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Dale Steyn: The down-to-earth country boy who took on the world

Dale Steyn
Ed Kemp by Ed Kemp 10 minute read

Weeks before that terrible World Cup heartbreak in Auckland, Dale Steyn, an all-time fast bowling great, sat down with Ed Kemp to discuss the various challenges of bowling, the choices quicks have to make and his life away from the game.

First published in 2015

There’s always been at least a hint of the lunatic about Dale Steyn.

Always those wild, blue eyes that shine manically out of his head, as if some otherness lies within.

At one time it seemed like there was anger. In his first Test series against England back in 2004/05 he largely struggled, with the exception of an unplayable jaffa at Port Elizabeth that famously cleaned up Michael Vaughan. In those early days he seemed to be pent up, to seethe and stare quietly, before – on taking a wicket – releasing the rage valve and exploding in violent celebration.

He hadn’t been angry, though. These days, just through experience, he is more relaxed, and while a wicket still makes him as pumped as it ever did, we understand the outbursts as the straight-forward passion of an international sportsman with much to celebrate.

But still there is madness. Or something different. The story of the humble bush-boy, the quiet farm-lad-made-good, is not only an appealing tale, but a true one. Brought up in the north-eastern mining town of Phalaborwa, on the edge of the Kruger National Park, Steyn had to challenge the expectation of his family that he’d follow his father down the pits. At the age of 12, he was offered the opportunity to move 350 miles to a school in Johannesburg, and, while he was only there for a year, the move opened his imagination to the world beyond his hometown.

Still, it was only when he moved to a cricket academy in Pretoria in 2003 that he began to focus on cricket as a viable career choice. But from then on things moved very quickly, and not just the ball out of his hand. A mere seven games into his first-class career, in 2004, Steyn was called up to the Test side to host England. By early 2008 he was ranked as the best Test bowler in the world. Since then, in a period not dominated by quick men, he’s maintained that ranking – for all but brief periods – for the best part of seven years and has been a key man for South Africa in all forms and a regular in the IPL. His strike-rate (the number of balls it takes, on average, for him to take a wicket) in Tests is 41.6: the lowest of any modern bowler to have played more than 20 Tests (Steyn has played 78). Only Waqar Younis, at 43.4, comes anywhere close.

But despite the accolades and star treatment, the indisputable brilliance, he seems not to have changed a bit, thanks in no small part to the grounding influence of his family, who Steyn says, “are happy to abuse me if they think I’m living in the clouds or anything like that”. There is childlike eccentricity (in the words of seasoned South African cricket writer Telford Vice “Steyn is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bloody nutter”) centred on his passions of wildlife photography, dog-walking, fishing and punk-rock moshing – “simple things, man”. A quick look at his Twitter and Instagram pages confirms this: the picture of his schoolmate photographing an elephant, for example, accompanied by Steyn’s caption explaining that the pair were “always causing shit!”, or the tweeted picture from his hotel room ahead of a recent one-day series: cricket on the TV, McDonald’s take-out on the bed (“Such a professional athlete…”). He enjoys his life and no one’s going to make him take it too seriously.

If he owes a lot to his family, he certainly tries to repay them. During South Africa’s last, victorious tour to Australia, he flew his grandparents – who had never before been overseas – over to watch. His ex-girlfriend and her family joined him for two IPLs, and this year he’ll be flying his dad over for his first sight of India. “It’s nice to have them come out and enjoy and see the places that I’ve seen, and I’ve been given that opportunity to do that. That’s always cool.”

Speaking to him – he is one of the most personable interviewees All Out Cricket has encountered – you could forget how historically great a player he undoubtedly is. But Dale Steyn made his South Africa debut 10 years ago. He’s 31 years old, has been ranked as the world’s best fast bowler for most of a decade and is now approaching the home straight in his career, including what could well be his last pop at the World Cup. We should appreciate whatever’s left, because we’ve been lucky to have him. Madness and all.

• • •

Being a fast bowler in the period you have seems a bit of a thankless task, Dale. Guys are clearing the ropes by miles, playing 360 degrees around the wicket and to top it off you’re now only allowed four fielders outside the inner ring in ODI cricket. Do you ever stand at the end of your run and just feel like it’s impossible?

[Laughs] It’s extremely difficult! Firstly you have to be very skillful. And I don’t mean skillful as in you can bowl an in-swinger and an away-swinger, a slower-ball bouncer and a back-of-the-hand slower-ball – yes, that’s skill – but there’s a skill and an art in actually landing the ball exactly where you want to, regardless of the type of delivery.

And then secondly it’s being able to have the psychological edge, being able to bluff people. Because it’s becoming such a relevant part of the game today – with only four fielders outside of the ring, if you set your field to guys who score 360 degrees around the park, they know exactly where you’re going to bowl. And on the flattest pitches in the world in India, it’s game over. You kind of have to have something else, you have to bluff or fake or something to make them think otherwise.

Are you saying you sometimes have to deliberately bowl not to your field?

