The Fast Bowler’s Who Had No Business Bowling Fast
Wasn’t that him, was it? That was the case. Many people who were out late on a summer Friday night didn’t recognize him as they walked from restaurants to bars to who knows where else. But he was the one who said it. Dale Steyn was standing on a downtown Perth corner as November 4, 2016, drew to a close.
For someone who had just broken multiple bones in the same shoulder for the second time in 13 months, as well as ripped muscles in his chest, arm, and back, he appeared to be in shockingly good health. He was in good enough shape to strike up a conversation with a couple of South African reporters who had passed him by.
Happy Birthday to one of my all time best.A Pakistan legend, one of the greatest all-rounders of all-time and an inspiration for fast bowlers everywhere!
— Pratik Aryal (@im_pratikaryal) October 5, 2021
The only indication that something was wrong was the sling that cradled his right arm across his chest. And then there were his eyes, which were unnervingly soft and apprehensive. Batters have stared fearfully into Steyn’s eyes for years. That night, looking into his eyes felt like seeing the fear return to its source.
Steyn did not come into the world as a fast-bowling champion. Instead, he appeared to be a regular guy who could bowl incredibly fast, with verve and swerve, as well as great skill and aggression. That night in Perth, he was undoubtedly confronted with the reality that, despite so many years of strong indications to the contrary, he was just like the rest of us.
Even more so: the next guy doesn’t rush in and bowl with all his might, ball after ball, over after over, spell after spell, day after day, match after match, series after series, and season after season. It’s not the responsibility of the next guy to wake up in a world of pain. Steyn may have allowed himself to fantasize on that particular night.
He made his Test debut in December 2004 and bowled in 82 of South Africa’s 105 Tests before suffering his first shoulder injury – bowling against England at Kingsmead in December 2015 – in just over a dozen years. That’s a little less than 80%.
From then until August 2019, he would play in only 11 of South Africa’s 35 Tests, accounting for less than a third of the total. Steyn was unaffected by anything other than the blood-in-the-boots bowlers’ ailments from the start of his career until South Africa’s tour to India in November 2015.
Then everything happened in quick succession. Or at least enough, and quickly enough, to make him reconsider his decision to make living bowling fast. A significant groin injury in India was followed by two shattered shoulders and a heel injury that tore the tendon clean off the bone against India at Newlands in January 2018.
It’s possible that this was always going to happen. Steyn had no business selling speed, let alone becoming the best of his generation’s speed merchant. He didn’t have much going for him in terms of physicality, with less than six feet of height and a body to match.
He certainly wasn’t Allan Donald, let alone Joel Garner. That didn’t disqualify him – he’s a centimeter shorter than Malcolm Marshall and four inches taller than Robin Jackman – but it did add to the difficulty of competing against bowlers like Morne Morkel, his cricket teammate.