Dale Steyn’s comeback to Test cricket after more than a year had gone splendidly, until the end of the second session on the second day in Cape Town. Bowling the last over before tea, and having gone halfway through it, Steyn pulled up short, looked at his left heel, handed the ball to Vernon Philander to complete his over, and hobbled off the field.
He didn’t return for the rest of Saturday (January 6), and in a heart-breakingly dire diagnosis for the man who was playing his first Test since November 2016, he may be out for as many as four to six weeks. If that diagnosis holds, he will miss the full series against India.
Dr Mohammad Moosajee, the South Africa team manager, said that a specialist would be consulted on Sunday, but didn’t hold out too much optimism on Steyn taking the field again quickly. “As we all know that during Dale’s 18th over, during his delivery stride, he unfortunately landed awkwardly in the footholes,” said Moosajee after the day’s play.
“This caused a significant strain to the foot, leading to tissue damage on the underside of the foot in the heel area. He is unlikely to bowl in this Test match, because the recovery period for this could be anything from four to six weeks – which means he could be out for the series. But what we will do is get one of the leading ankle surgeons to have a look at him tomorrow to give us an opinion.
“I think it’s important to note, though, that this unfortunate injury was freakish because of the way his foot landed in the footholes. It’s in no way related to his bowling loads or not being match-ready.”
That Steyn, 34, was in fact match-ready was borne out by his performance. He snared Shikhar Dhawan on the first day at Newlands, and then got Wriddhiman Saha lbw in a second spell that breathed fire on the second day. He also had the misfortune of seeing Dean Elgar shell a regulation chance at gully when Hardik Pandya was only on 15. Pandya went on to play a magnificent counter-attacking knock of 93 off just 95 balls, considerably improving India’s position after they were 92 for 7 at one stage to take them to 209.
A Cricket South Africa official confirmed to Wisden India soon after, “Steyn is struggling with a bruised heel. He’s busy getting assessed and treated.” It was also ascertained that Steyn had to go to a hospital to get his heel scanned.
Before leaving the ground, Steyn had figures of 17.3-6-51-2, taking his overall Test tally to 419, just two behind Shaun Pollock’s South Africa record of 421 sticks. He had been stuck on 417 since November 2016, when he had fractured his shoulder during a Test against Australia. His return from injury was fairly low-key, bowling 18 overs in five domestic Twenty20 matches for Titans, and then 12 overs for an Invitation XI against the touring Zimbabweans in December.
“Understandably he was disappointed,” said Moosajee. “But knowing Dale, he understands that he is going to try his best to recover as quickly as he can, because he wants to be out there. You could see how much he was enjoying himself in this Test match. Generally you need rest (to recover from this injury). Rest allows tissue damage to recover, but once we get the opinion of the expert specialist, we’ll probably see if anything different can be done.”
Steyn’s participation in the Newlands Test was initially the subject of much speculation, with Ottis Gibson, the coach, hinting three days before the game that they wouldn’t like to rush him back into action without the benefit of overs in his legs. However, during a full-fledged practice session two days out from the match, Steyn had been the sharpest among the South African bowlers, rustling up pace and movement and troubling the batsmen repeatedly.
Eventually, South Africa went into the match with an all-star pace attack of Steyn, Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada. One of the factors behind that, apart from the nature of the surface, was to have cover for Steyn.
“It wasn’t just a straightforward decision in many ways,” Dale Benkenstein, the South Africa batting coach, had explained on Friday. “Vern’s been out for a while, Dale’s been out for a while. To go with just three seamers, with one of those in that attack, I think we were worried that we’re going to take a bit of a risk. It was the way we felt, that we’d be covering more bases to have four seamers. It takes a bit of pressure off Dale to get himself into the series. He’s a huge weapon for South African cricket and with all of those factors, that was the best team that we felt we should play.”
Rabada too, expressed sadness at Steyn missing out but said the remaining three seamers would have to do the job in India’s second innings. “Luckily this time we went with four seamers. So there’s three seamers now that have to do the work,” he said. “But yes, it’s never nice for Dale because he’s just come back from injury, so just feeling very sympathetic for him. It’s not a nice thing, but we have to find a way to win this Test match.”
At the close on Day 2, South Africa had put themselves in a good position, leading by 142 runs with only two second-innings wickets down, but they will now have to contend with putting up a total in excess of what they would have thought safe, given that their attack will be one bowler short.
Moosajee also said that it was unlikely Steyn would bat in this Test either, though he didn’t entirely rule it out. “If needs be, and he needs to hold up one end … who knows? I can’t make a call on that as yet. Once we see the specialist we might get an opinion on that,” he said, while adding that the preferred option would be for Steyn to not put any weight on his left heel.
“At the moment it’s quite tender and it’s extremely uncomfortable to run. Obviously with some anti-inflammatories and rest overnight, who knows how he might turn up tomorrow. But at this stage it’s unlikely that he will be able to run. In fact, we’d probably like him to be non-weight bearing.”