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Rags to riches for boy from bush who is a fast learner

Dale Steyn has come from nowhere to be the world's No 1 paceman. Relaxed off the pitch but fearsome on it, he will be South Africa's danger man against England. By Stephen Brenkley

Four years ago, Dale Steyn could barely afford a pair of cricket shoes. He was the kid from nowhere who had been picked for South Africa's Test team and he was ill-equipped in almost every sense.

"I had one pair of shoes and I had to buy them myself when I first started playing internationals," he said. "I just didn't have the money for more than one. I was begging Shaun Pollock for a pair of shoes."

The one sense in which Steyn was abundantly equipped was that of raw talent and he arrived in England last week as the world's top-ranked fast bowler. He has 30 pairs of cricket shoes "all stacked up and ready to go" in a bedroom of a new house in Cape Town which is specially dedicated to cricket.

Steyn is slightly under 6ft, fast, very fast, swings the ball away late, very late from the right-handed batsmen and has the breathtaking ability to come up with deliveries which would take any wicket on the planet. This has usually involved swing or sharp seam, all at something well above 90mph, clattering into off stump.

In that first Test, against England in Port Elizabeth in December 2004, wearing that pair of shoes, he did for England's captain, Michael Vaughan, in such a fashion. He has done it again since and the fear for England this summer and for Australia later in the year is that he will keep doing it.

Of course, the tourists are talking him up. He is the leader of the four-man pace attack upon which they are relying overwhelmingly to beat England. By and large, they expect Steyn to knock over a couple with the new ball and then to mop up the tail.

The figures of recent vintage are fairly eloquent, without the need for verbal support. Since last October he has played 12 Tests in four countries and taken 78 wickets at 16 runs each, almost a quarter of them bowled.

He is a bowler at the top of his game and this was amply demon-strated in South Africa's last series, against India in March, when he took 15 wickets in the three Tests including eight at Ahmedabad when the home side were bowled out for 76 after winning the toss. He is as fearsome on the pitch as he is gently relaxed off it – a proper fast bowler.

As the evidence of his lack of footwear indicates, Steyn is far from the stereotypical middle-class white South African brought up in the lap of privilege, an image which perhaps persists in British minds. The nowhere he hails from is Phalaborwa in the high north-east of South Africa, the product of a family with an Afrikaans name whose first (and only) language is English.

Copper has been dug from the ground there for 1,200 years and his father worked in the mine. The chances are that son might have followed father, as he readily concedes. England, then, is not the only country where if you shout down a pit, up will come a fast bowler. In that sense Dale Steyn is the new Harold Larwood. But Phalaborwa is on the edge of Kruger National Park, which also makes Steyn a country lad.

There was always something different about the young Dale. "I just wanted out," he said. "We came from Zimbabwe way back and my whole family lives in the town now. Something just struck me that I didn't want to do this, that I didn't want to be like everybody else. I was completely different to everyone in the family, the only guy who went to a hostel, the only one who didn't want to live at home."

Steyn is a natural athlete and if he had not had the talent to bowl as fast as anybody on the planet he might have prospered at something else. His dad was a greenkeeper for a while and the son was, briefly, a formidable golfer. But, then again, he might never have managed to leave his small town and the bush where he spent his formative days.

That cricket grabbed his attention was probably down to a school teacher called Vaughan Wright, who told him that if he wanted to play cricket seriously he had to move away to school.

He went to Johannesburg, 350 miles down the road, when he was 12 years old. A fellow pupil was the younger brother of Graeme Smith, now the captain of South Africa. The arrangement lasted for a term, then Steyn's family came for him. "They wanted me back home, they missed me so much."

But young Dale still wanted a way out and he next went to a school 75 miles away, where he stayed in a hostel during the week. At weekends he played club cricket and it was clear then that he had something his peers did not – raw pace. It remains cricket's most potent weapon.

"But it never crossed my mind to be a cricketer," he said. "I wanted to be a photographer. I was in this small town and that was that. I wanted to leave but if I could get to school about 120 kilometres away from my home town it was going to be a lot more difficult to go the next 400 kilos to Johannesburg and I didn't think it was ever going to happen."

Steyn finished high school and went to the small Lesotho cricket academy – "I was basically forced" – before being encouraged to go to the more visible equivalent in Pretoria. It was there that, as he put it, he was snapped up, having been spotted bowling in the nets at batsmen who were gathering for the 2003 World Cup.

It took the former Test batsman Daryll Cullinan to make sure he was propelled into the Titans provincial team, after he was overlooked for a contract. Seven first-class games and he was playing for South Africa. It was a daunting journey for a 21-year-old from Phalaborwa to Port Elizabeth – something over 1,000 miles by road and a light year in cultural terms.

"I was nowhere near ready," he said. "I wasn't emotionally mature enough to handle it [or] financially fit to handle it. I am a boy from the bush. It's where I grew up, barefoot, running through the bush, not scared of anything. I still fish now, I still know my way around the bush, I know what to do and what not to do with snakes, animals, water."

What a bowler he threatens to become. Two summers, or part-summers, with Essex and Warwickshire helped his education. He has 120 Test wickets and since he turned 25 only on Friday anything is possible if he stays fit and hungry.

"I'm still not the finished article, never will be," Steyn said. "I had a good season but you've still got to take your wickets all over again, it doesn't matter who you are. But I'm here because my team knows I can get the best players out sometimes. That's why I get the responsibility of the new ball and I love it."

Home now is Cape Town and although he knew it was for him immediately, he will never be a cosmopolitan man – "I can't do corporate golf and business lunches, I like to fish."

He has 30 pairs of cricket shoes now and if he is as good as his reputation hints, by the end of the summer he might have the same number of English wickets.