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Is Dale Steyn the greatest fast bowler of all time?

Steyn
by Sarah Waris 5 minute read

Dale Steyn announced his retirement from all forms of cricket on Tuesday, with a number of tributes calling him the fast bowling ‘GOAT’. Sarah Waris looks at whether the South African can indeed be called the greatest of all time.

When Steyn dismissed Marcus Trescothick on December 18, 2004, it was the beginning of a long journey that finally wound up on August 31, 2021. Over the course of  the next 17 years — though Steyn played his last Test in 2019 — the South African terrorised batsmen with his pace and accuracy, ending up with 699 international wickets, including 439 in the Test cricket at an average of 22.95 and a strike rate of 42.30.

No other South African has as many scalps, with just four more quicks picking up more wickets than him in Tests. Overall, he is the eighth-highest wicket-taker in Test cricket and the only one among them to play less than 100 games. But can he be termed the GOAT? We delve into a detailed study to arrive at a conclusion.

What do the overall numbers say?

Steyn is the fifth-highest wicket-taker among quicks and has the highest economy rate amongst them as well — of 3.24. No other fast bowler who has at least 400 Test wickets has an economy rate over three. However, what stands out is Steyn’s extraordinary strike rate of 42.3. The only other quick with a better strike rate than him (min. 200 wickets) is Kagiso Rabada, who has a strike rate of 41.2, having picked up 213 wickets in 47 matches. Overall, Steyn has the sixth-best strike rate, but the fact that no other bowler above him in that list even comes close to his wicket-tally remains a testimony to the greatness of Steyn.

How did he fare overseas, particularly in Asia?

Asia remains the one of the biggest litmus tests for a fast bowler, especially if they have not grown up playing their cricket on the dusty wickets in the continent. Overall, Steyn picked up 269 wickets at home and 178 wickets away from South Africa (including neutral venues). He was particularly lethal in West Indies, where he averaged just over 18 and picked up a wicket every 33 deliveries, but his numbers in Asia particularly stand out, especially for a quick.

Steyn picked up a total of 92 wickets in Asia – the most for a quick bowler not from the sub-continent.

Steyn’s numbers in Asia would have been much lower if not for his inflated numbers in the UAE, where he averages 32.78 (the highest among all countries) and has a strike rate of 65.2. In India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, Steyn has a strike rate of 41.9, which is below his career strike rate.

How was Steyn at his peak?

Steyn ruled the roost from 2007 to 2011, picking up 228 wickets in 41 games in the period at an average of 21.07 and a strike rate of an impressive 37.7. No other player picked up more than 200 wickets in this period (spinners included), with no bowler coming close to his strike-rate. He held the number one spot in the ICC Test rankings for a record 263 weeks, between 2008 and 2014, which is the most by any bowler with Muttiah Muralitharan coming in next, spending 214 weeks as number one. Between the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, his numbers are vastly superior to his peers'.

Comparing players across generations is impossible; conditions have drastically changed and the number of matches have increased, but Steyn, who averages 16.60 in wins with a strike rate of 32.1, tops the charts on a number of parameters. Riding through injuries and keeping up with the fitness levels in the current age has its own challenges, and Steyn’s consistency deserves applause. Calling him the GOAT among quicks might not be a far-fetched title to bestow on the ‘Phalaborwa Express’.

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