Dale Steyn bowls final delivery

Long Read

South Africa’s most prolific fast bowler, Dale Steyn, has announced his retirement from all cricket. It is two years and six months since the last of his 93 Test matches which brought him a South African record 439 wickets and just a month less since the last of his 125 ODIs which yielded another 196 scalps. The 64 he claimed in 47 T20 Internationals gave him a total of 699 wickets for the Proteas.

The ‘Phalaborwa Express’ has pulled into its final stop, at least for this stage of its journey. Few cricketers have provided as much joy and exhilaration, on such a regular basis, as the man whose bulging neck veins and wild eyes became symbolic with the most successful era in South Africa’s history.

For those who don’t know, Phalaborwa is a proud little town on the edge of the Kruger National Park, a gateway to the country’s biggest and most famous game reserve. Aside from the thousands of tourists who pass through the town every year, the locals all know each other. Phalaborwa doesn’t breed fame or celebrities. It’s a classic ‘dorp’ from which the ambitious are compelled to move in order to pursue their dreams, which is what Steyn did to become one of the greatest cricketers of all time.

Steyn travelled to Pretoria after breaking more fingers than made him popular in school and club cricket and, like many fast bowlers before him, bowled just a couple of deliveries at his first net session with the Titans Franchise before finding himself on the often long and lonely journey towards a first-class career. In most cases, at least, it is a long and lonely journey. For Steyn, the days in a bachelor flat eating cold beans and cheap take-aways were limited.

First, his country boy innocence and naïve charm were too compelling for a Pretoria Mum named Maggie Upton not to take him under her wing and nurture him. Second, he was too exciting for the Titans to leave him playing 2nd XI games for long and, after just 11 first class games, he was playing for South Africa.

Shaun Pollock, the consummate professional, was agog at the shambles of a boy he was expected to share the new ball with.

“I didn’t have half the stuff I needed. I didn’t even have spare boots. For the first three years of my career Polly was my boot sponsor, I got all his leftovers – which were a hell of a lot better than anything I could afford. I learned very quickly about what was required to be a professional and, one day I said to myself ‘listen here, either you fit in or you f*** off.’ So, I did everything I could to fit in,” Steyn says.

One thing that did not mean, however, was forgetting his roots. “I might have been out of Phalaborwa for a long tome but there will always be a part of Phalaborwa in me and I have taken every opportunity to go back, to see my old friends and my family, and they all say that I’m still ‘me’, I haven’t changed. And that’s very important.”

He may be a wise old man of 38 now, but the much of the innocent essence of the skateboarding kid from South Africa’s ‘outback’ remains very much intact.

Why was he so ‘modest’ when record after record fell during his illustrious career? “I didn’t think I was being modest. Remember, when I started playing for the Proteas Allan Donald had set the tone by taking regular five-wicket hauls and then Polly and Makhaya carried on doing that, breaking records, and then Morne Morkel was doing it. So without any other history to go by, I just thought it was normal. I was just carrying on the job…”

If he regarded the good moments as ‘normal, he certainly did not treat the bad moments as such. On the eve of departure for Australia in 2008, possibly the greatest Test series in South Africa’s history, Steyn was burning with revenge after what he described at the time as “the most humiliating moment of my career” when modest Australian batsman, Phil Jaques, had smashed him for 58 runs in just five overs in a one-day international on his previous tour to Australia, shortly after his debut.

“I was young, inexperienced and didn’t have a game plan – other to bowl fast. And the crowd gave me such sh*t, it wasn’t what you need when you’re still trying to find your place in international cricket. It was hard to understand what the senior players meant when they said I’d be ‘a better player’ for that experience, but they were right. Hopefully I’ll be able to share that experience, and message, with future generations of South African players.”

At various times during his career he harboured desires to develop into an allrounder – “maybe not a number seven but a reliable number eight or a really decent number nine,” he said a dozen years ago. That may not have transpired, but there are more than enough highlights to suggest he had the talent, most obviously the extraordinary 76 he made during a ninth wicket stand of 180 with J-P Duminy during the Boxing Day Test against Australia in 2008 which remains an MCG record to this day.

