India vs South Africa: Dale Steyn and the vein-popping frustration of a pace spearhead fighting his own body

Dale Steyn had returned after 14 months of rehabilitation just to prove to himself that he wasn't “done and dusted”. And two days into his Test return, a completely different injury strikes.

Rohit Sankar, Jan 08, 2018 10:41:39 IST

India vs South Africa, 5-7 November, 2015, Mohali

A handing over of the reins of South Africa's bowling attack took place at Mohali in 2015. It was South Africa's first Test of their big tour of the Indian sub-continent and they had gone into the Test at Mohali with a three-prong pace attack led by Dale Steyn which included debutant Kagiso Rabada.

As the sensational Rabada, with a spring in his steps, sent the Indian skipper Virat Kohli back to the pavilion for his maiden Test wicket, Steyn suffered a groin injury and walked off, taking no further part in the Test match or the series. The Proteas went on to lose the 'Freedom Series' 3-0, their first away series loss in nine years, and they sorely missed the reverse swing and aggression Steyn brought to the wicket. However, they also unearthed a future gem in Rabada on Day 1 of the tour.

South Africa vs England, 26-30 December, 2015, Durban

The 'Steyn Remover' was back for South Africa's home series against England and in the first Test at Durban on Boxing Day, he didn't have to wait long before getting his hands on the red cherry as skipper, Hashim Amla, put England in to bat. It took even lesser time for Steyn to taste success as he sent Alastair Cook on his way with a seaming delivery outside off-stump. He followed it up with three more to finish with 4/70 in the first innings.

Dale Steyn celebrates after dismissing then-England captain Alastair Cook in Durban. Reuters

Dale Steyn celebrates after dismissing then-England captain Alastair Cook in Durban. Reuters

But 23 balls into England's second innings, Steyn pulled up with a shoulder strain. He left for scans twice on Day 3 but came back to field hoping to minimise his time outside and bowl earlier. However, on the fourth morning, it was confirmed that Steyn would play no further part in the Test and remained doubtful for New Year's Test.

He did not comeback the entire series.

South Africa vs New Zealand, Test series in South Africa, August 2016

The superlative 'Phalaborwa Express' had returned for the home series against New Zealand in mid-August 2016 and decimated the Kiwis in the six overs he bowled in the rain-hit first Test at Durban. His figures read 6-4-3-2 and Proteas fans rejoiced at the thought of having Steyn back, fit and firing as usual.

But the real test for him lay in coming out unscathed after bowling several overs. In the second Test at Centurion, he did exactly that, bowling a grand total of 36.2 overs across both innings' and claiming eight wickets, including a five-wicket haul in the second innings. The 'Steyn Gun' was back and ready for the upcoming, gargantuan tour Down Under.

Australia vs South Africa, 3-7 November, 2016, Perth

The much anticipated Australia-South Africa Test series kicked off at Perth in early November, 2016 and the Proteas, led by the charismatic Faf du Plessis, had scored a measly 242 in the first innings. They needed Steyn, their spearhead, to dissolve a strong Australian batting line-up.

But David Warner would have none of that as he bossed the bowlers around in his 100-ball 97. However, three runs short of his hundred, Steyn, who had bowled with jaw-dropping pace, hostility and venom throughout, eked out an outside edge off Warner's bat and the catch was taken in the cordon. It triggered an Australian collapse. They succumbed to 244 all out from 158/1, an unlikely proposition before Warner's departure. It would have been all happy in the Proteas camp if Steyn — soon after prizing out Warner — hadn't walked off the field with another blow to his shoulder.

Dale Steyn sits with his injured right shoulder in a sling during the first Test of the 2016-17 tour of Australia. Reuters

Dale Steyn sits with his injured right shoulder in a sling during the first Test of the 2016-17 tour of Australia. Reuters

Steyn played no further part in the match or the series although South Africa went on to win, both the Test as well as the series, without him.


Proteas team manager, Dr Mohammed Moosajee, revealed later about Steyn’s condition: “Dale [Steyn] had successful surgery on Thursday where the fracture in the right shoulder blade was fixated with the placement of a screw. We expect a minimum six-month rehabilitation period before he can start any form of bowling.

"It is crucial to give the injury enough time to heal and to make sure that he is completely pain-free before he starts bowling again. He will begin with his rehabilitation programme once the satisfactory bony healing has taken place; this is excepted to be in a few weeks.”

Steyn's injury was rare. The doctors were clueless as to how it happened and could only do guess work and condition him back to fitness. He had tweaked a hook-like bone which is part of the scapular and links the upper arm to the collar bone. Virtually, it holds everything that a fast bowler needs to turn his arm over. Steyn couldn't. Not for the next six months atleast.

South Africa wanted to play safe with Steyn's return. They weren't going to let the best bowler of this generation go without a fight. The rehabilitation process was lengthy, painful and unusually fraught with less hopes than usual. Murmurs of Steyn being done and dusted cropped up every now and then, but he managed to stay put, survive and get fitter.

