Dale Steyn might have endured a tough time in the recently-concluded Test series against Sri Lanka, having come back after a six-month injury layoff, but the energy and verve haven't died down a bit. Here he was, in Mumbai, two days after the conclusion of the series, belting out a masterclass to youngsters and even bowling relentlessly to the journalists jesting away with smiles and laughs at an event organised by GoPro.
After almost a two-year layoff, Steyn's bumpy ride finally seems to have stabilised. He may not have had best of times in Sri Lanka but he is feeling good about his body and pace. And a reinvigorated Steyn is looking forward to breaking records and creating milestones.
The intensity is palpable on a humid day in Mumbai. Even after four hours of hard work punctuated with net bowling and media interactions, Steyn sits down with Firstpost to talk about his comeback, Virat Kohli, South Africa's exciting pace battery, missing balance between bat and ball and much more, with the same energy and verve that he's bowled with throughout his career.
Excerpts from the interview:
You came back after a long six-month lay-off, how difficult was it coming back in Sri Lanka where the conditions can be tough for the fast bowlers?
It was tough. I wouldn't lie. But I have been in these conditions before in my career. I love playing cricket so it's always a learning curve. You have to take the good with the bad. And not every pitch you play on is going to be green and seaming around and everything. In these conditions, it wasn't the case, but that's fine.
During the layoff did you make any technical changes to your action?
No. My action's worked for me pretty well for quite a long time now. The key thing was to try and get back to full strength, full fitness and then kind of take it from there. The skill part has always been there but you are not going to be able to perform your skill if you aren't fit so I just had to really worry about getting fit to get in. Unfortunately, I did my foot against India, I landed in the foothold, it required a little bit longer than we initially were hoping for, but that's fine.
Earlier you had a 13-month layoff and then another six-month break, how difficult are those times especially when you are away from cricket and how do you keep yourself motivated?
They were actually lovely. I played cricket for 12 years up to that point without ever having a break. I spent close to 200 days away from home every year for 10 years straight, so maybe it was my body's way of saying, 'take a breather, take a break'. I actually absolutely loved it. I got to spend some time at home, build relationships up with my family who I don't often get to see as often as I would like to. I got to go on some amazing surf and fishing trips and document them all through Go Pro and put them out on my social media which really allowed the public to get a better view of who I actually am. Purely because the public is kind of always watching you play cricket and they think 'Oh! it's just cricket non-stop'. But there is so much to people than just the sport that they play. So that two-year gap was really nice, I got the chance to be able to bridge that gap. It was great but at the same time, a little bit frustrating because I love playing cricket and I love competing at the highest level. I am back now and looking forward to the next couple of years, the (upcoming) series and whatever comes.
Before the Sri Lanka series, you played in England in the county circuit before making SA comeback. With the talks of heat wave and dry pitches going around, what will be the key for Indian bowlers to succeed?
I played there (in England) for a month before I went to Sri Lanka. The conditions were really tough. When they say there's a heat wave happening in England, it's like 24 degrees (laughs) for like three consecutive days. So it's not as hot as people think it is. But that weather will stay in itself for like a couple of days longer than it normally would. But when I was there, in between those warm days, there were some really cool days. I was playing down at Southampton, there the breeze blows all over the wicket, and makes it very dry and really slow. There is not a lot of turn but it's really slow — extremely tough for fast bowlers, as a matter of fact, extremely tough for any bowler. They are true wickets, lots of runs get scored and not many opportunities are given. But the pressure of five-day Test matches is much higher than a four-day County game. So I am sure there will be a lot of chances happening in Tests compared to the County circuit. But the bowlers are going to have their work cut out.
How do the bowlers cope up with these conditions and succeed?
The first thing is that the ego needs to go out of the window. One thing about the Indians I can assure you that is, they don't have any ego when it comes to bowling. Maybe (on) the social media a little bit (laughs), I am just kidding. But when it comes to bowling, definitely there are no egos. What I mean by that is that we are so accustomed to running in with the new ball, having three slips and a gully and then off you go. But in those conditions and especially in Indian conditions, that wouldn't be the case. So drier, slower and flatter wickets are something that they would be more familiar with. Having guys at mid-wicket, short catching cover and not having as many slips is something that the Indians would be more familiar with than the English. However, I still do feel that the English bowlers are probably just that little bit better and more accustomed to their conditions than the Indians. My bet would be that England (would) just tip India in the bowling department and that would be the overall difference over the five Tests.
The Indian batsmen struggled against SA pacers in the first two Tests on the recent tour, they struggled in 2014 against England. why do they struggle against pace bowling overseas? Is it technical or mental?
It could be a bit of both. If you are spending the bulk of your time at home, playing in home conditions, preparation becomes extremely key. And that's something that's engraved into your game. Because you are playing the bulk of your cricket at home, you are familiar with a certain way of playing. If a half-volley is bowled in India, you can hit the ball with an open blade 99 per cent of the time. If you got to South Africa or England and hit the ball with an open blade, it's going to get caught at slip. That is something which engraved in you. Coaching is also may be something else. The coaches that are coaching them are past ones that have had similar problems so the wheel just keeps going round. But the players are getting better and adjusting. They are playing more around the world. Pujara was playing in County circuit right now which gives him great prep for the England tour. So if those kinds of things happen, more often you will find that the players are more worldly players, they are able to score runs anywhere in the world. And with a big heart, good game plan and a strong mindset like Virat's got, I am sure they should be fine.
Talking about Virat, how does one stop him?