There was another, less memorable but no less impressive display with the bat late in his career when the Proteas crashed to 101-7 in an innocuous ODI against Zimbabwe. It would not have been innocuous had the home side lost in Bloemfontein. But Steyn put his head down to make 60, top score by 25 runs, to lead his team to 198. Imran Tahir claimed 6-24 to bowl the visitors out for 78 and a potential embarrassment was turned into a victory by 120 runs. 

Steyn enjoyed a remarkable run of consistence fitness during which he remained the number one ranked bowler in the world for an extraordinary six years. Like all records, it is there to be broken. Unlike most sports records, it is hard to imagine it happening.

The run was finally ended by a fractured shoulder bowling against Australia in the first Test of the 2016 series in Perth - no amount of net bowling could replicate the intensity of that contest. The ‘crack’ when the shoulder broke was heard around the stadium. It was over again before he had even returned, and although he undoubtedly produced moments and spells of his very best, there were more niggles and the writing was on the wall, mentally if not necessarily physically.

“I knew my body could recover, I was still strong. But when I started questioning my desire, that’s when I knew. I truly believed I could contribute to winning limited overs games for South Africa, which is why I retired from Test cricket only. But it wasn’t to be,” Steyn said.

“He’s a lovely man off the field,” said former Australia captain, Mark Taylor, “but he can be a bloody bastard on it.” It is hard to imagine a higher compliment from an Australian.

“Bowl quick, scare people, hurt them. That’s always been the case, hasn’t it?” Steyn said years ago with eyes too twinkly to be innocent. “Blood on the pitch doesn’t bother me, but I’m not keen on any blood or aggro off it. I’d prefer to buy a bloke a meal and get to know him afterwards.”

Thousands of batsmen, from Benoni to Brisbane, Barbados and Bangalore, and many places between, will forever be able to say they faced one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. And lived to tell the tale. Anybody who was lucky enough to watch him play should be similarly pleased and proud. South Africa was lucky to have him as a cricketer. He could have been a skateboarder. 


Manners on Steyn - Q &A

Q – It has been the most amazing journey, in so many ways. There must be a little sadness that the ‘cricket journey’ is now finally over, but so much more to celebrate and be grateful for?

A - You know, those days when you wake up and you know that, yes, it's been a great journey. Of course, definitely a little sad that the playing part is over, I'm always going to miss that, especially those days when you wake up on the morning of a Test match and it’s crunch time, and you’re desperate to make a play to turn the game your way. And when you do you feel so satisfied for the rest of the day – for several days. The thing is I'll probably never have that kind of opportunity again, in anything else that I do, to make that kind of significant impact.  Maybe, maybe I'll find something, I don't know right now, but I will miss those days, the days when you’re on the brink of a fiver-for and you get the last wicket, things like that… but yes, I'm very, very happy about my cricketing journey and I'm very happy with how it went. There is a lot to be grateful for, and looking forward to what's to come, lots of free time, fishing, surfing, travel - once COVID is over!

Q - You’ve already had a few years to reflect on your international career so I’m sure you’re clear on your list of highlights by now?

A - I mean, everything was a highlight! I just loved playing for South Africa. I love being part of the IPL for as many years as I was. You just don't get to experience that kind of atmosphere unless you're some sort of rock star or Hollywood actor, and even then you have to be at the top, top, top of your game to be able to experience that kind of thing when you go to India and you have all those people screaming for you and being stopped at airports for selfies…it is just a rockstar lifestyle, it's pretty impressive. But in terms of cricket, winning in England. Winning away from home, winning in Australia in ‘08. Those types of life changing moments will live with me forever. My top score of 76 at the MCG, ten-fors, that that kind of thing. And then being the number one Test team in the world for as long as we were, it was a great journey and playing a major part in that for so many years was very special. World Cups can be, you know, short - and although I never won a World Cup, you can win one without necessarily being the best team in the world. You just have to play well in that tournament. But being the number one Test team for as long as we were, that requires playing well for a long period of time, many years of dedication and hard work. So that was great.

