Cricket: England v South Africa

Performance of The Day: Dale Steyn

Steyn's performance on day five showed why he is the one indisputably great fast bowler in world cricket

Performance of The Day: Dale Steyn

If you grew up watching the West Indies’ pace quartets striking fear into the hearts of batsmen and striking bruises on to their bodies or even if your introduction to cricket included Allan Donald’s fire-breathing assault on Michael Atherton or Curtly Ambrose in The Zone sending England to 51 all out, it’s easy to claim that there are no great fast bowlers these days.

Helmets, body armour, the two bouncers per over rule, heavy bats, bowling machines, video analysis, chief executive pitches, perhaps even the alignment of the stars, have all been cited as reasons why the 90 mph brotherhood seem to be represented only by the ageing Brett Lee and the finally finished Shoaib Akhtar. With one exception – Dale Steyn.

Capable of searing pace if the occasion demands it, but equally crafty in his use of conventional and reverse swing, hideously late, mainly out, but sometimes in, and possessed of the manic on-field looks that speak of a possessed maniac, Steyn has all the weapons a quick needs: and he uses them; every one of them.

His record speaks for itself - 279 Test wickets at 23.16. That’s a better average than Wasim or Waqar or Courtney Walsh and plenty of others in the Pantheon of Greats.

But because the game has changed in terms of run-scoring (for all the reasons cited above and Steve Waugh’s proof that a side can score at almost 4 an over in Test cricket), his average is not Dale Steyn’s  most telling statistic.

He dismisses a batsman every 41 balls he bowls. Now that’s a better strike rate than... well, pretty much anyone. Malcolm Marshall and Allan Donald both needed 47 balls for each batsman and even a wicket-taking machine like Glen McGrath needed 52. When the next man in sees Dale Steyn with the ball in his hand, he’d better stub out his cigarette and decide what he fancies in the 2.15 at Newmarket pretty sharpish.

For all that sustained excellence in Test cricket, Steyn had never quite looked the real deal in England. There was just a suspicion that he was a hometown bully – partly fuelled by a couple of spells in county cricket that hadn’t delivered the kind of numbers that Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock put up, never mind Mike Procter and Vintcent van der Bijl.

A wicketless, and somewhat toothless, Day One at The Oval did little to dispel his doubters – was he not much more than another Nantie Hayward?

Day Two’s opening spell was sufficient to put that one to bed, as he snared the Essex pair of centurion Alastair Cook and returning Ravi Bopara in consecutive overs, changing the whole tenor of the match. That is what champion bowlers do.

But it was Day Five, when his captain needed him to deliver the victory from the platform his batsmen had so painstakingly constructed, that showed England’s supporters the true Dale Steyn, the man most likely to wrest The Mace from Andrew Strauss’ hands and present it to Graeme Smith.

The country boy, like his fellow paceman from the sticks, Glenn McGrath, as mild-mannered off the field as he is combative on it, had already shot out Jonathan Trott the previous evening with pace and swing.

With the odds of a draw not much different to the odds of a South African win, Smith handed Steyn the second new ball (having denied him the first) and told him to do what he does. It took him just two deliveries to induce the edge from the obdurate Ian Bell and win the match for his team.  

From that moment, the only question in the match was whether Steyn would pick up his first Test five-fer in England. It duly arrived when Graeme Swann chipped him into the covers.  

Crucial wickets, five-fers and victories by an innings and 12 runs are the kind of balm that soothes the most aching of bones and, bandaged ankle or not, Dale Steyn will be glaring and snorting at the top of his run up come the Second Test. Given the type of bowler he is and its history, he might just enjoy Headingley. England have been warned.