Have you seen a pair of eyes in which there is fire and calm, determination and mischief, ruthlessness and compassion, all in their most authentic form and in equal measure? If not, just watch Dale Steyn, first on and then off the cricket field.
A fast bowler who once famously said, “Where else in the world do you get the opportunity to basically kill someone with two bouncers an over? Or try, legally,” will be seen putting smiles on all faces around him once he steps off the cricket field.
Currently the best fast bowler in the world, Steyn is also one of the most charming and humble guys you will come across – a rather rare combination. During an elaborate chat with bcci.tv, the South African bowling spearhead took us on an insightful and delightful journey of his cricketing career.
Steyn touched on the physical hazards of his job and let us into a fast bowler’s mind. He spoke of Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald and Waqar Younis (bowling mentor of Sunrisers Hyderabad – Steyn’s franchise in IPL 2013) and gave his opinion on what ails Indian fast bowlers.
Here’s the complete interaction with Dale Steyn.
From a young man from Phalaborwa with raw pace to world’s best fast bowler – describe the journey.
Most people would describe it as a Cinderella story, wouldn’t they? It’s been really fun, I’ve had some great time along the way and met some incredible people. I’ve also been very lucky to be at the right places at the right time and being guided along the right path. It’s been fantastic and I look forward to a couple of more years.
When you were brought to the fore, all you had was pace. When did you develop other aspects of your bowling?
Swing and pace were my key things as a fast bowler. It was after I was dropped (after his debut Test series in 2004, against England) and spent a couple of years out of the team that I decided to work on my accuracy. I realised it is the main thing for a bowler. You can be a tearaway quick but if you can’t bowl a ball in the right place you won’t come good. I was fortunate that I had a guy like Shaun Pollock at the national set-up. I watched him very closely and listened to what he had to say. I just watched him prepare, saw how he goes about things and just tried to copy everything he did. This was when I wasn’t playing for South Africa. Even when I was out of the team, it wasn’t that I was completely in the dark. I was there and thereabouts – I used to come to nets, be part of camps. They had an eye on me and I knew that I was there. I just needed to work on certain things, which I did during that period and came back strongly. I don’t think I’ve looked back since then. I still look to improve all the time because I will never be a complete cricketer even when I retire.
Describe that period you spent out of the team.
I think I had gotten the taste of playing for South Africa and then I just wanted it more. It’s like you taste this delicious candy bar and it’s taken away from you, just like that, so quickly. And then you crave it; you want it so badly that you’d do anything to have it back. I was fortunate to have the right people around me to guide me and ensure that I took majority of right paths in my training and fitness off the field. Once all that was settled, it was a great time for me to get back. I was ready. When I played the first three games for SA, although I was a tearaway quick, I was raw and new and all that, I was definitely not ready. But I wouldn’t change it because it’s who I am today, which is really cool.
Off the field you’re this nice guy, always smiling. Was it tough for you to develop the aggressive streak you have on the field?
I’ve always had a bit of attitude on the field. I also said some stupid things when I was younger. I think I went to Australia and said some really stupid things and got hammered. But again, they are right and wrong decisions. Nothing is perfect. In the last couple of years I’ve really learned and realised that when you step on the cricket field it’s a theatre and you have a role to play. I think Shane Warne was fantastic at doing that. People went to watch him bowl. Even if he wasn’t taking wickets, it was still entertaining to watch this guy bowl with the oohs and the aahs around, and the batsmen looked like complete clowns sometimes even if he didn’t get them out. As a fast bowler, I believe I have the responsibility to keep the tradition going, of being a nasty fast bowler. And the off the field you can be whoever you really are.
How much have you changed as a person? Deep down are you still that kid who was the first from his family to leave his home town and pursue cricket?
I really hope so. You spend a lot of time with some super-stars of the world, some of the best cricketers and other incredible people I’ve been fortunate to meet. I’d like to think that I am the same person that left home. I’ve just seen the world a little bit more and so I can tell a few more stories around the camp-fire than what they could. But generally I am the same guy. I think I am. I hope I am.
Is fast bowling an art or science?
Fast bowling is complicated; it’s definitely more difficult that batting. You can do whatever you want with the ball but once you let go, you’re relying on someone else to define what happens to that ball. You can bowl a good ball and go for four, bowl a bad one and pick a wicket. The in between part of whether it swings, how you get it to swing, how you get it to nip off the wicket, is all science. The art part is making it look really good. Art is good looking. I’m lucky that I have got a neat, clean and nice action which is easy on the eye. It’s something that I’m blessed with but you work hard on it too.
What does fast bowling mean to you?
At one stage it was my life; it was everything that I wanted to do. I just wanted to bowl fast and take wickets. Probably now it’s my job (laughs). But it’s a great skill. I admire watching anybody who does it. I admire the number of hours that people put in to their practice. Fast bowling is brutal on the body. When I watch a youngster or a 35-year-old guy running in and bowling, I appreciate it, even when he’s not bowling well, because I know first-hand, how difficult it is.
Human body is not built for fast bowling. How much do you have to train your body to be able to do it day in and day out?
It comes naturally to me; I’m quite lucky. However, I have to train. You’ve got to keep reminding your body and especially the parts of the body that you’re using when bowling. If you bowl after two-three weeks, you go ‘ouch, I’m sore in these areas’. So, training is just a way to remind your body on which areas to work. As you said, it’s not something that somebody should be doing – running in from 30 yards and slinging in a leather ball like a javelin thrower. Training makes it a bit easier. But then, if you over-train, you’re again sore the next day. So, you have to find the right balance.
Are you big on gym or do you prefer to bowl for long hours in the nets?
It often depends on age. Older guys say that they like to be bowling fit, which means they don’t spend any time in the gym. The younger generation like to be gym-fit because they want the beach bodies – for the ladies, I guess (smiles sheepishly). I try and combine the two, find a healthy balance. When I’m in the gym, I feel like I am further away from injury than I could be. When I’m far from the gym for long, I feel like I could break down any time. IPL is a dangerous time for any fast bowler in that regards because you just can’t find that time for the gym with the amount of travel, the time that we play and the recovery. You’ve just got to find that time for gym but I have struggled to. I hope that I can get out of most IPLs injury-free. I try to lose much less (energy) in between part and when I play I try to lose as much as I can.
One incredible thing about your bowling, especially in a Test match, is that you bowl your first and last over of the day with the same intensity. What do you do to maintain the same level of energy throughout the day?
I don’t know! Our fitness trainer, Rob Walter says I’m a freak. Actually, I don’t train a lot and still I can do that. I used to do a lot of country running and long-distance running. I guess that helps me maintain my energy levels. It was something that I’ve always wanted to do since I was about 18. I didn’t want to be quick in the morning and then taper down like everybody else. I want to finish as I started. I want to bowl the last ball quicker than I bowled the first. That’s kind of been my motto while playing cricket. When the batsmen see me coming to bowl, they have to think, ‘we’re not going to take him on because he doesn’t get tired; he keeps coming at you’. Hopefully I can stay fit and strong enough to carry on doing that for the remainder of my career.
Some sportsmen have this aura that gives them an edge over their opponent even before the battle has begun. They put fear in their minds. You have that aura.
When I started, I didn’t have that. It’s something that you have to develop. That kind of aura is what is given to you by the oppositions – the respect factor. They’ll look at the team sheet and say, ‘Donald, Pollock. Right, let’s see these two off and we’ll have a go at the other three’. I’m lucky that I get categorised in that section where guys tend to show a little bit more respect to me. It’s been earned over the years but it’s been given by the opposition.
Sir Viv Richards recently spoke about the ability to be able to bluff – bluff confidence and swagger, to gain that mental edge over the opponent. Do you bluff?
I try to do it in all games that I play. Whether you’re successful or not, it’s all about holding that act together. It has worked for me a couple of times and not worked many times. I know Shane Warne used to talk about that all the time. He would bowl a ball, be hit for four and he would make the batsman feel like he wanted you to hit him for four there. That was part of his plan. You learn that kind of stuff from the past players and then try to put it into your game. It all goes back again to the beginning of our chat. This game is all theatre. Everything that goes on between bowling and hitting the ball is an act. It’s about who has got a better poker-face on the day. If a batsman hits you for four, make them feel like they have underachieved rather than overachieved with that shot.
Which is the one batsman who does it effectively against you?
Probably Chris Gayle. He’s got this awesome composure where he doesn’t look like he’s aggressive or calm. Even when he’s smashing sixes out of the ground, he looks like he’s quite chilled about it. And even when he blocks a ball, the bowler thinks, ‘Oh my god! Something’s coming! What is this guy thinking now? He’s just blocked me. Is he going to hit the next ball? Where? What’s he going to do?’ I see it happen with other bowlers as well when I’m watching him bat. I think that’s where his strength lies; he makes other people think a million things in their minds. You’ve really got to clear your thoughts when you’re up against someone like him.
How do you handle that?
I try and switch the situation around. I think with my pace I am able to do that; I can make him think what I am going to do next – is it going to be a fast bouncer or a slow one; is it going to be a fast yorker or a good-length ball. I try to reverse that role. If you’re an extreme spinner of the ball, you can do that as well. I always feel like I’m going to have to make a contest when I’m playing against somebody like him. I’ve really got to try and make him play differently.
What was first advice you sought from Allan Donald when he joined the Proteas as bowling coach?
I can’t remember. I think I may have offered him a beer! I had actually worked with him before, during those 15 months when I was dropped initially. He was with the high performance squad and so I had seen him a couple of times. But now it’s just awesome to be 24x7 with the guy. Having dinner with him or just sitting there listening to him talk about his past experiences, there’s so much to learn. He has this textbook of information in his head.
When people like him and Jacques Kallis sit together and exchange notes with each other, you just sit and listen to them, pick and choose what you want, take it all to the nets and try them out. There’s a massive amount of information that these guys share. IPL is no different. Talking to people like Kumar Sangakkara, Cameron White and Nathan McCullum, I have learnt things about their countries that I didn’t know before. The next time I go to Sri Lanka, Australia or New Zealand, I might just be a little bit better.
What kind of conversation do Dale Steyn and Waqar Younis have at the SRH?
I am trying to get as much as I can out of him about reverse swing. He was just the king of reverse swing. Another thing that I have been working with him is the in-swinger. I have always been able to bowl it but he is under the impression that I don’t bowl it enough. He thinks that if I bowl it more, I’ll find the edge more frequently with my away swingers. That’s something I have been working on. I haven’t used it much in the matches because I want to stick to my strength and not experiment too much. But in the nets I have been bowling a lot of those under Waqar’s eyes.
What ails Indian fast bowlers?
Look, this is my opinion and I may be absolutely wrong. But it has got to do with the fact that India has got a rich tradition with spinners. I watched the recent Test series between India and Australia and at one stage Ishant (Sharma) bowled his first over of the match with the second new ball! There’s not a lot of confidence your captain is giving you as a fast bowler when he gives you the ball only after 80 overs, and I say this with due respect to MS Dhoni because they went on to win the Test series 4-0. But for a bowler like Ishant it doesn’t say a lot to him. I’m sure he buys into the team’s plans and priorities and so he’s fine with it. But when questions are raised about Indian fast bowlers – which I think will always be raised – I think that’s your answer right there. If you’re always going to look at the spinners to do the job for you, what’s the point of even having a fast bowler? Plus, the wickets here aren’t really helpful for them either and I feel for the Indian fast bowlers. If Ishant wants to come to South Africa, he’ll make the team any day, I can promise you that. He’s a fantastic bowler. Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshar Kumar are other two very good bowlers. They just need the right conditions. If you’re going to give them spinning wickets, it’s going to be difficult. If you’ll give them the ball after 80 overs, it’s going to be even more difficult.