Q - The Boxing Day Test at the MCG…the 10-wicket haul, the stand of 180 with J-P Duminy, your 76, the first SA series win in Australia after almost 100 years trying. That will put a smile on your face for the rest of your life…

A – Yes, forever, that will always bring a smile to my face. And strangely enough now, every Christmas – at least in South Africa - they love to replay it over and over on TV so I guess, if they continue doing that until I'm pretty old, I won't get ever bored of it. It was a great, a great series, and a great game.

Q - What about the 6-9 against Pakistan? Those are figures only seen at under-10 level. Did you feel like you could take a wicket with every ball?

A – Well, I must admit that was a great bowling spell. Just one of those days when you get the ball to swing a little bit, I think it was day two. We had batted already so it was day two and the Wanderers pitch had just started to quicken up a little bit. Most South African pitches can be a bit slow on the first day and then they quicken up. I managed to get a couple of big wickets early and then, with the ball still swinging, I was able to wrap up the tail so if you can do that you can you can get those kinds of figures. Vernon (Philander) was another bowler who was able to do that with the new ball, go for very few runs, pick up early wickets and then come back into the attack and knock over the tail to finish with five or six for not many. But it was a great morning and it was my turn that day. I just felt like I had the ball on a piece of string and could put it wherever I wanted it.

Q – Is it true you ‘gave’ Sachin Tendulkar a single in a couple of matches against India so you could bowl at the other batsmen?

A - Yeah, definitely. As a fast bowler I want to run in and to everyone, I want to bowl high speeds all day long, but sometimes you just know that, sometimes, the guy batting at the other end isn’t affected, it doesn't bother him and he’s not concerned, so there's no point wasting energy. So you concentrate on the ‘weaker’ link. I come from the Kruger, I've always seen it in nature, in animals, you know, they will always target the weakest link so that they can carry on surviving and that’s exactly what I did in my cricket. There’s no point in going for the big the big buffalo if he's going to take you down. I went for the babies, knock them off one by one. And I could still win. So yes, give him the single, bowl to the other guy.

Q - Will Kagiso Rabada break your Test wickets record?

A - I think he will. More importantly, will South Africa, after COVID, play as many Test matches as we used to and allow him to get there? He probably will anyway, but if we do play a similar number of Test then he definitely – fitness permitting. He's just a phenomenal athlete and a wicket taking machine. So So, if Test cricket maintains its status and T20 cricket doesn’t continue its march to take over the calendar, then he will definitely take the record. There's no question in my mind.

Q - There have been disappointments, of course. Do you still occasionally replay the last over of the 2015 WC semi-final when Grant Elliott hit the last ball for six to put New Zealand into the final?

A – Yes I do, to be honest. I can't even remember the order in which I bowled the deliveries. I do remember certain parts of the last couple of overs very clearly, starting with the over to Dan Vittori when he cut me for four to the shortest boundary and then he scrambled a single off a slower ball which changed the dynamic. It was crazy because we had so many opportunities to win the game and, you know, running one to the ‘keeper to get Grant on strike… you lose the game in the small moments but ultimately you always get remembered for how the game is finished and that was with one straight, big six, probably the only one that Grant hit in the middle of the bat the entire night. So, yes, but what an amazing game. And I'll probably remember it for the rest of my life but the order in which I bowled, I really don't want to look back on it because then I start to critique myself and there's really nothing I can do when I'm sitting on my couch at home five years later.

Q - A word about the Titans and the people who shaped the early part of your career – a career that might have seen you become a pro-skateboarder if it hadn’t been for them!

