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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform