When Dale Steyn bowls, people watch. All sorts of people: whether or not they have Donald Bradman’s batting average tattooed somewhere out of sight, are still trying to understand why Garfield Sobers declared leaving England 215 to win in just less than three hours in Port-of-Spain in 1968, or couldn’t care enough about cricket to want to know the difference between an off-cutter and an on-drive.
Steyn rips through all of cricket’s fleshy stuffiness and exposes its naked nerves to the light. He is a tea drinker’s shot of whiskey, straight up, a visceral slap of drama and reality and ambition. If a lightning bolt played cricket, it would be Dale Steyn.
Not that he simply plays cricket. In the time and space equation that is a Steyn delivery from the top of his run until the ball reaches its moment of truth at the other end of the pitch, he writes a novel, sings an opera, lives a life.
It is, you might have gathered by now, not difficult to be carried away on flights of fancy about Dale Willem Steyn. There’s irresistible energy at the core of his aggression that makes it difficult to take your eyes off him once he sets off towards his destiny at the bowling crease.
At that proper cricket person’s cricket ground, the Oval, a full house was abuzz with its own importance on the first morning of South Africa’s series in England in 2012. Nothing seemed likely to quell the noise. The noise continued even as Steyn scraped his spikes across the ground to make his mark. Then he turned and, hands clasped around the ball, set his gaze, his chin, his shoulders, his everything on his quarry opposite.
That was enough to suck the clamour out of the scene and replace it with exquisite anticipation. To have been part of that golden silence is a treasured memory that still raises goosebumps. What must it feel like to be able to do that? For many of us, terrifying.
To the world, Steyn is more than a cricketer and more than a fast bowler. To South Africans, he is more than even that. He is everyone’s big brother, an example to follow, someone to be depended on in difficult circumstances, who can make you laugh. And cry.
Now he is gone; ripped from what would have been his last World Cup before he had bowled a ball in barely controlled fury. Our memory of him in one-day cricket’s premier event will always be of Grant Elliott hammering what became the last ball of the 2015 semi-final into the starless dark of Auckland’s night.
Steyn deserves better than that, but he won’t get it. He is trapped in the amber of what might have been. Would he have been able to turn South Africa’s losses in this tournament to England and Bangladesh into victories? Who can say? An important part of his magic is that he is human, not superhuman. The possibility of failure is always there, a shadow lining his silver cloud. It’s part of what makes him so watchable. He is invariably on a tightrope tied high above a deep and dangerous place called the ordinary.
After managing to stay up there for so many years, apparently with no respect for gravity, Steyn’s falls into the ordinary has become disturbingly frequent. Two broken shoulders and a ripped heel since December 2015 have melted his wings. Another shoulder problem — happily less serious — has made his place in South Africa’s squad a liability to the broader cause.
He can get through five overs but is less certain about being able to maintain his standards for the other five. And there’s no good reason to pick Steyn if he can’t give you 10 cracking overs.
It’s also not fair on Faf du Plessis and the rest of the team. Another week or so and the problem is likely to be resolved. But this a World Cup: there isn’t a week or so to spare, particularly when the team in question have already shambled to two losses.
So away Steyn will have to go, and sooner rather than later. The last thing South Africa need is for him to hang around the dressing room like some kind of ghost of opportunities missed, his very presence embodying some of the things that have gone wrong for them in England.
Beuran Hendricks, who joins the squad on Wednesday, is a decent bowler and deserving of his chance. But he can’t fill the Steyn-shaped hope that gapes at the centre of South Africa’s team. There is no real way to do so, and it isn’t worth pretending otherwise.
Hendricks doesn’t have Steyn’s pace, experience, and aura as the pre-eminent fast bowler of the age, bar none. That said, Hendricks does a bring welcome a left-arm seam option for du Plessis to explore.
He will come to the squad as a horse for a particular course, not as the thoroughbred who could win any distance. This is unfair on him, too. Because there is no replacing players like Steyn. There is only making a plan to make do without him.
Before the news of Steyn’s calamity broke on Tuesday, he was on the outfield at the Rose Bowl saying his goodbyes to the people who have become his family over the years.
Minutes after the truth was out there, a familiar figure strode the concourse in a Hampshire tracksuit. Kyle Abbott was the best performing seamer in the squad who took South Africa to that semi-final in Auckland four years ago. Clumsy, cynical meddling by the suits took him out of the XI for the match, and two years later, he made them pay for their short-sighted stupidity by signing a Kolpak contract to play for the county instead of his country.
And here we are, at another World Cup where another South Africa fast bowler has a sad story to tell. But this is different: Abbott is a fine cricketer. But he’s not Dale Steyn. People will pay him to bowl for them. How many would pay to see him bowl?