A – The Titans became my home. It really did become a home, I almost slept in those indoor nets when I was like, 19-years-old, I had no money. Joe Rudolph (Jacques’ father) got me a coaching job during and after the academy days. Dave Noseworthy and Darryl Cullinan spotted something in me to get me going, and then left me in the hands of guys like Chris van Nordwyk to take care of me in the off-season. When Richard Pybus came along, he was just a phenomenal coach and basically changed the mindset for me, helped me think more clearly as a fast bowler and give me the tools to be able to execute on the field. There were just so many people - Gerald Dross was a great captain. I remember him telling me I was too good and I shouldn't be playing with the Titans, that they were happy that I was there winning games for them, but I shouldn't be there, I should be playing at a higher level. Can you imagine how much confidence that gives a young guy still finding his way? What a wonderful breeding ground it's become for other cricketers in South Africa. You’ll notice that many a domestic player who wants to take his game more seriously, they often make the ‘groot trek’ up to Pretoria to join the Titans so they can win trophies and be part of a winning culture, and a great system. Many end up playing for South Africa, so yes, the Titans have got a good recipe for success and it definitely shows in the amount of Protea players that they've produced.  

Q - Rewind even further, to your family and growing up in Phalaborwa. Did they have any doubts about a career in cricket?

A - I don't know if they had any doubts. Everybody, from my Dad, my Mom, my grandparents, they all knew what I wanted and supported me. We come from a big family but my cousins weren't really interested in cricket. I remember going to school and walking back home with other kids and they always said, ‘you're gonna play for South Africa, you know’. It was kind of like a common joke. But no, my family just wanted me to have a fantastic future and kind of threw all the eggs in one basket with me and I'm very grateful for that - and that's why I always go home and I try to look after my family as much as I can because I know how much they sacrificed for me when I was younger so it’s time to repay them in as many ways as possible, that I can.

Q - You’ve been able to pay them back for their support – buying your Mom a house in Cape Town and buying your Dad his dream motorbike…

A – Yeh, it's just nice to give back. That's all, really. I know they did that for me when I was growing up, they couldn't have given me any more than they did. Dad has changed his bike about three or four times since the first one, which is great because it's also influenced me to change the bikes that I've had, along with him. I'm happy that we're still very close and we're able to kind of help each other, even though I'm 38 years old, you know. My Mom still helps me in many ways, too, and vice versa. If they ever need anything they know they can just give me a call. It’s a great relationship that I have with my family.

Q - Do you remember your first ‘Wow’ moments as an international cricketer – both on and off the field? When you thought ‘I wasn’t expecting this’ or ‘this is better/worse than I expected.’

A - My first ‘wow’ moment was the first time I walked into the dressing room in PE for my Test debut with the Proteas. I hadn’t really met many of the guys properly. I'd never really met Shaun Pollock, or Bouch, or, you know, many of the guys, really. Me and AB turned up together and we had to go and practice. I remember walking into the dressing room and just feeling like a school kid meeting his hero for first time, but now we were going to be teammates. I was really wowed by that. Also, I just couldn't believe the equipment that was going around, the size of the bats! The wonderful detail that Polly had designed in his boots which were handmade for him. At that point I just thought you did your best with whatever you could find off the shelf that fitted you, but there was so much attention to detail that I had never seen before. The way that Jacque Kallis looked after his equipment, everything was just perfect for him so that he could succeed and score runs, Polly had the perfect boots so that he could feel comfortable and do his job to the best of his ability. Neither of them could ever blame equipment failure for a bad day! That was just like mind blowing for me. But I tried to make it become part of my game going forward.

Q - The vein-bulging intensity for which you were famous, did that stop immediately you left the field? Or did it sometimes take an hour or two to unwind and calm down after a game or a day’s play?

A – Mostly when I walked off the field I just wanted to immediately chill. There were times when I would be upset if we did badly, but I tried never to lose my temper or lose my cool in the change room. I always tried to wait until I reached my hotel room if I needed to sulk, I didn’t want to have a negative effect on the other guys. Like after the 2015 World Cup, I didn't want to show any kind of emotion, never mind the rage I had. We were a young team and those guys still needed to go and do amazing things with their careers. I felt like if I just lost my cool it could have been a turning point for their careers, influence the way in which they act and behave. So I tried to remain like a kind of role model in those occasions. Almost all of the time I left everything out on the field and, once I walked off and crossed over the boundary, I returned to being a normal person. I think that’s the way we all should do it. At least, try to do it…”

Q - – What do you think when you see Jimmy Anderson playing his 165th Test match – and still going strong? How many wickets would you have taken in that many Tests?

