The sad news that Dale Steyn will not be part of the South African touring party for their Test and ODI series in England emerged this week and yet it has hardly earned a column inch. With focus seemingly centred very much on India finally confirming their appearance at the Champions Trophy and the imminent finals of the IPL, it certainly appears that red ball cricket will have to take a back seat over the next month or so.
It is of course representative of the current climate in cricket throughout the world and with the Champions Trophy being played in England the focus is very much centred on the home side’s chances of success. The mere fact that Steyn’s presence has barely been covered is indicative of the mood but it comes as a massive shame to anyone hoping to watch him in England one last time.
South African cricket is going through its toughest spell since readmission in 1991; several of their recent internationals decided to take deals with English county sides this summer rather than representing their country and a few of their best prospects are now no longer available for selection. When you also throw in the peculiarities of AB de Villiers withdrawal from the Test series and now Steyn’s absence, South African cricket appears on shaky ground.
The loss of Steyn is a blow for not only the South African’s though; he has been one of the world’s premier fast bowler for the last decade now and this summer represented one final opportunity to watch him at his best for English cricket fans.
The hope was that after a long injury layoff he would be fit and raring to go at England’s top order on 6 July. Not only would this give his side a boost, it would also present England’s batsmen with a very stern test.
Having missed the corresponding series in South Africa in 2015/16 it would have been a very good workout for Cook, Root et al before they go to Australia for the Ashes at the end of the year. Facing very good fast bowling is not something that many of England’s top order have done very often and facing Steyn on English pitches would sharpen up their technique quicker than most.
What has been so special about Steyn is not just the speed at which he bowls but the speed of thought he has when deciphering his opponent’s weaknesses. Whilst he might not have the aggression of Mitchell Johnson or the raw speed of Shoaib Akhtar he has the best bowling brain there has been since perhaps Shane Warne. Occasionally, like any fast bowler, he has tried to bowl too quickly to opponents in the heat of the battle but there have been very few, if any, in recent memory who possess a skill set even close to Steyn.
Steyn’s presence is not only a miss for this summer but also one that the game will feel. In a sport that has become obsessed with big bats, big hits and smaller boundaries a bowler who is highly skilled will always be missed. There are not many bowling talents coming through to counter David Warner’s ever growing edges and if you were just starting to play the game, who would be a bowler?
There is Pat Cummins for Australia who seems to have finally got over his injury hoodoo, Kagiso Rabada for South Africa and Mohammed Amir for Pakistan who could become the leading fast bowlers in the world, but they need to stand up and be counted sooner rather than later. The game is at its most effective when the competition between bat and ball is at its optimum and it has not been even vaguely competitive for a couple of years now. There is the odd game or the odd batting collapse that resembles the balance of power being levelled out but the frequency that this occurs suggests that it is down to poor batting rather than expert bowling in some circumstances.
Dale Steyn has left a tremendous legacy in the game of cricket and it is devastating news to know that he will not be running out at Lords on 6 July. The future of red ball cricket remains overshadowed by the shorter formats at this moment in time and if Test cricket is to remain the pinnacle of the sport it needs players of Steyn’s calibre and quality.
By Andy Hunter