Dale Steyn: The fastest, the fiercest, the greatest
"Oh, got him, yes, he has!"
That's how Mark Nicholas described Dale Steyn's famously celebrated wicket of Brad Haddin at Port Elizabeth in 2014. But in hindsight and in the truest sense, Steyn got us all, he bowled us all, and yes, he did enjoy getting us all out.
Test cricket, or cricket in general, can be defined in many ways like resilience, determination, patience etc. But to be described as poetic it needs to be at its imperious best, and believe me, it was at its imperious best when Dale Willem Steyn stood at the start of his run-up.
It felt like an event was about to happen; catastrophic if you were a batsman but joyous if you loved the purity of the craft of fast bowling. Dale "Gun" Steyn didn't just bowl fast, he embellished and enriched the art of fast bowling.
It is taken for granted that Steyn is an all-time great of fast bowling. But how do you define greatness? Is it the number of wickets or the number of matches the player has won for his team?
Even though both are important parameters, they don't quite do justice to someone like Steyn. Greatness according to me doesn't depend on stats; rather, it depends on the impact a player had on the game or the impact a player had on a particular aspect of the game itself. And no other player has had an impact on the art of fast bowling in the 21st century like Steyn.
Steyn was cut from a different cloth. He was a cut above the rest. He was the only one of his generation who could swing at pace; real pace. At any given point of time, he could just charge in like a cheetah and jump at the batsman like a spitting cobra.
Bowling 150 clicks in the first session is a norm, but bowling it throughout the day? That takes some energy, and Steyn had that. He literally terrorized the batsmen, and it didn't matter if they were good or a great.
Steyn played against some of the all-time greats in his prime. I still remember him knocking over Sachin Tendulkar with an outswinger at Nagpur. Whether it was with his 10-for at MCG or his brilliant five-wicket hauls at Ahmedabad, Steyn was always ahead of the curve.
A player no less great than James Anderson himself accepted that Steyn and Glenn McGrath are better than him. Coming from someone who is the most prolific Test bowler in history with 575 wickets in his kitty, and on the verge of breaking the 600-wicket mark, that is a huge compliment.
Many people compare Steyn with Anderson, but is that fair? Anderson is also an all-time great but has he had the kind of influence on the art of fast bowling that Steyn has had? Has he brought a new a zeal to a dying art?
Just consider for a moment that Steyn was the premier fast bowler in the hardest format of the game for more than half a decade. His stats stand at 439 wickets in 93 Tests at a mind-boggling average and strike-rate of 22.95 and 42.39 respectively.
Even though ODI stats don't define the overall quality of a fast bowler because of the dominance of batsmen in those formats, Steyn thrived there too. He picked up 196 ODI wickets in 125 matches an impressive average and strike rate of 25.95 and 4.88 respectively.
In Asia, which is considered to be hell for fast bowlers, Steyn excelled to such an extent that he turned the sub-continent into a fast Perth pitch for himself. While all of his contemporaries struggled badly in Asia, Steyn picked up 92 wickets in just 22 matches there at an average of 24.11 and strike rate of 42.9.
By contrast, Stuart Broad - who surpassed Steyn recently - averages 38.14 with a strike rate 81.6, Mitchell Johnson averages 40.36 with a strike rate of 80, and Anderson averages 31.25 at a strike rate of 70.2.
When Steyn was at his peak, between 2007 and 2016, he aggregated 385 wickets in just 76 Tests (second only to Anderson who picked 424 wickets but in 107 Tests). The South African averaged 21.17 at a strike rate of 40.5 during that period, which was the best for any bowler in the world (minimum 80 wickets). It's no wonder South Africa dominated Test cricket in terms of win-loss ratio during that period.
The stats put Steyn amidst Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram and Glenn McGrath, and those were yesteryear legends who played in an era where wickets were bowler-friendly. Steyn on the other hand played in an era where batters carried trunk-sized bats to 60-meter boundaries and regularly hit the ball out of the park even in Test matches.
As the saying goes, a great in one era would be a great in any era. Steyn wreaked havoc in this century, when the margin of error has been smaller than ever. Imagine what this beast would have done if he had bowled in the eras of Allan Donald, Imran Khan or Michael Holding.
There was a great cricketing romanticism in watching Steyn look at the red cherry and gently hold it at the finger-end of his right hand, maintaining that gap between the palm and the ball for the swing and seam position. When he started running, it felt like watching a meteoroid travelling in space. And on a lot of occasions, that meteoroid hit the stumps behind the man standing at the other end holding a piece of willow.
After getting a wicket the master fast bowler would be seen doing his iconic celebration of jumping in the air and clenching his fists, with the veins throbbing in his neck like they would explode any second.
Watching Steyn bowl was an experience; it was beautiful and elegant, even though it was also lethal. Watching him running up to the crease to deliver thunderbolts was as exciting and exhilarating as it is to jump off a cliff. It was a sight to behold.
Steyn resembled a floating entity in space, and his movement gave people an impression of weightlessness. It was quite simply, poetry in motion.
Now that Steyn has announced his retirement from Tests, cricket has lost a piece of its soul. It will take a long time for the void to be filled.