A - Jimmy is a machine and he's just got bowling down to a tee. He's just unbelievable how he keeps going and how he still wants to keep going during this this period now. It's just intense. He wants to keep performing and he's fit, and he wants to prove that you can be 40, I suppose, even 40 plus and still do what you do what you love doing at the very highest level. Imran Tahir is another great example of that. I would have loved to keep going but - physically it wasn't an issue - I just felt like mentally it was becoming an issue. In South Africa, we don't have the luxury of what the guys in the UK do where you can retire from certain formats to concentrate on others, so that’s why I had to step away from all international cricket. I would have preferred to carry on playing white-ball. How many wickets would I have taken in that many Tests? I don't know, a lot probably [laughter] but only if I’d maintained my strike rate which would probably have been impossible over 165 Tests. It would have tapered off eventually. We all get old. Except for Jimmy who seems to be getting better, like a good red wine.

Q – Ten years in the IPL – no doubt you’ll have a few memories from that decade that will also last a lifetime?

A – It was a long time and there are memories to last a lifetime. Just silly things like leaving practice and trying to get onto the bus, or arriving at an airport and being completely mobbed by people. Cricket is cricket, you can play a competitive game on the weekend against a good player, you know, and you can get that same sense of feeling in a club game, but in India it's the people that make it so amazing and different. Those experiences you just can't get rid of, you know, I mean India is amazing. It's the one place, like I said earlier, that just makes you feel like you're an absolute rock star and elevates you a status far beyond what you are actually good at. Your skill-set is to play cricket but there you find yourself dealing with pictures, and press and people critiquing you for the way you dress and your hairstyle rather than the way you bowl your slower ball. But you know what? It was amazing and I loved it. The people are amazing. The IPL is one thing I’ll never get enough of. And will always remember.

Q - Many people find the enthusiastic chaos of India intimidating, but you were even photographed playing an impromptu game of tape-ball cricket with youngsters outside your hotel. That was unusual…

A – Yep, that was me. I think always wanted to kind of bridge that gap between ‘superstardom’ and normal, everyday people. We're all the same, we're all normal people, you know, just different skill sets, and I didn't ever want to feel like I was unapproachable, or on another level, that people couldn't, kind of, relate to me. Maybe my skills were on another level, because I wanted to be better than you at my skills, like I wanted to get you out in a game of cricket. But then when it came down to being a basic human being, cricket skills never made me better than anybody else. I think that’s why I think I did those kind of things.

Q - You had intended to play a few more years in various domestic leagues, Pakistan Premier League, Caribbean, Sri Lanka – because you still love playing. There was no shortage of offers, and you’re still fit, was it Covid and ‘bubble life’ which persuaded you to call it a day?

A – Yes, absolutely. Fitness is not an issue and four overs, at max, max pace is no drama. What eventually became really relevant to me, despite really wanting to carry on playing, was the loneliness of it. When I played in the South African team I had a whole bunch of brothers, I felt and I was part of a chain of great people and it's what made me really good, knowing there were guys around me who were just as good, and we were always pushing ourselves to get better. I feel like that played a major role in me taking as many wickets as I did. But once you become like this freelance cricketer, it reality it was probably something I just wouldn't be able to do. It's a very lonely job during COVID times, too. You have to train three to four weeks before the tournament starts by yourself. You don't have your team mates with you. It really becomes difficult to travel by yourself now. You get into a hotel, you have to quarantine, again by yourself. And then you finally get to do the, playing in a team, but everything is taken away from you because you’re not allowed to go here, not allowed to go there… my wings weren’t just clipped, they were taken away. The things I enjoyed most about playing cricket - having great experiences with new team mates and making new friends, sharing them with family – it was all taken away. Bubble life is no joke, it has a major strain on your mental capacity, and I think you will see a lot more players pulling out of things like leagues and taking time away and stuff like that purely because they start to realize that this is, this is not, not great. We’ve seen it in other individual sports like tennis and golf. I’m not sure the cricket world has paid sufficient attention to it. But we’re going to see a lot more of it because the bubble… bubble life. It's not an easy one to be a part of.

