The most fascinating of fast-bowlers is the ageing fast-bowler. Often sufficiently elastic of limb to still bowl quick, he is more considered with his use of pace; by now, the reckless rush of youth has spent itself, replaced by an understanding of body, craft, and self.
And nowhere is he more compelling than in the subcontinent. For, nothing examines a fast-bowler as forensically. It lays bare everything — the sturdiness of his action, the extent of his cunning, the strength of his will, the limit of his stamina.
Set to play his third Test series in India, Dale Steyn might sputter at the idea that someone somewhere thinks he is ageing. But it’s what he has done these last three years — and indeed in Asia through his career — that authenticate his standing.
Since January 1, 2013, Steyn has taken a wicket every 40.1 deliveries — better even than his world-beating career strike-rate of 41.5. Not only has he been more penetrative between the ages of 29 and 32, he has also been harder to score off, conceding 2.79 runs per over to 3.24 overall.
In Asia, only Waqar Younis, among the great quicks, has struck more frequently — and it’s marginal, every 38.2 balls to the South African’s 39.7. Just why has Steyn been an outlier? The next month and a bit will present answers.
For, even if he falls short of his staggeringly high standards, it will be revelatory; absence is often an indicator of what has been. But, in any case, Steyn has offered enough already.
It is known, for instance, that he has rare physical gifts. His fast-twitch muscles, essential for explosive power, are very well developed. As, uncommonly, is his endurance. So not only can Steyn bowl fast, he can sustain it.
As he has grown older, he has rationed spells of extreme velocity. He can still hit the late 140s (kmph); he has looked after himself well enough to. But he prefers shades of pace, the low-to-mid 130s to the early 140s, which makes him difficult to line up for the batsman. Not only does it challenge bat-speed, it also makes his effort ball that much more potent.
In Asia, it’s vital to threaten the outside edge with the new ball, when it carries to the slips, and the inside edge with the old, when it’s apt to keep lower. The numbers suggest he has been successful at both: 16 of Steyn’s 54 top-six wickets in Asia have been caught by the keeper (another 18 have been caught, a fair few behind the wicket); and 21 of his 36 bottom-five wickets have been bowled or lbw.
It’s Steyn’s action that allows him to do this. From a supremely balanced run-up, everything directed at the batsman in delivery, he can, through subtle manipulation of wrist and hand angle at release, get the ball to do his bidding.
His out-swinger goes late and he can often start his in-swinger from a not obviously dissimilar line — singular talents both. His ability to draw batsmen out of stable positions when the ball isn’t doing as much — more wispy shape than corporeal curl — is even more arresting: Sachin Tendulkar (Nagpur, 2010), for instance.
The great man had driven an out-swinger skilfully, footwork and arm-flow covering the movement. Steyn bowled another, but widened its arc without swinging it any more than the previous delivery. This he did by shifting closer to the umpire and dropping his length a fraction. Tendulkar came forward again, but the curve fashioned by the change in angle and length had him reaching beyond his means.
Steyn is less round-armed and slingy than the most famous practitioners of reverse-swing, but he seems to get the old ball to duck in just as threateningly. And when the ball is disobliging — rare for Steyn, for he appears to intuitively understand the varying moods of the SG Test, Kookaburra and Dukes balls — he attacks the stumps with sharp off-cutters. Or the shock, skiddy bouncer, all the more dangerous on surfaces that aren’t true.
Given how he has honed wicket-taking to its acutest point, it’s no wonder that Steyn isn’t merely part of the game’s elite; his record says he is the best of the best.