India vs South Africa 2019: Why the hosts would be happy that there's no Dale Steyn in the Proteas' bowling attack
On the first morning of the first Test of an India tour, you could sense some restlessness within the two opening batsmen. Even while training, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir seemed a bit more animated than usual.
Soon the discussions seemed to be over as MS Dhoni’s men, a formidable-looking batting line-up, came out to field first on a February morning at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Nagpur. Dhoni losing the toss meant no Dale Steyn bowling at 150 kmph to Sehwag and Gambhir in the first hour of play.
India were off to a good start; two quick wickets by Zaheer Khan had South Africa looking at a par score. But Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis’s resolute stand of 340 helped South Africa cross the 500-run mark.
How often did we see India struggle in a Test match despite centuries from Virender Sehwag (first innings) and Sachin Tendulkar (second innings)? 'Struggle' was still a small word considering the way Steyn overwhelmed the heavyweights in their own backyard.
A devastating opening spell of conventional swing was followed by a nagging second spell post tea that saw Steyn improve his figures to 3.4-2-3-5. Those five wickets were the result of his relentless ability to bowl at troubling lengths on flat tracks, with a bit of reverse swing and seam coming into play late in the day.
Steyn recorded his best figures of 7 for 51, which later converted to a 10-wicket haul, resulting in a big South Africa win (by an innings and six runs).
Steyn’s record against India wasn’t a one-match outlier. He played 14 Tests against India and took 65 wickets at an average of 21.53, including five 5-wicket hauls. Out of those 14, six were played in India between the year 2006-2018.
In India, Steyn had an astonishing average of 21.38. For a foreign fast bowler to maintain that kind of record against India in India, was unheard of.
We have heard innumerable comparisons between Steyn and James Anderson. Anderson, a 149-Test veteran who is regarded as the best alongside Steyn, averages just 25.98 in his 27 Tests against India. 10 of those matches were played in India, where Anderson averaged a below-par 33.46 while taking only 26 wickets in the process.
In India, Steyn has taken the same number of wickets as Anderson but in four fewer games. The South African adapted to the conditions and pitches and made the batsmen play more deliveries, as he relied more on raw pace on the sub-continent tracks to give him results.
Throughout his career and even before the Test tour of India in 2010, Steyn had taken to the media about his tactics against a star-studded India line-up. His plan was simple: bowl fast and bowl yorkers every now and then.
According to Steyn, a yorker bowled at 150 or 145 kmph was always a lethal option delivering the same kind of results whether bowled in Nagpur, Chennai, Johannesburg or Perth.
Steyn prospered the most under the captaincy of Graeme Smith, who nurtured the paceman’s attacking approach. In the 12 matches under Smith, Steyn took 63 wickets with an impressive average of 20.93.
The longevity of Steyn’s career depended on a lot of factors, fitness being the most important one. The workload of bowling in all three formats of the game, while also playing for domestic and international franchises, took a toll on his susceptible shoulder. Still, 93 isn’t a small number for a fast bowler in Test cricket.
In the words of former Australia cricketer Mike Hussey, Steyn was the most fearsome and most difficult fast bowler he ever faced in his lifetime. Hussey also believes that Steyn’s fighting and never-say-die attitude brushed onto the likes of Kagiso Rabada.
With the Test championship underway, Virat Kohli’s men would be breathing easy looking at a Steyn-less South Africa bowling line-up. But South Africa’s leading wicket-taker with 439 scalps in 93 matches at 22.95 always earned praise from the Kohli, who was happy to see him retire for good.