Dale Steyn wasn’t born a champion fast bowler. Instead, he was an apparently regular bloke – in many senses – who was able to bowl outrageously fast, and with verve and swerve and great skill and aggression to boot. That night in Perth he was surely confronted by the truth that, after so many years of strong suggestions to the contrary, he was as mortal as the next guy.
More so, in fact: the next guy doesn’t hurtle in and bowl with all his might for the ball after ball, over after over, spell after spell, day after day, match after match, series after series, and season after season. It isn’t part of the next guy’s job to wake up in a world of hurt. Perhaps, that night, Steyn allowed himself to imagine waking up, someday sooner rather than later, free of pain.
He made his debut in December 2004 and, in just more than a dozen years before he suffered his first shoulder injury – bowling against England at Kingsmead in December 2015 – he played in 82 of South Africa’s 105 Tests. That’s a shade under 80%. From then until he retired from the format in August 2019, he would be involved in only 11 of the 35 Tests South Africa played – fewer than a third. From the start of Steyn’s career until South Africa’s tour to India in November 2015, nothing beyond the blood-in-the-boots bowlers’ ailments befell him.
Then everything did, in escalating succession. Or enough, and quickly enough, to make him rethink the career suicide of bowling fast for a living. A significant groin injury in India was followed by the two shattered shoulders and, against India at Newlands in January 2018, a heel injury that tore the tendon clean off the bone.
From the start of his representative career, for Northerns under-15s in December 1998, to the end – for the PSL’s Quetta Gladiators in March – Steyn bowled 42,909 deliveries. And that’s just in matches. He asked his body for a whole lot more in training. Something had to give. When it did, a cruel crescendo of calamities quickly rose. No more will follow. On Tuesday Steyn called time on his playing career.
All of it. He signed off, on social media, with lines from “A Long December”, a song by his favorite band, Counting Crows: “And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe/Maybe this year will be better than the last/I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my me/To hold on to these moments as they pass.”
He was those rare bowlers who had pace and swing. He was arguably one of the best of his generations. He always gave Test Cricket the highest importance and has played more tests than many other South African greats. Steyn’s story is, mainly, of triumph. Plenty has and no doubt will be written about his crazy eyes, his gallery of tattoos, and his chainsaw celebrations. But when you look past the special effects you see a fast bowler’s fast bowler. He has said that he will be interested in coaching and might take up some coaching jobs soon.