South Africa

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The fire still burns brightly in Steyn

Dale Steyn celebrates taking the wicket of Asad Shafiq of Pakistan during day 2 of the 2018/19 Test Series at SuperSport Park in Centurion. © Chrsitiaan Kotze/BackpagePix

Record-holding fast bowler Dale Steyn’s thirst for battle and glory has always been a defining trait. At 37, he’s adamant his cricket story is far from over – but he’s also making time to indulge passions that had to be set aside for almost two decades.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Dale Steyn walks into a Muizenberg café wearing boardshorts, slops and his long hair tucked into a weather-beaten cap. He laughs when I point out that he looks more like a local surfer than a South African cricketing legend.

“Why can’t I be both?” he asks.

The surf outside the window is small and choppy. Where Steyn lives in Kommetjie, however, the wind is blowing offshore and the waves are breaking in a perfect A-frame. Steyn has been going down to Long Beach at 6am every day since the government reopened the beaches to the public in early February.

He says his interests in surfing and skateboarding are not necessarily at odds with his passion for cricket. He no longer has a contract with Cricket South Africa (CSA) and is free to pursue a more balanced lifestyle. He’s also adamant that his cricket story – and more specifically the defining Proteas’ chapter – is far from over.

We talk about how some of the greatest athletes have retained an edge well into their forties. Quarterback Tom Brady (43) certainly defied the critics when he steered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a shock win over the Kansas City Chiefs at the recent Super Bowl.

Steyn – one of the most accomplished fast bowlers in cricket and South Africa’s leading wicket-taker in Tests – has nothing more to prove. Much like Brady, however, he still has an appetite for battle as well as an ability to swing big contests.

“I’m still available for South Africa,” he says. “I haven’t retired. I may be 37, but if I went back into the South African team right now, I’d still out-run and out-bowl anyone.

“Look at Tom Brady dominating at the age of 43. He still has a passion for American football and he’s still playing flat out. I may not have a national contract, but in a way that’s allowed me to live flat out, whether I’m skating, surfing or playing cricket.”

 Reigniting old passions

Steyn has made a point of posting his personal skateboarding videos on social media, with fans expressing their surprise after watching one of the great fast bowlers perform front-side flips and rail slides.

“AB de Villiers used to tell the press about growing up as a keen tennis player and golfer. That was readily accepted, as people could see the connection between those sports and cricket.

‘I loved skateboarding more than anything when I was a kid,’ says Dale Steyn. Photo: Supplied

“When it was my turn to answer the question regarding my other sporting interests, I would whisper ‘skateboarding’ under my breath because I knew about the stigma attached to it. Some people still believe that skateboarders smoke pot, that they are lowlifes… It’s a misperception and it certainly doesn’t apply to me.

“I loved skateboarding more than anything when I was a kid,” he remembers. “I would skateboard in the road outside my house until 4am. Then I’d go to sleep for two hours, and wake up for a cricket game.

“I had to put the board down when I became a pro cricketer. It’s only now, some 20 years later, that I’m picking it up again to see how far I can push myself. I go to the skatepark for a session, and afterwards I feel energised. I feel like a kid again.”

 T20 gun for hire

Steyn is busy preparing for a stint in the Pakistan Super League. Earlier this year, a few eyebrows were raised when he ruled himself out of the more lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL). He subsequently explained that the decision did not signal his retirement from the game.

“When I was playing in the local Mzansi Super League, with Quinton de Kock as the captain and Ashwell Prince as the coach, they backed me as the first-choice and I played some good cricket as a result. I had the same experience while playing for the Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League and again when playing in Pakistan.

“When I got to the IPL in 2020, however, I discovered that I was the replacement of the reserve. There was never an intention of using me as a first-choice, even though I went to the IPL believing that would be the case.

“So when I was assessing my options for 2021, I wondered if another IPL stint was worth it. Sure, I could probably get a packet of money just to carry the drinks, but I didn’t want that. I love the IPL, but I decided to focus on other leagues where I would be needed a bit more and thus able to perform at my best.”

Steyn was a consistent performer for the Proteas between 2004 and 2015. After sustaining a serious shoulder injury, however, he spent the better part of a year on the sidelines. Back then, he thought that the time away from cricket might be a blessing in disguise.

“I had played almost 50 Tests in a row. When I broke my shoulder, I was happy to have that time off because most internationals don’t really get a break unless they are seriously injured. It was a great experience in the sense that I got to do a lot of things that I had been putting off because of my cricket commitments.”

After Steyn returned to action, however, he suffered a series of setbacks.

“I picked up an injury or two. I was labelled an injury risk and even a ‘liability’. People were drawing a connection between an injury that put me out for a year and an injury that put me out for a few weeks.

“I look at where I am now, and it’s been about three years since I had a major injury. But that doesn’t matter, does it? If I go to Pakistan now and pick up a hamstring injury, I’m sure that someone will write that I’m injury-prone.”

Some have questioned whether Steyn should have been pushed to play so much during his early career, and whether Kagiso Rabada, the current leader of the Test attack, should be handled with more care.

