It was mid-December 2017 and there was the smell of hope in the air. India would be embarking on their tour of South Africa very soon, and the home side seemed to have put an up-and-down year’s troubles behind them. Or at least, we have no idea if any troubles had been put behind, or even what needed to be – but for after a long, long time South Africa would have a full-strength squad to choose from.
For much of 2017, South Africa had learned to live without AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. And make do whenever a Kagiso Rabada was suspended for a Test for accumulating demerit points. Or Faf du Plessis was injured. Or something else, somewhere else. But the India tour was different. Everyone was fit. Everyone was available. And one tweet in particular caused more of a frisson of excitement than any other.
Steyn was dusting off his whites. Steyn would be running in wearing them. In a Test match. On pitches that, word was, would be spicy. And just to complete the picture-perfect image, there would be the Table Mountain in the backdrop.
That was just the start of the story with many twists though. One came when Ottis Gibson hinted, three days out from the match, that perhaps it wouldn’t be wise to rush Steyn back into action without overs in his legs. The second was provided by Steyn himself, when two days before the Test, he bowled with verve, zip and hostility, as if he had never been away at all. As if to throw down the challenge to the team management, ‘Go ahead and try not picking me now, punks.’
Steyn was duly included. And together with Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel, he provided two of the most thrilling sessions of Test cricket for watchers. “They created unrelenting pressure,” Virat Kohli was to say later, and he had hit on the mot juste. There was no ‘see this off and cash in when the other bowlers come on’. You had to be good enough to either bat through until all four bowlers were tiring, or you had to do a Hardik Pandya, back yourself, ride your luck, and trust your skill to hit the bowlers’ off their lengths. What made anyone watching sigh, gasp, wonder and tingle all at once was the thought of watching this attack in operation for a long home season.
The last twist was the most unkindest cut of all. If Steyn had broken down with his old injury, you would have had something tangible to channel your frustration. Getting caught in one of the footholes, out of the blue, a freak injury that could have happened to anyone, just made you rage at fate.
How much more would we have to wait to see him bowl full tilt for a full series? Wasn’t the enforced absence enough already? As a cricket fan, you wanted to watch the greatest bowler of his generation show all his skill.
And there was too the irony of Steyn being seemingly forever stuck within an over’s distance of becoming South Africa’s highest ever wicket-taker – a fitting honour for the man who is by common consensus the country’s greatest ever bowler – but not being on the park long enough to bowl that over.
The good news, if you discount the gnashing of teeth that accompanies the thought that the greatest bowler of his age has been laid low when making a comeback that promised he would be back at his best very soon, is that this injury is going to result in only a temporary absence.
“I feel incredibly bad for Dale,” Faf du Plessis had said. “He was challenged through periods where he started and got injured again, and then started and got injured again. So it was great to see Dale like he didn’t go anywhere. He was back to his best. I was standing at slip and we felt like he could nick guys off at anytime. You were just happy to see Dale Steyn back on the park, so this is a huge step back for him. Luckily it’s not his shoulder again. The foot, or injury that he has, is something you probably can get over a lot quicker and we are looking forward to bringing him back in the fold when he’s fit again.”
Steyn himself managed to sound fairly upbeat given the situation, philosophising that six weeks out was relatively few after having spent more than a year injured.
But while that is cheery news, perhaps the most goose-bumpy moment of the Newlands Test came at the end of South Africa’s second innings, when Steyn walked out to join de Villiers. He was wearing a moon boot, and ideally he should have not put any weight on his injured left heel. But South Africa’s batsmen had been cut down and the lead wasn’t a comfortable one by any stretch. So out went Steyn, hoping to hold an end up while the man who had made his first-class and Test debuts alongside him would try to blast sixes at the other end. Newlands, literally, rose to the occasion – and why would it not.
Steyn didn’t even have to be told to go. “The chat in the change room was obviously for Dale not to bat,” du Plessis was to say later. “I mean we don’t want to injure him more. But we said if by any chance AB is still there, Dale can just go and just stand there and hopefully AB can smash a few sixes. And credit to him, he was the first guy – I mean he even had his pads on before we even mentioned it to him. He wanted to get out there. We didn’t get a lot of runs with that move, but I think it’s the mindset that counts.”
It is the mindset of a champion. If only the vagaries of fate had also recognised that and returned Dale Steyn to cricket sooner, rather than later.