There are few sights in cricket that set the adrenaline racing quite like a fast bowler at the top of his game, steaming in. Dale Steyn, one of the undisputed kings of the breed, has been the flag-bearer for modern-day pacers, with 396 Test wickets at 22.56 and a strike-rate of 41.7, numbers that are far above and beyond anyone else in the past decade.
Steyn, who has been the master of homing in on batsmen’s weaknesses, is part of Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League, one of only two players the franchise retained ahead of the 2014 auctions. He took time off during the 2015 edition to speak to Wisden India on a range of issues. Below are excerpts on his thoughts on the evolution of pace bowling, the allure of left-armers and sharing his experience with Trent Boult at Hyderabad and his mastery of late swing.
How has fast bowling evolved from the time you came on the scene to now?
When I was 16, my coach was a guy who was playing cricket with me, and he realised I could bowl fast. So his big thing was I must just bowl fast. I must run in and just bowl fast. Batsmen will make mistakes and I’ll scare them and get them out, especially in club cricket. When you go to a higher level, what you start to learn is how to control your speed, how you are going to package that and condense it, and then start landing the ball in a consistent area over and over and over again. Which is what guys like Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock did. So there comes that phase in your cricketing career where you are just practising getting the ball in the same area consistently, over and over and over again. Very boring. But exciting, because you’re bowling at 145-150 clicks an hour!
And then comes this phase now. I wouldn’t call it the back-end of my career, but what I’m starting to learn now is that batsmen have changed and you have to evolve with that. Guys are not allowing you to bowl consistently in the same area. Out of nowhere they’ll play a scoop or a reverse lap. Hawkeye will say it’s a great delivery, but it still goes for six! That’s where bowling has come to now, you have to start using your mind a little bit more now. You have to have the skill, but you have to be smart. In the olden days you ran in and bowled the odd inswinger with five away swingers and the batsmen might leave it and get bowled. Nowadays, guys will lap you and stuff, so you have to start thinking about how to outsmart, outwit and then out-skill players. You’ve got to have all the deliveries – slower ball, slower bouncer, slower yorker, straight yorker, wide yorker. You need to have those skills on tap, because if you don’t have them, batsmen will figure you out do so very, very quickly.
You spoke of out-skilling and out-thinking a batsman. Any dismissal like that you remember?
There’s been times where you’ve bowled to in-form batters and gotten them out. The ones that I remember are the funniest ones where they fall for the oldest trick in the book, where you bowl two bouncers and a yorker, and they’re caught hanging back and you hit the pads or get bowled. Or you’re waving your arms at deep square leg and you pretend you’re going to bowl a bouncer, but you bowl a wide half-volley and somehow he nicks it. So it’s not a great delivery, but the thinking behind the delivery is what counts.
How do you prepare before a match? Are you focussed on opposition batsmen or do you just trust your own skills to do the job?
It’s a combination. I know what I can do, and then I try and figure out how I can use my skill to get a certain player out. Somebody who’s a very smart cricketer said to me not too long ago, that the best thing to do was to look at how a batsman has gotten out in the last ten innings. There’s no point in watching what a Mahela (Jayawardene) or (Kumar) Sangakkara did ten years ago, because they are different players today. You want to watch what they have done in their last ten innings; is there a pattern how they’ve got out? And then you try and replicate that with your own skill.
Players are also all different. You’ve got a Kieron Pollard and then a Sachin Tendulkar. If you bowl the ball in the exact same place to both of them, one is going to cover drive you for four and the other is going to late cut you because it’s on the back foot. So you have to try and figure out if you bowl the ball in the same place, where you are going to put the fielders. Those are the kind of things that I do.
Other than that, I’m just really relaxed. I back myself, maybe listen to the music. Hopefully I’ve prepared well and just go into the contest mentally strong.
How has it been with Trent Boult at Sunrisers Hyderabad. Do you see him as your successor in terms of being the fast bowling standard in years to come?
He’s great. I’ve always been a fan of left-arm bowlers, always. If I have a son, hopefully I can just make him do this (imitates bowling with left arm). As a matter of fact, I actually like everything left-handed. I don’t know why, but just artistically, left-handed batsmen always look better than right-handed batsmen. There’s just something about it, it’s a lot more stylish. And he (Boult) oozes style in everything he does, as well as skill. He’s got great skill and he’s young. Him, Mitchell Starc – left-arm again – there’s something different. I can name you 20 right-arm fast bowlers who can land the ball in the right place and bowl at 140. I can only name you three or four left-arm quicks who can do the same. They’re a rare breed, beautiful to watch and difficult to play.
He and I hang out a lot, at training, chat and we pass ideas. I think he’s still learning his trade and he’s going through what cricketers call a purple patch right now. It doesn’t matter if he bowls a wide half-volley, it doesn’t go for four, it tends to hit bat and go on to the stumps. But he’s also consistently landing the ball in the right areas and getting wickets with good balls. It’s all going his way right now and he’s loving the hype at the moment, and he should – because that’s what’s going to make him a better bowler. Because when times get tough, he can look back and realise what he was doing right during this purple patch and gain confidence from that and continue to do well. Good player, good ideas, and also a nice guy.
You are among the few bowlers who consistently get late swing. How do you master that?
I think the key thing, and people might not know this, but anyone who plays cricket at the highest level will be able to tell you: the slower you bowl, the more it swings, because the ball has more time to travel. Obviously it travels the same distance, but because it’s going slower, it’s got more time to do its thing. When you’re bowling quickly you’ve got less time. So late swing comes from bowling extreme pace. It looks like it’s going dead straight, and when the ball is about to bounce, it realises, ‘Oh it needs to do something now! It needs to swing’. Because that was the initial plan when it left your hand. It starts to slow down when it gets closer to the batsman and it swings extremely late. And it only swings extremely late because it has gotten there extremely quick. If you bowl really slowly like I say, the ball has got more time to go, ‘Oh okay, I need to swing, so I’ll swing’.
So swing bowling can be difficult if you don’t know how to handle it, good players play it really well. But then good players don’t play late swing very well, because they’ll be looking to hit you in one place and then at the last second it just (snaps fingers) goes that way. There’s no difference between what I do and what a slower bowler does. Landing the ball in the right place takes a lot of practice. If I have to bowl slow swing I’m not going to land the ball in the same place because I don’t know how to do it and I have to practice it. When you do a repetition over and over again, it becomes like second nature.
What do fast bowlers need to do to take care of their bodies?
I think you have to find time to rest and recover. With modern-day science, there’s lots of things that you can now do. You’ve got your gym programmes, rehab programmes, you’re in the pool and you’re taking protein shakes and this and that. But I think the biggest thing for players is to get that mental break away from the game. My personal thing is that I’ve been blessed. I’m quite lucky with my body because I haven’t been to injured, touchwood. But sometimes you just want to get away from the game. Sometimes you tend to overthink the game, and it tends to get more into your mind. And I think everyone knows that cricket is a mental game as much as a physical game, very mental in fact. A lot of it all happens upstairs. So my biggest thing is to try and find a way to get away from the game completely, and physical has never been an issue for me. I’m fit, I’m strong, I’m running quicker now than when I was 21, I’m stronger now.
So taking off a game here, a game there, it’s just mentally getting away from cricket. It’s a lot better than a physical break, I believe, for myself.
Allan Donald said you’re the best South African bowler he has seen…
I think there’s no better way to draw any confidence than when a hero of yours speaks so highly of you. That just makes you feel like superman, doesn’t it?