He has his weaknesses as well as his strengths. You try and feed on those weaknesses for as long as possible and hope he makes a mistake. Generally, a good ball to a tailender will be a good ball to a top-order (batsman), it's just (about) sustained pressure. How long are you able to hold the pressure for. And have you got a good game plan? You need to look at, say, Virat's last ten dismissals and try and find if there is a pattern there. Maybe he was caught at mid-wicket last eight out of ten times. And when he walks in, I put a mid-wicket in there and I would say, "Ya, you know, I see you've been caught here eight times' and you play into his mindset. So those are the little tricks of the trade that a lot of teams would do. But he is a good player. So how do you get him out? I don't know! (laughs)
While playing with him or against him, have you found that sort of weakness?
Every player has got his weaknesses. Not just him. And we do find them. But they are good players. So the law of averages says that at some point they will score runs and at another, they won't. You just hope that for that period of time, he doesn't score runs against us and scores his runs against somebody else (smiles).
You have seen Kohli from close quarters during RCB stint and in SA, and you have played against Anderson too. Last time Kohli struggled against Anderson, so what does he need to do to counter the English pacer?
I am not a batting coach but I can guarantee you that Anderson will continue to try and feed off those performances that he's had and he will continue those gameplans and will remind him how he's gotten him out when he comes in and hopefully have a similar kind of field. But again, Virat may have figured a way to combat that and Anderson will have to find a new way of getting him out and that's the great thing about Test cricket. We've got five Test matches and you might see a new trend develop. He (Anderson) might get him caught in a completely different way, a new gameplan. That's the exciting thing. I don't know what his gameplans would be and I don't know what Virat's mindset is, going into this but if I know him the way I know him, he will be very determined to score runs and If I know Anderson the way I know him, he will be very determined to take wickets. So it's going to be a great contest.
Cricket is increasingly becoming batsman's game. How do you bring the balance between bat and ball?
Look, I am not on the MCC or the ICC panel to change rules but as a bowler, I would like to see certain things change in the game. I personally would like to see One-day cricket going back to one ball. It brings reverse swing back into the game. It's a great skill and it's fast becoming a dying skill and a lost art. I grew up watching the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Alan Donald, Shoaib Akhtar, who could bowl with pace and also reverse. I implemented that in my game and you can see that it's starting to fade away. We recently are in Sri Lanka where reverse swing is key but it just wasn't available. True there was preparation and everything from the Sri Lankan side but how do we get the game to even out between bat and ball is a big question and one thing I would suggest in One-day cricket is going back to one ball.
What makes this current crop of South African fast bowlers special?
They are young which means that they are going to be around for a long time, that's the most important thing. Every player in the world that plays cricket has got the skill, talent and the fight to be able to perform at the highest level. But what we've got is youth which means that you are going to see KG (Kagiso Rabada) for the next ten years. And he is already the No 1 bowler in the world. You are going to see Lungi (Ngidi) for the next ten years and he is fighting his way up the rankings. That's great. If these guys were in their 30s, like I am, that would be sad because you know you are only going to see them for a small period of time. But they have got youth which means that we'll have them around for a while.
With the youth doing well, does that put extra pressure on you?
No, to be honest with you, it helps me. Because they need somebody who can guide them going forward. They need somebody who's there at mid-off, mid-on or bowling with them on the other side who has been there done that, that's what I had when I was going through my career. I had guys like Makhaya (Ntini), Shaun Pollock, a great coach in Allan Donald for a long period of time, I had another great coach who was my bowling coach, Gary Kirsten and I had that guidance. That's the difference that I can offer them right now. I can offer them the guidance that I have received through my years and assist them to go on to become great bowlers.
Faf du Plessis, after the Sri Lanka Test series, said that playing spin is a global problem. So how do you solve this problem?
From the South African point of view, it was really tough. When we went to Sri Lanka, preparation was the biggest key. We went there with time to prepare but we didn't get what we wanted. The training facilities were more in favour of fast bowling. The bowlers that were bowling there were good but not of great quality. And the pitches that we were practising on just didn't offer realistically what was going to happen in the game and therefore, you are then underprepared, unfortunately. And we didn't see the Sri Lankans practice even once at the same facilities that we practised at so they clearly had a game plan going into this. So how do you get better? Well, maybe you need to create these preparations to help you. Maybe get there earlier, rent a ground so that the groundsman can't tell you what to do. I don't know, I don't know. But preparation is very key and you need good preparation and good conditions to be able to prepare. If you don't have that then you are just not going to prepare well enough.
When India came to South Africa they cancelled their one-off two-day practice match, do you think practice matches are losing relevance now? Earlier, there used to be a lot of preference given to practice matches.....
I don't know. I know a lot of players don't particularly like practice games, they just can't get themselves up to play in these games. Someone like Quinton de Kock if he knows that there is no real stat that's going to get taken out of it then he is not quite up for it. And therefore he feels like he is wasting his time a little bit. Whereas other players do like the idea of a practice game, they really get into that headspace so it's an individual thing. But then the schedule is also another thing. The number of tours we've got going on...like India and England have got five Tests and then from there, they go somewhere else. They would prefer to go home for a month rather than going for two weeks and then heading for the next tour early so that they can have two practice games. There is a lot of demand on the players because there is so much cricket that's been played so the practice games tend to go out of the window and we'll rather have a couple of net sessions where they can create the scenarios in which they want them to be in — new balls, old balls, scuffed up surfaces, good surfaces.
Your Twitter bio says terrible guitar player. Have you improved upon it in the time you were off?
Umm...I am a bad guitar player now (sheepish smile) Is that okay? (laughs). That's about my improvement.
So you are learning day by day?
Yes, my dad plays the guitar, he is really good. So whenever he comes down, we bash it out together. So I have gone from terrible to bad (smiles).