ANALYSIS: Dale Steyn: Custodian of the real Ball of the Century

Daniel Gallan pays tribute to South Africa's greatest Test bowler and makes a case for Dale Steyn having bowled the Ball of the Century.

FILE: South Africa's Dale Steyn bowls during the fourth day of the first Cricket Test between South Africa and Sri Lanka at the Kingsmead Stadium in Durban on 16 February 2019. Picture: AFP

In cricket, there are the numbers and there are the narratives. The numbers are cold, unarguable, definitive. There is no room for debate. Donald Bradman retired with a Test batting average of 99.9. Muttiah Muralitharan bagged 800 Test wickets. England possess both the men’s and women’s ICC 50 over World Cup trophies. #Facts

But the scorecards and history books only tell us so much. They limit the majesty of a Brian Lara slash through backward point, the blade sumptuously whirling from a base of bent knee and arched back, to the glib registration of four runs. An ugly swipe from a tailender that barely trickles over the rope at cow corner adds as many to the team’s total but only the soulless among us would regard these two events as equals.

This brings us to Dale Steyn, the greatest bowler the world has ever seen. The 36-year-old from the small mining town of Phalaborwa in south-east Limpopo announced his retirement from Test cricket on Monday after 93 matches in whites for the Proteas that saw him plunder 439 wickets worth 22.95 runs and 42.3 balls apiece. We may never see his like again.

First, the numbers. Steyn’s strike rate is better than any other fast bowler with more than 200 wickets. He secured a five-wicket haul every 6.5 innings, second only to Richard Hadlee amongst his contemporary quicks. The Kiwi knight sent half the opposition packing at a ridiculous frequency of 2.5 innings per five-for, but when one considers that Steyn shared the wicket-taking duties with world-class performers such as Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada, and that Hadlee did not, then this discrepancy becomes less stark.

No other South African has taken as many wickets with a red ball. Pollock is next on the list with 421 but needed 202 innings to reach his summit. How many more notches would there be on Steyn’s bed-post had recurring injuries not reduced him to just 18,608 balls - the fewest of the top 17 all-time wicket-takers - across 171 innings?

Here is where we get into the intangible. Cricket is a game of numbers but it is also one that exists in the abstract. What numerical value can one place on the sight of Steyn charging towards the crease with popping veins and bulging eyes, gliding like smoke but exploding like thunder, unleashing balls that defy the constraints of physics? Where does one place on a scale the delivery that arcs this way and that, simultaneously in-swinger and leg-cutter as the batter is invited down the wrong line in the blink of an eye only to have his off stump cartwheeling towards second slip?

Shane Warne’s dismissal of Mike Getting in 1993 is widely heralded as the “Ball of the Century”. It even has its own Wikipedia page. The dipping, ripping, fizzing spinner landed outside the line of leg, spat across the paunch of the podgy Pom and knocked back his off stump.

But here’s the thing. It landed in the rough. That is not to disparage the bewildering brilliance of the ball, it is just a simple truth that attaches the smallest caveat next to the delivery. If we could both reverse and freeze time we may notice that the edge of the ball’s seam made contact with a micro-indentation in the foot mark which brought Newton’s second law of physics into play. Of course, Warne’s Herculean right shoulder and gorilla-like grip made it all possible, but so too did the surface.

Adding to the narrative was that this was in an Ashes Test and few events in world cricket are as overblown as events occurring in Ashes Tests. A cover drive or regulation slip catch is elevated to grander significance when the two most self-aggrandising teams take part in their parochial contest. What’s more, this was Warne’s introduction to the centuries-old battle between the Empire and its former penal colony. You want narrative? This wicket was bursting at the seams with the stuff.

Let’s try for a second to take the context out of Warne’s ‘BOTC’ and compare it to Steyn’s removal of Michael Vaughan in Port Elizabeth in 2004. England were chasing 142 for a victory they’d eventually secure but had lost two early wickets. Andrew Strauss was immovable at the other end and had his skipper Vaughan for company with the score on 50 when Steyn stood at the top of his mark with that look in his eye.

You know the one. The one you tell your kids about when they refuse to eat their vegetables. The one you think you see in the dark corners of your garden just as you turn your lights out at night. The one that has no numerical value because it is not of this world but comes from some carnal place where your nightmares have nightmares. That one.

He cascades towards the crease and gathers. He cocks his back and shoulders and wrist and unfurls his body as if it were designed for this single purpose. The ball arcs like a laser-guided missile towards leg stump. Vaughan does what any elite batter would do and tilts his head in preparation of a leg side flick. But he doesn’t anticipate what comes next. How could he? How could anyone? Does Steyn even know what’s about to transpire?

It lands on middle and leg on a fullish-good length but changes course just as it kisses the turf. It does not merely seam away from its original destination but jags away so appreciably that one must wonder if the ball owed the leg stump some money and sought to do whatever it could to avoid making contact.

Vaughan is squared up, then spun around and then squared up again. The off peg has packed its bags and gone travelling and Dale Steyn, the greatest fast bowler that has ever lived, perhaps that will ever live, is celebrating like a chain-saw wielding maniac.

How do you put a value on this? It counted for just one wicket, just like the other 438, and didn’t prevent England from winning the Test by 7 wickets. But in this brief moment, in the fraction of a second between release and the unmistakable thump of the ball connecting with the wooden peg, Steyn was the master of his craft, an incalculable genius who transcended numbers and stats and records. In this single act he became the custodian of at least the fast bowler’s Ball of the Century. A fitting accomplishment for the century’s best fast bowler.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK.