Preparing to feast

Dale Steyn has enjoyed the Windies, Kiwis and Indians as starters, but the English provided a more realisitic preparation for the main course. Now he’s set for Australia.

A few months ago, Dale Steyn was the top-ranked fast bowler on the planet. Off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan was marginally ahead on that prestigious Top Bowler list, but comparing a looping off-break with a 150km/h bouncer is hardly comparing apples with apples.

Steyn was officially the best, a curious Test ranking considering he was yet to have a crack at Australia. But the time has finally arrived for Steyn to prove himself worthy; the time has come to assume that responsibility as a match-winner in the harshest environment imaginable.

TS Eliot’s The Waste Land? The volatile surface of that apocalyptic asteroid in Armageddon? Downtown Benoni when there’s a half-price sale at Pep? Nah mate, we’re talking about the harshest cricketing environment imaginable – we’re talking about Oz-tray-lia, the Test players’ Mecca. ‘Come to me pilgrims,’ it sings sweetly, ‘but prepare. Prepare to be judged.’

The dramatics are not unwarranted, especially when you consider Steyn’s own experience of Australia. In 2005, the 21-year-old that toured with the Proteas succumbed to the mighty aura. He failed to last one fixture – after conceding 58 in five overs, captain Graeme Smith opted for the experimental substitution and sent him for an early shower. An erratic line, an unforgiving blade, and a despondent traipse towards the MCG change room summed up Steyn’s contribution to the great South Africa-Australia rivalry. Fortunately for him, that was not to be the time of judgment.

That time is near at hand.

Steyn heads into the much-hyped series at the world’s No 3 bowler. He underperformed in the Proteas’ tour to England, but was prominent in last season’s matches against the West Indies, New Zealand and India. The quickest Protea to reach 100 Test wickets as well as the fastest current player with ball in hand, he is South Africa’s not-so-secret weapon.

He has the talent, and after three more years, he has the experience. But will he succumb again?
There’s no sign of the despondent individual who made thay long walk back to the MCG change room. Steyn is brimming with confidence, a quality that is amplified by his youthful exuberance.

‘I enjoy bowling under that kind of pressure,’ he explains. ‘It’s what I’m here to do. I haven’t played too much in Australia, but I get really excited just thinking about it.

‘Sheesh, with the extra pace and bounce on those wickets and with myself and Morné Morkel firing – I just can’t wait. The conditions are similar to that of South Africa, and I think our quicks could cause the Aussie batsmen a lot of trouble. We shouldn’t take too long to acclimatise. It’s going to be a great series.’

There’s a brief pause as he considers the personal aspect. Steyn told SA Cricket magazine in March he was embarrassed by his one and only performance in Australia three years ago. The interim has been about getting his mind right so when the next opportunity arose, he wouldn’t miss a beat.

Forget the overwhelming crowd and the incredible aura of the world champions. By the end of the 2008-09 tour, Ricky
Ponting’s men must know they’ve been exposed to the best. They must remember Dale Steyn.

‘They have such a formidable line-up, and to be honest, every wicket is a prize wicket,’ he says. ‘You also want to be known as the guy who did well against the Aussies. It’s great taking wickets against Bangladesh and the smaller nations, but you’re ultimately measured by your performances against the big teams. I want the responsibility, I want to be that player.’

However well placed the enthusiasm, it’s far easier said than done. It’s been a fantastic year overall, but Steyn only picked up eight wickets in England. Getting back to his best will require some doing and the Proteas bowling attack also needs to fire as a unit. This was how England downed the Aussies in the famous 2005 Ashes series with Steve Harmison, Simon Jones, Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard proving the ultimate seam-bowling quartet.

‘Our great batting in England really set up the series victory, but we weren’t bowling all that well and that is something we need to fix. I believe we have the ability to do well in Australia and then win that series in South Africa next year. We have an unbelievable opportunity, and the great thing is, most of the guys believe we can do it.

‘I don’t think I’m the only guy who has to take wickets. When the time comes to take a break, I’m confident the next guy can do the job correctly. Morné was the leading wicket-taker for us in England and is just as dangerous with ball in hand. Makhaya shouldn’t be underestimated, and look at Jacques Kallis. He bowled extremely well in England and has the ability to break partnerships.

‘I have great confidence that this attack can take 20 wickets. Our batting has come right recently, and I feel our bowling, although under-par in England, is not far off.’

There’s usually not much between the two sides in terms of skill. What often separates Australia and South Africa is the mental aspect, and history will show the Aussies are well ahead. Steyn says it’s an area the Proteas are hoping to improve.

‘It does feel like everything has been building towards this point. Let’s face it, it’s the biggest tour, almost like the world championship of Test cricket. We are not going there just to be competitive, we are going there to have a real crack at winning the series. We worked hard in England and came back from that tour victorious [for the first time since 1963], and we’ll look to ride that wave of confidence into the Aussie series. If you look at our record, we’ve won something like eight of our last nine Test series. We’re a team in form and a team with confidence.

‘Some people don’t realise just how much that England win meant to us. Unfortunately, the journalists couldn’t be in the change room after we won at Edgbaston. That was a special moment, and you could see the passion in the guys’ eyes. You could feel what we achieved. Having seen that, I don’t think there will be any mental problems when we head down under. I don’t want to speak out of turn and say we are going there to prove a point, but we are certainly up for the challenge.’

Tactical appreciation and the powers to concentrate fall into the mental category, but in the game of cricket, one should never underestimate the art of sledging. A well spoken and amiable bloke off the pitch, Steyn can be especially vocal when a batsman starts getting under his skin. He let New Zealander Brendon McCullum have it when the Kiwis toured South Africa last season, and he’s apt to lay into the Aussies when the first Test is played in Perth.

‘They’re the world’s best team; they’re the Aussies, so I suppose you’re bound to pick a fight with them sooner or later,’ Steyn chuckles. ‘There are a lot of mind games that go on out there. We’ve been working hard physically, but the mental preparation should pay dividends. I’ve got to ensure my mouth stays in check, or that when I chirp it’s for the right reasons.

‘Australia may have lost a few senior players, but they’re still a very strong team with great structures right the way down. When one guy retires, you have another phenomenal player taking his place. For me, I always give the opposition batsman the necessary respect, whether he’s played 100 Tests or is making his debut.’

No amount of probing would reveal just who Steyn is targeting. How is he going to counter the aggression of Matthew Hayden, the doggedness of Ricky Ponting and the measured approach of Michael Hussey? These are secrets he keeps in his little black notebook, a journal that details just about every player he’s faced. Within that book could lie the formula for Australia’s demise.

Steyn has a plan and the time has arrived for its implementation. His success in Australia could well determine the success of South Africa, but more than that, it could affirm what most already believe. The proving grounds will be harsh and unforgiving, but the judgment should be fair. By the end of the Australia tour, Steyn will have proved his point.

By Jon Cardinelli