Q - What have you made of the SJN hearings and the allegations of racial bias in the national team, a team in which you featured so prominently?

A - It makes me feel very sad. To be honest, when I was playing I didn't really pay much attention to off-field stuff. I mean, obviously quota systems were in place but I just felt like I wanted to focus all my energy on what I could give the team and help us to win. I was always concerned about any negative energy reducing my ability to play my best for the team. So, yes, I admit I was probably a little bit naive to it if there were problems with certain relationships. Even now I don't want to really pay too much attention because I don't want it to ruin what a wonderful memories that I have of that time. Maybe that's a bit selfish but, you know, those are my memories. I do feel terribly sad after listening to and reading some of the testimony but, in all honesty, I haven't really paid much attention since leaving the Proteas. It was my work environment and that's how I saw it. I was just extremely lucky that I loved my work so much.

Q - Your passion for surfing - skateboarding on water – since you moved to Cape Town is well-known, as is your love of travel and fishing. You have the rest of your life ahead of you now, what does it look like? Involvement in cricket? Commentating or coaching?

A - Well COVID, kind of messed things up. I really wanted to just travel around the world, do a lot of fishing and go and surf some of the most amazing places. I actually wanted to follow the follow the WSL (World Surf League), especially when they go to places like Tahiti and Teahupo’o and Hawaii, those are just absolutely beautiful places which are on my bucket list to visit. So why not go and visit when they’re hosting a great surfing so you can watch the best in the world do the business? If you ever want to watch something exhilarating, just go onto YouTube and search “Teahupo’o” and see how big those waves get! They are life threatening. Watching athletes ride those waves is just insane. But yeh, my involvement in cricket. I'll probably just talk about the game a little bit for now and then, hopefully, upskill myself to a point where potentially one day I could do some serious coaching. No real plans on coaching teams or anything right now, but I played cricket my entire life and I feel like I've got a great skill and I’d like to be able to deliver that message. I'll get better at it, and then try to make, you know, good cricketers great. I’d love to be able to do that one day.

Q – You have announced your retirement on your Instagram account but for those who may only read this interview, final message? What’s your motto in life?

A - No real final message. I mean, I'm still going to be around, you can still follow me on instagram or Twitter. Hopefully I'm still doing things that guys enjoy following. Unfortunately, I just won't be knocking over any more poles, that's about it. But if you do follow me on Instagram you'll notice that I don't share a lot of cricket stuff. I believe if you want to see any cricket content there are more than enough platforms to do that. I’m just thankful to everybody who’s ever followed me and helped me through my career. I'm only 38, I'm still very young. But that journey is now over. Now I'm going to start working with other people and as well as some of the same people who have helped me get to where I am today.

I look forward to seeing what comes next. Motto in life? Not really…I suppose just enjoy your life, enjoy what you do, if you do enjoy what you do, you're going to see far greater results. If you have kids let them play all the sports they can until they find ‘the’ one. In my case it was cricket, but I did everything from skateboarding to soccer to hockey. I used all those skill sets to succeed in cricket so follow me on Instagram and you'll see what I'm up to in my life.

Q – Thank you, on behalf of the millions who watched you and were entertained by you. You were the best in the world at your job for over six years. That’s a remarkable thing to contemplate…

A - Yeh, it's crazy, crazy…to imagine that. To be the best for as long as that. Never in my dreams did I imagine that. But, and this is really important to me – there are a LOT of factors that go into any individual success. I might have been at the top of a list, but I had a great captain and played in a great team, many of whom held catches off my bowling. We were lucky enough to play regularly together which many teams can’t, or don’t. And then there were all the backroom staff, physios and trainers who kept us all fit and on the field. I never dreamt of being the best – only of playing for South Africa. That was the only goal. All the other things that followed were just a bonus. But yeh, very, very happy with where I am in my life right now so thank you to everyone. And it was a pleasure, entertaining you…

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