By Partab Ramchand
Indian pitches have a notorious reputation for being a graveyard for fast bowlers. And yet the best pace bowlers – as also those who specialize in seam and swing bowling – have found ways and means to overcome the conditions and bother the Indian batsmen no end. Over half a century and more great fast bowlers like Ray Lindwall, Wesley Hall, Alan Davidson, Graham McKenzie, Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Bob Willis, Allan Donald, Richard Hadlee and Courtney Walsh have all had enviable records in this country. And over two visits Dale Steyn is the latest in the long line of express bowlers who have proved that it is possible to succeed in unfriendly conditions. Fifteen wickets in three Tests two years ago allied to his match winning ten-wicket haul at Nagpur has already given him a record that few fast bowlers can boast of in India and with a haul of 195 wickets in 37 Tests he bids fair to be among the fastest to the 200-wicket mark in Test history.
The ranking of No 1 bowler in the game today could not be more fitting for Steyn has all the qualities of a world class fast bowler. His performance at Nagpur underlined this and at 26 the South African pace spearhead is clearly approaching his peak which in other words means that the strike rate and average which has been improving in the last couple of years will be even better in the second decade of the new millennium. More than any other pace bowler Steyn is capable of sending down the unplayable deliveries even while he is bowling a devastating spell. Just like when scythed through the Indian batting in the post-tea session on the third day with a spell of five wickets for three runs while prior to that he had removed Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar with dream deliveries. This brought back memories of a similar feat against the West Indies at Durban two years ago when on a flat and true surface, his searing pace made all the difference as he polished off the visitors’ innings with a spell of four for zero off 15 deliveries with the second new ball.
He may be the leading fast bowler in the game today but Steyn did not burst upon the scene in any dramatic manner. He took time to mature after being rushed into international cricket. He was picked for the Test series against England in 2004-05 a little more than a season after he had made his first class debut during which he had played just seven such games. But first steadily and then swiftly he made his mark with a series of match winning performances. Moreover it was not just his pace that took one’s breath away. It was obvious that here was a paceman with a surgeon’s touch who bowled with clinical precision and had the unadulterated skills of a great fast bowler. The control over line and length, the manner in which he bowled in the corridor of uncertainty and the judicious use of the bouncer and the yorker made him a feared opponent. Moreover like the greatest of fast bowlers he could provide the initial breakthrough time and again and polish off the tail in next to no time – qualities exhibited in no small measure at Nagpur. It is a tribute to Steyn that despite the presence of Shaun Pollock, Andre Nel, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel he is firmly established as the pace spearhead.
Dangerous as he can be Steyn says he hates hitting batsmen. ``I don’t enjoy hurting any batsman deliberately,’’ he said in an interview sometime back. He prefers to concentrate on taking the wickets something that gives him much more pleasure. This attitude perhaps came about after a vicious lifter laid Craig Cumming low as the Kiwi batsmen shaped to hook in a Test match at Centurion a couple of years ago. The impact of the delivery was such that it smashed into his helmet visor and shattered a cheekbone and jaw necessitating reconstructive surgery involving several metal plates.
Steyn these days is living out a fairy tale of a career. It is difficult now to believe that at one time it was feared that he was too soft to be a world-beater. Now of course he displays the right amount of aggression while hurling the ball down at around the 140kph mark but he still remains a smiling assassin. He is all smiles on and off the field - and he has plenty of reason for it. Steyn has always been considered an out-and-out strike bowler and Graeme Smith has been happy to set attacking fields and concede a few runs if it means wickets are being taken. And the fact that Steyn combines the two elements long needed in the South African pace attack - genuine, blistering pace and late, wicked swing - means he is sure to be their key bowler in Test cricket for a long time to come.