Rabada claimed his 200th Test wicket in the recent series staged in Pakistan. Only two players have reached the milestone quicker – Waqar Younis of Pakistan and Steyn himself – and only three have been younger than Rabada’s 25 years and 248 days.

Looking after Rabada

Will Rabada break Steyn’s record of 439 Test wickets? Steps need to be taken to ensure that Rabada performs at the elite level for as long as possible.

“You almost feel sorry for KG [Rabada] at the moment,” says Steyn. “Firstly, he’s an amazing fast bowler. Secondly, he’s a black cricketer, and in the South Africa context we need him to play as much as possible and to be a poster boy for the next generation.

“The danger, of course, is that KG could be bowled into the ground as a result.

“I notice the expression on his face sometimes. I wonder if he is saying to himself, ‘I just need a minor hamstring injury that puts me out of action for two or three weeks’ just to have some time off and to get the love back. That’s what it was like for me. I love playing the game, but at the time of my big injury, I needed a break.”

Australia have pulled out of the tour to South Africa, citing safety issues despite CSA’s many assurances to the contrary. The upshot is that Rabada won’t bowl to Steve Smith and Dave Warner – some of the world’s best batsmen – until a later date.

Perhaps it’s a good thing in that Rabada will have a break from Test cricket. And yet, as Steyn explains, top players should be managed so that they compete in as many big series as possible.

“In the grand scheme of things, yes, KG needs to be managed carefully to ensure he performs at a high standard for as long as possible,” says Steyn. “Right now, however, after all the time that’s been lost due to the pandemic, KG and the Proteas have to play.

“Australia’s decision to pull out of the tour to South Africa doesn’t help. The Pakistan tour was important, but at the start of the season KG and South Africa would have looked at that tour as a precursor to the series against Australia. I can guarantee you that all of KG’s preparation would have been geared towards that big battle against Australia.

“With Australia’s decision to pull out, three Tests and ultimately three opportunities to play against one of the best teams in the world have been taken away. You have to rest every now and then, but as a player you also want to play in these big matches.”

Steyn expects Rabada to break the South African Test record of 439 wickets and to surpass the 500-mark. Steyn, of course, no longer has that latter milestone in his sights after retiring from Test cricket in 2019.

“These days I put my name forward for competitions where I can have that opportunity to be the frontrunner. Who knows, maybe I will still be playing at the age of 43 like Tom Brady? Maybe someone will come to me and offer me a million dollars to play in the IPL as their No 1 bowler?

“I’d love the chance to play alongside MS Dhoni,” he adds. ”My cricket has reached a certain level and I’d just like to see if someone can help me take it a bit further. I’ve identified him as someone who can potentially do that, perhaps in an IPL environment.”

While Steyn cuts the figure of a laid-back surfer, the relentless competitor of old is not far beneath the surface.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people chirp me about my long hair these days. They tell me to cut it and to ‘Go back to being the old Dale’ – whatever that means.

“You’re there to do a job, but you also need room to express yourself. You can have tattoos and funky hair. You can have a different personality.

“Dennis Rodman of the great Chicago Bulls side of the 1990s was one of the first athletes to prove that. Bulls’ coach Phil Jackson embraced those differences and got the best out of Rodman. We need more coaches in the world who are willing to do that.

“Sometimes we are too quick to believe that people who have scored a lot of runs or taken a lot of wickets will automatically make great coaches. Then they scream and shout at players and kick things over in the dressing room.

“Good cricketers aren’t necessarily good managers of people.”

Steyn reiterates that he isn’t ready to take the leap into coaching – at least not yet.

“I’ve already had offers to be a bowling coach in the IPL. I asked them if I could rather come over as a player, because that’s how I see myself at this stage.

Sparring matches

“Having 400-plus Test wickets doesn’t automatically qualify me to be a coach. When I’m ready, I will take the time that’s needed to develop my management skills to better relay the right messages to the players.

“Every player is different. Take Morné Morkel and myself, for example. Morné needed that step-by-step guidance about how to hold the ball, where to pitch it and so on. Personally, I needed someone like [former Proteas’ fast bowler-turned-coach] Allan Donald telling me stories about bowling bouncers to the great Brian Lara. After hearing that, I was ready to go out and destroy the opposition.”

Steyn grows more emotional and intense as he relives the sparring matches between Donald and Lara. That drive to compete, that thirst for battle and glory, is still very much part of his make-up.

“When Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith joined the set-up as head coach and director of cricket respectively, they reached out to me, as well as others like AB de Villiers. I told them about my other commitments, but I made it clear that I wanted to be a part of a team that wins a World Cup.

“Then the pandemic hit in 2020, the T20 World Cup got postponed and … things went very quiet,” Steyn says with a shrug. “I haven’t heard from anyone since, even though I’m still very much available.

“I’d just like to win a T20 World Cup,” he adds. “Hell, I’d settle for South Africa winning any World Cup whether I’m playing or not. But if I’m bowling well enough – and I feel like I am at the moment – then I want to go to another tournament and fight for that trophy.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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