Dale Steyn limps home. Is that the last we see of him?
Dale Steyn’s journey could well be over. Nothing is confirmed yet of course, but with yet another shoulder injury cutting short his 2019 World Cup before it ever got going, this is might be the last we’ll see of one of South Africa’s greatest wearing his nation’s colours.
Dr Mohammad Mossajee has said he’ll be back. The Doc spoke of Steyn’s fight and competitive spirit. There are few sights in world cricket as devastating as that look he gets in his eyes when he knows the hunt is on; wild, ruthless, burning like a raging inferno.
But what would fuel his return now? What motivation would he have to keep that fire burning? This was always going to be his last World Cup. He dragged his broken body to secure his legacy as South Africa’s highest Test wicket taker, surpassing Shaun Pollock’s tally of 421 against Pakistan last year. Now, he limps into the void.
He deserves better. His ability to move the ball at the pace his lithe frame was able to generate means he has a strong claim to be the greatest fast bowler of all time. If that sounds hyperbolic consider his numbers in Test cricket: 439 wickets with an average of 22.95 and a strike-rate of 42.3. He decimated attacks in all conditions, on all continents, winning series and lifting the Test mace as part of the world’s best side twice in his career.
But white ball greatness eluded him. Unplayable in patches he was often erratic at the death where his metronomic lines and lengths saw big hitters stay deep in the crease and heave him back over his head. His most memorable contribution to the World Cup was the final delivery of the 2015 semifinal against New Zealand that saw Grant Elliott launch him for a match winning six that left Steyn prone on his back.
He deserved better. He knew it. His fans knew it. But willpower can only take you as far as the body allows and his was already failing him.
He would play an additional 21 ODIs taking 34 wickets since that near miss in Auckland. Comebacks were curtailed, niggles became debilitating, but the fire still burned. Steyn had unfinished business in the World Cup and he would haul is crumbling joints over hot coals to set the record straight.
He deserves better than this.
“Dale needs love at the moment,” captain Faf du Plessis said, viscerally impacted by the loss of his premier strike-bowler and a man he has shared a dressing room with as a professional cricketer since 2007.
Du Plessis is a leader who is comfortable with vulnerability. He speaks openly and honestly and made no bones about the fact that Steyn leaves a big hole in the team environment.
“It’s important for us to be strong for him,” Du Plessis said in a sombre tone. “Dale has struggled really hard to get back into the team. It’s been a tough two years for him and he would need support now. It’s important that us as the team and the management make sure we assist him, to be there for him.”
Du Plessis reflected on Steyn’s form leading into the competition. His pace was up and that late swing delivered from cocked wrists reflected the zip of old. An old flame flickered in those manic eyes and he set a path for a crescendo worthy of his status.
When Australia’s Nathan Coulter-Nile pulled his back while on duty with the Royal Challengers Bangalore in this year’s Indian Premier League, Steyn was given a chance to prepare for the World Cup in cricket’s most intense cauldron.
He would only bowl eight overs for RCB before his shoulder gave out again. By the time he boarded that emergency flight home the selectors were panicking. Du Plessis has said often and loudly that he would lean on his fast bowlers in his quest to go where no South African captain had gone before and win a World Cup. He said that Steyn would be the spiritual leader of that attack. That is no longer possible
The Proteas must turn their attention away from those that have been taken away from them and focus on who is left. Beuran Hendricks has hastily packed his bags and is en route to London’s Heathrow. The wheel turns quickly in elite sport and there is little time to dwell on what might have been.
This may be the last we see of Dale Steyn. His numbers will cement his legend but even they do not do him justice. Grandparents will tell future generations that they saw him bowl. That delivery against Michael Vaughn that swung both ways in the air; that spell in Nagpur, the fire and brimstone and thunder and lightning. At his peak he was elemental. A force of nature whose contribution to the game extends beyond the glib counting of numbers.
The fans, his teammates and, most of all Dale himself, deserves better than this.