The Last Word: Savour Steyn, the virile throwback to a hostile age

Seldom has such speed been hitched to such accuracy – or such ferocity

Shame about the tattoo. It’s a bit like discovering a safety-pin through the nipple of Michelangelo’s David. And not just because it suggests in Dale Steyn something of the improvidence that infects all these footballers, whose immunity to the encumbrances of daily life is plainly presumed to extend to the effects of ageing.

In later years a whole generation of physical paragons is going to end up slinking round swimming pools, draping towels over the gradual insinuation of a weird, El Greco slant into their body “art”. In the case of the world’s best bowler, however, it already seems a grievous anachronism.

For Steyn has always evoked the golden age. From elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, he borrows the glamour of Keith Miller – it’s certainly not hard to imagine Steyn flying Spitfires alongside his South African compatriot, “Sailor” Malan – and the classic, rippled action of Ray Lindwall. And he stands nearly alone today in preserving the game’s most terrible beauty: those rapt, unblinking moments when the predator seems to covet stumps and teeth interchangeably for his ossuary.

Since the introduction of helmets, it is rare to experience the same visceral tension in Test cricket. But a grille did not prevent Steyn putting Craig Cumming of New Zealand into intensive care in 2007, with a broken jaw and cheekbone, more or less ending his Test career on the spot.

Off the field, they say Steyn is a good guy, a gent. As one who owes speed to sheer athleticism, rather than height and brute prowess, he must nonetheless summon his powers of intimidation from somewhere within.

Last week, Steyn produced one of the most shattering detonations in Test history: six wickets for eight runs.

The nine Pakistani batsmen who cowered before him in Johannesburg between them contrived three scoring shots in 8.1 overs. In three Tests since the turn of the year, Steyn has harvested 25 wickets for 210 runs. Admittedly, 2012 (average 28.27) proved less spectacular than 2011 (19.57). But in his last Test of the year, a series decider in Australia, he had turned the match with a first-innings return of 4 for 40 – including  both openers, and Michael Clarke for five.

As he modestly stresses himself, he has had a little help from his friends, Morkel and Philander; never mind those racking up the pressure with the bat, or Kallis, who can still do everything. For all England’s gratifying progress in recent years, this increasingly resembles one of the outstanding modern sides. But the time has surely come to salute its  talisman – in his prime, at 29, with 323 Test wickets at 22.67 – as one of the greats.

Among fast bowlers, only Dennis Lillee has taken 300 Test wickets in fewer than 61 matches. And the real miracle is that Steyn has done this in an era when the quicks have become an endangered species.

Waddling on to somnolent pitches in the garb of American footballers, even tail-enders can nowadays cheerfully defy bowlers creaking and enfeebled under the burden of the sport’s proliferating formats. A relentless schedule permits no time for recovery or conditioning, and demands constant adjustment – cramping a T20 batsman one day, opening up the Test slip cordon the next. Yet here is a guy who takes 7 for 51 in Nagpur, on a wicket where his own team scores 558. Nobody else in Test history has played more than 20 matches and taken a wicket every 40 balls.

Touch wood, Steyn’s fitness has been phenomenal. Perhaps that reflects his clean, rhythmic style: light over the ground, slick in the release. The one kink is in the wrist, a subtle delay that costs the batsman a critical split second. At only 5ft 10in, he skids a diabolical outswinger into the right-hander, curving towards middle and leg before spitting off late.

Seldom has such speed been harnessed to such accuracy; still more rarely, however, can both have been compounded by such ferocity. Forget Donald and Atherton. Steyn has worked Clarke over so that he is looking at his own heels when the ball hits him. For the spectator, conversely, it is impossible to take your eye off Steyn. His snarling intensity is such that a wicket always seems imminent, however becalmed the match might otherwise appear: the cold glint in his eye; the set of the shoulders; the feline approach; the ravening delivery. And then, finally, either a disgusted glower – or a celebration that could not be more exultantly virile if he stood over the batsman with his spikes twisted into the jugular.

Where Brett Lee always exuded joie de vivre, Steyn revives a captivating malevolence from the vintage days of their calling. Cricket is unmistakably tamer these days. It needs these guys. Let’s hope Steyn stays fit for years to come, because he has a cricket brain to discover lethal new angles even if the blade loses something of its edge. Whatever happens, he has already stitched his name indelibly into the epidermis of the game.

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence