen.
Ever since then, what’s followed for the fan, one who seeks delight in shattered stumps, not long sixes that travel miles, and irrefutably, the triumph of the ball over the bat, has been a waiting period.
A period of two and a half years of waiting to see express pace and faultless consistency take centre stage in a batsman-favouring game.
Sad and heartbreaking it is that this enormous period of wait shall now, for times to become, be an endless ordeal for Dale Steyn, the man who until the end of his journey, remained dedicated to fight for the art of bowling, has called time on his career.
Any chances, whatsoever, of seeing the last appearance, that last mighty encounter between a man running with prancing horse-like pace to pulverize batsmen with fear is never going to happen.
While his fans will remain hurt for time immemorial by the prospect of never bidding adieu to one of cricket’s finest athletes- Steyn himself- you are compelled to think, wouldn’t be so emotionally absorbed.
Was he not an emotionally expressive cricketer?
Truth be told, there have been few sights in the sport that are as powerful as Dale Steyn approaching the popping crease.
The throbbing veins, the chiselled arms, the rush and hush and sheer volatility with which batsmen have hurled the deliveries at- we are going to miss all of that.
As would South Africa’s greatest exponent of reverse swing, albeit in a restrained manner.
For in the last half a decade, Steyn became more of a rudderless ship, often directionless, stifled with injuries than with a vision, playing a lot less than the peak Dale Steyn did, performing at high output and stump destroying velocity in 2013, 2014, 2016 even.
If you take 2016, 2018 and 2019, his last three years of operating at the Test level, Steyn played just 11 games. Faf du Plessis, a close friend and contemporary, during this period starred in 25 Tests that’s more than double of Steyn’s tally.
In a sport defined by acrobatic fielding efforts, the craftiness of batsmen, brute pace and the guile of spinners, Dale Steyn’s career offered insight about a disclaimer we tend to undermine:
“Attention: delicate frame, handle with care.”
It posited increased focus on the dangers and vulnerability bowlers face, every now and again, especially when contesting with blitz pace.
And Dale Steyn, a true worshipper of speed, was an uncompromising athlete, a visionary fast bowler who’d have felt lifeless if he were to eschew pace even if that would’ve elongated his journey for South Africa.
He was a hero for a Proteas that longed for the next great adventurer in fast-bowling after Donald and Pollock retired and the likes of Andre Nel proved more interested in philandering rather than exploits on the pitch.
With a greater game awareness than Fannie de Villiers, being feistier than Donald, and as adept at swing and seam as Pollock, Dale was the rattler of the batsman, the reminder to those who lorded with willows that fear would strike them next ball.
That the pendulum would continue to swing the bowler’s way for as long as Dale Steyn was around.
During India’s last tour to South Africa, the Wall was breached a few times as was the Master beaten by sheer pace. At Port Elizabeth, India ran into peak Dale Steyn, their 136 all-out being largely due to Steyn getting Sachin and Sehwag early.
Even as India won at Durban thanks to a very very special one from Laxman, Steyn was the attacker and tormentor eating on his own a fancy-looking top order, removing Vijay, Sehwag and The Wall on his own, the trinity making 69 runs among them.
Mot would remember, to this day, VVS Laxman’s joie de vivre 96, but will also nod their head in admiration of just how Steyn set up India’s unsung hero, who ended up offering catching practice to Boucher.
In the first inning, before he enforced an error from Dravid, who played at the one offered on off, the right-hander was set up too, offered a flurry of shorter deliveries and some that were pitched short of good length at the middle.
Yet, Dale Steyn, now 38, was more than just terrifying speed, the torchbearer of pace alongside Starc in the post Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar and Shane Bond-era.
There was more to him.
He was a clever operator who could extract bounce on flat tracks assisting batsmen and could york on slow surfaces with ease that would drain out bowlers.
One of his most exasperating deliveries in ODIs ever, that format where he ends up only four shy of 200 wickets, was a wicketless delivery to Kieran Pollard, circa 2010.
In an ODI at the West Indies, Steyn hurled a ripper that pitched around the leg stump before landing on the middle, oscillating 5-15 degrees mid-air to serve the Trinidadian a cocktail of perfect line and length.
If you had to master Steyn, you had to be the world’s greatest batsman.
Think Tendulkar in the 2011 World Cup on way to his magnificent century versus the Proteas.
When the little master wasn’t even in double figures, Steyn offered a probing delivery pitched perfectly between middle and off at good length, only for Tendulkar to guide to an off-drive.
Most others, the then out-of-form Dhoni would’ve played a defensive stroke.
Or to succeed against this opponent with a crocodile-like desire to eat up batsmen you had to be a superstar that could swallow him altogether.
Think AB de Villiers in his six-hitting spree in the IPL contest of 2012. With 39 needed of 18, Deccan Chargers thought they had the game when they offered Dale Steyn to have a go at AB. Except that it was AB who had a go at the Steyn-gun, torturing the mighty bowler who bowled every single delivery of the 17th over at over 140 k/hr.
But even as he went for 23 in an over, a talking point back in that era, Steyn wasn’t fuming; he actually joined both hands in admiration to celebrate someone who was more than his contemporary at that point; an opponent.
Steyn personified cricket at its best, underlining the fact that it often ebbs and flows but that’s what it is in the end.
It’s about playing for a cause, admiring the feat of your nemesis if it comes to that.
This is why there’s little surprise that in the final chapters of his great Test journey, which ends with a massive tally of 439 wickets, Steyn took Rabada under his wings.
He mentored him. He nurtured him. A white South African offering tutelage lovingly to a rising black cricketer in an age defined by increasingly pathetic accounts of racial disturbances.
Oh, it was beautiful, if not surreal. Shows South Africa can- and must- overcome the divide for which Artificial intelligence or facets like voodoo magic cannot be blamed.
And yet despite doing it all, Dale Steyn, it appears, was always willing to be celebrated ever so little.
At the conclusion of his 7-51 at Nagpur, where a typical sub-continental wicket was excited and exploited by Steyn’s nagging pace and accuracy, the man decided to laud Amla instead, the man who made 253 in that very game, reserving ever so little about his contributions that helped Proteas crush India in India.
One doesn’t quite know what’ll hurt the fan more- is it the fact that we saw little of a Dale Steyn gunned down by injuries so often that when 600 wickets, much like Jimmy were in reach, he ended with a few less than 450 or is it that Steyn, despite his shining consistency for 17 years, ended up minus a world cup?
Maybe in some questions that’ll never receive potent answers rests the enigma of cricket’s heroes. Maybe it’s the ‘what-if’ that adds more magic to what’s already been unfurled by their absolute devotion to the game.