He even ruled himself out of a few first-class matches in October just to be certain that he was fully ready before returning.

"It happens quite quickly. I go off three paces on the Monday, then Wednesday I go off five paces, but I bowl 26 balls. Then Friday, I bowl off five paces but I bowl 30 balls. At the moment, where I am at right now, I bowl Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and at about 70 percent or 80 percent of my full run-up, at about 60-70 percent," Steyn had told ESPNcricinfo in mid-October.

"Next week, I will move it to bowling on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday off and bowling again Thursday and Friday. And we just up the percentage every week so eventually when we play the T20s, I will going full run-up, full-pace."

The thirst and hunger to return in whites for the Proteas was evident in how carefully he was managing his body. He eased into a comeback in the Ram Slam T20, South Africa's domestic T20 competition in November. He wasn't bowling full throttle yet, but one could sense that the mojo was returning to the 'Phalaborwa Express'.

The Boxing Day Test, a four-day affair, against Zimbabwe, was the ideal platform to relaunch the bodacious Steyn. Plans were in place and the setting was perfect but unfortunately Steyn suffered a viral infection and the management wanted to be just certain; giving it some more time.

Interestingly, he was named in the squad to take on India in a three-match Test series. By now, fans weren't too hopeful of seeing the 'Steyn Remover' in whites again, but being in the Test squad surely meant that South Africa wanted to play him.

Ottis Gibson, the newly-appointed head coach, squashed all such doubts when he openly stated that Steyn was probably not ready for the first Test at Newlands but would be in time for the second or the third Test.

“He's had a year off, I wouldn't think that if you were to pick a three-man seam attack plus a spinner that you would want to put him into that three-man attack in case something happened. It would leave you too vulnerable in case he doesn't finish a game," Gibson expressed days before the first Test.

But one hell of a net session was all it took for the new head coach to go in awe of Dale Willem Steyn. The sensational pace bowler hit his straps, took a full run-up and hustled Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram for pace. Gibson must have left open-mouthed from that session for when the team for the first Test was named, Steyn and three other seamers were part of an intimidating, furiously dangerous four-pronged pace attack.

There were wild cheers for the legendary fast bowler the moment he walked out at Newlands to bat. The cheers grew louder when he ran in with the red cherry in hand on day one of the first Test.

Dale Steyn celebrates after dismissing Shikhar Dhawan on Day 1 of the first Test against India. AP

Dale Steyn celebrates after dismissing Shikhar Dhawan on Day 1 of the first Test against India. AP

Just 14 balls after his return to Test cricket following a 14-month break, Steyn had his first scalp and the vein-popping, screaming celebration — one that the South Africans had watched, loved and adored for years — was at full display again. Steyn was storming in by the end of the day and appeared as threatening as any of South Africa's younger, fitter bowlers.

"I think we all have that one friend in life that runs the Comrades [a marathon of 90 kilometres] up until he is 60. I would like to think I am one of those guys. I don't really worry about fitness. I am still fitter than the youngest guys in the side. It was just about getting through this year and trying to decide whether I still wanted to do it.

"I think most people at 34 start thinking about other things in life like retirement and family and those types of things. I am in a fortunate position that I don't really need to think about that much right now. Cricket is my main focus," Steyn had said a week before the first Test.

He was confident, almost bullish about pulling up fine in the Test match and anyone who watched him steam in at Newlands in the first two days would vouch that the Steyn gun was at his fittest. But fate had something else in store for the sensational legend.

Three balls into his eighteenth over, Steyn caught his heels, apparently because of a tight shoe and walked off the field, fading into the dressing room as the Table Mountain watched in horror. The South African management continued to state that Steyn was fine and it was just a shoe-problem.

Perhaps they were trying hard to convince themselves that Steyn wasn't walking off during the first Test of a series yet another time. Unfortunately for the Proteas as well as their supporters, he was. A few minutes later, it was confirmed that Steyn had suffered significant tissue damage to his left heel and would be out for the rest of the series.

Imagine the plight of this 34-year-old bowler with 419 Test wickets to his name. He hadn't completed one Test in four out of the last five series' he had played in. He had returned after 14 months of rehabilitation, managing himself ever so carefully, just to prove to himself that he wasn't “done and dusted”. And two days into his Test return, a completely different injury strikes. The life of a fast bowler is fraught with such malfeasance.



Although the anticipated recovery time is just four to six weeks, would South Africa be prepared to unleash him in whites again with the ever-persistent risk of another injury striking? Would he ever make it to the XI in a three-prong seam attack? Unlikely, very unlikely.

Have we see the last of Steyn's deadly stare, jerk-less run-up to the stumps and exceptional follow-through? Are we done with the 'Phalaborwa Express'? Probably not. His hunger for cricket is too much to believe that his Test career is forever done. He might return or so hopes the world of cricket, which would certainly be a better place with Steyn in it.

Updated Date: Jan 08, 2018 10:41:39 IST


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11 4 7 0 8
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