Yes! Honestly I do! It sounds so stupid, but I think – if the batsmen are as smart as I think they are – they know exactly what ball you’re going to bowl. You often find guys that run up and bowl a heap of rubbish – I mean that in the nicest way possible – seam guys that bowl outside of their field and get away with it. But guys who know exactly where they want to bowl with their field set accordingly, those guys often suffer, because the batsmen know exactly where the ball’s coming. And how easy is it to bat if you know exactly where the ball is going to be delivered? Whereas when a bloke is running in and he doesn’t know where it’s going to land it can be quite tough for the batter to decide what shot he’s going to play. That’s cricket! That’s the fun and funny thing about it, it’s always going to be evolving – there’s going to be something different. That’s the cool thing about it.

Dale Steyn was the top-ranked Test bowler for a major part of his career

And what about the perennial World Cup ‘chokers’ tag? How do you and the South African team deal with that?

There’s nothing you can do about it. Even if we win the World Cup and we go to the following World Cup in 2019, I still think people will say to us, ‘You won the World Cup – don’t mess this one up. Don’t choke on this one.’ In all honesty I think it’s a tag that we’ll never get rid of – it doesn’t matter what happens. The only way to get rid of it would be to win three or four World Cups in a row, and even then it would come up again anyway some time down the line. So it’s always going to be there. You just have to fight your personal battle on how to get through that, and that doesn’t really phase me, man. I’ve been fielding at fine-leg in Australia recently; I’ve been called a lot worse.

• • •

You’ve been bowling fast at the top of your game for a considerable time now. How much longer do you have?

I’m going OK. I think as long as I’m bowling over 140 [kilometres per hour] I’ll still manage to play for South Africa, because once you lose your pace, I could still land the ball in the same place but why would they want to select me? I’d no longer be doing what I used to. So if I’m still bowling 140, 145, 150… I’ll still have a chance of playing for South Africa for another couple of years. Fitness will come into play somewhere along the line. Every bowler or every cricketer will get to a point where you have to just draw a line and say, ‘What can I handle?’ and just take it from there. But right now, I’m happy, I’m just playing on. World Cups? Well…. I’ll be 35/36 at the next World Cup, so this could be my last one – although I’ve only played one before so I’ll end up playing two. I wouldn’t mind playing three, but I’ll be 35, you know? And I would happily hand over the mantle to somebody like Kagiso Rabada or Marchant de Lange or a younger version of myself to win that World Cup if I felt like they are the guys that are going to do it and I can’t. I’ll still be fine and fresh to play Test cricket – there’s no Test World Cup so I’ll just carry on playing that until I can’t go anymore.

As time goes on in their career, bowlers in particular might decide to preserve their body in an effort to be able to play on in say T20, to look after their future. Do you see that?

Yes – that’s maybe a decision I’ll have to make after the World Cup. I’ll just have to look at it and say, ‘What is it that I really want to do?’ And I think winning trophies is something that I really, really want to do. So maybe after the World Cup I’ll have to decide on which series I’m going to get something out of. And if I’m not going to get anything out of it, then maybe not go to it, and just try and preserve what I’ve got left in myself to be able to play in a tournament that really matters, like a T20 World Cup or another 50-over World Cup.

One option for guys now – particularly fast bowlers – is a sort of semi-retirement, just playing in the T20 franchise leagues, after an international career. What do you think about that?

Yeah, I think it’s getting to the point now where guys are doing that and it’s becoming an acceptable thing. A couple of years ago people would be like, ‘No, how can you do that, you’re giving up on Test cricket’, but I think people are starting to understand that there’s a living to be made out of cricket. Of course playing for your country is the highest honour but at the end of the day you also want to make a living out of it – that’s your job, you know? There’s not a lot of time: most guys retire at 35, 36 – maybe even younger. So you have to really weigh it up and say, right, ‘How am I going to score big, here?’

Tell us a bit about you life away from the game. Do you live like a superstar? Or is it true that you’re still basically a country kid who loves fishing and taking the dogs for a walk?

To be totally honest, we are treated like superstars. If you go and play in the IPL you stay in the best hotels, you fly business class, you get bodyguards to escort you to and from the games. So there is a bit of superstardom involved with what we do. Those are the rules and regulations and the perks that come with the job.

But how you are as a person does not reflect what you do in your profession, you know? I’ve always been someone… I think I’m down-to-earth, I feel like I’m still that country boy, kind of bush kid: I love fishing… I’m happy to get my hands dirty, I’m happy to sign autographs and get involved in the mob. I love punk music: I went to a punk-rock concert when I was in Australia, bouncing around with everyone else – I wasn’t up in the VIP room or anything like that. So outside of the cricket lifestyle I still feel like I’ve got my feet on the ground, I’m still humble, I’ve got parents and grandparents that remind me about that every single day. Trust me, my grandmother is that kind of person! ‘Don’t you do this…’ And you’re like, ‘Yah, ok Ma, I promise you I won’t.’ It’s awesome to have that.

But I will be honest, cricket has been great for me. I’ve earned a living out of it, and I’ve been able to help and support my family in ways that I would never have been able to do if I wasn’t doing it. So there is a bit of stardom involved but I’d like to think that I’m still the country bloke that I am.

First published in 2015

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