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Dale Steyn - Destiny's Forgotten Child

Aditya Balaji
CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
18 Jul 2017, 22:32 IST
2nd Sunfoil International Test: South Africa v New Zealand, Day 4 : News Photo
Dale Steyn – the true fighter

In 2008, Yomahesh of the Delhi Daredevils dismissed Sachin Tendulkar in an IPL match. It was the perfect climax to Yomahesh - The Untold Story, the biopic of a young, hard working medium pacer finally getting the better of the batsman he had grown up watching.

2011, Cape Town. Sachin looked uncomfortable not once, not twice... but for an entire session. At one point, the battle seemed to have ended with Tendulkar nicking an out-swinger. But as fate would have it, replays revealed that the keeper had grounded the ball.

Honours were shared as the batsman got a century to his name, and the bowler, a five-wicket haul.

The batsman went on to win his 200th and last Test match, his last ODI, his last IPL match and his last World Cup.

But the bowler wasn't exactly Destiny's Child.

He, Dale Steyn, wasn't biopic material.

2014, Johannesburg. Steyn achieved a feat every fast bowler secretly fantasises about - he hit another fast bowler over his head for a six. The fact that it was the last ball of the Test match only added to the theatrics. But as Steyn walked off the ground, he looked like he'd been handcuffed and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The crowd booed him off the field for a six too late, while retired cricketers criticised him for choosing to go for a draw. He had denied his country a rare victory chasing a 450+ score in the fourth innings. And he couldn't be forgiven, even if he got a 50 and a match haul of 10 wickets in the next game. Which he did.

Make no mistake, Steyn is a highly regarded figure in cricketing circles. Averaging five wickets a Test, he is the bowler who appears in every captain's dreams. That he has the pace of Johnson, the swing of Anderson and the control of Harris is to quote a common cricket fan's quip.

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But when one thinks of the major embarrassments in sport, Steyn features in the top of that list as well. Be it the mauling in IPL colours at the hands of AB de Villiers or Robin Uthappa, the length ball he bowled to Grant Elliott to bid the 2015 World Cup goodbye, or the remark, "I don't want to waste the few deliveries I have left in a Bangladesh match" - on the same Bangladesh side which ended up winning 2-1 - Steyn has seen it all.

Also read: Dale Steyn - the best in the business of 'pace'

And on 4th November, 2016, we witnessed an embarrassment which could have meant curtains for the speedster's career. Pumped up against the Australian side, the 33-year-old bowled what was, in hindsight, an ill-advised spell of super-fast short-pitched bowling, one which David Warner gleefully feasted on before getting dismissed. While Steyn was partly saved the blushes with South Africa pulling things back, he hurt his shoulder, and with it, his chances of bowling for his country.

1st Test - Australia v South Africa: Day 2 : News Photo
The career-ending moment?

But call it immaturity, egotism or just poor judgement, this was probably the best way Steyn could have ended his career. His time out of the game will not be an effect of political whims or sub-standard performances. He will be out of action because he went down doing what he did best - fighting.

True, the South African team might be in shambles without their premier fast bowler – something he should have considered before launching his all-out pace attack. But Sachin batting at No. 4 was also not always what the doctor ordered. Players tend to trust their gut. Sometimes, they are proven wrong, but that is part of the game.

Most of us do not need to look past Steyn's determined eyes to fall back in love with him. The ones who do, only need to wait for his delivery stride. It is one he has optimised with almost research-level complexity to generate maximum pace without stripping his action of its grace. It is like the batsman is on a date with a well-dressed cannibal, someone he wants to touch and admire. Yet he wishes he was more than 22 yards away, because the creature is going take his life very soon.

South African cricketer Dale Steyn (R) c : News Photo
Steyn celebrates one of his many wickets in the 2008 series against India

The first time I fell for Steyn was when he helped rout Team India in a Test match in 2008. To say that I fell for him, though, would be an exaggeration. It was more of a grudging respect I developed for him after he demonstrated that the batting heroes of my country were fallible.

Also read: Dale Steyn: Revisiting a modern day legend's career through pictures

This respect grew, still grudgingly, when he defied pitch reports in Nagpur, 2010, claiming insane figures of 7-51 on a track which was said to offer 'nothing' for fast bowlers.

And while he might have been booed for his batting at Johannesburg, Steyn played a perfect second-fiddle role to JP Duminy in 2008, lifting his team out of a hole at 190 odd for 6. Their effort was instrumental in Graeme Smith's South Africa beating the Aussies in their backyard. That wasn't believed to be possible until then.

Like his contemporaries, Mitchell Johnson and Zaheer Khan, Steyn follows the typical fast-bowler's Code of Conduct, aggressive and unforgiving on the field, yet pleasant off it. His game of street cricket with kids in Mumbai while being sidelined by the Gujarat Lions, the valuable titbits he shared with young pacers like Nathu Singh, and his continued practice of his old profession, fishing, allow us to imagine that the bowling machine with four hundred plus wickets is indeed human.

Yes, Steyn's career throws up way too-many what-if questions - not a good situation for a biopic. But these questions form the perfect basis for a fan-fiction novel. And maybe, the fact that the 34-year-old’s career graph has been dissected and extrapolated by fans all over the world, makes him more of a legend than anyone else in the game.

This sure isn't the story of a one-year wonder. But this also isn't about a good swan song artist. This is a tribute to a fighter, who, as we saw, was willing to die fighting.

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