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.

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