What if Dale Steyn had remained fit?

This week Dale Steyn will become South Africa’s leading Test match wicket taker when he overhauls Shaun Pollock’s record (with whom he is currently level at the time of writing) of 421 wickets. It is a phenomenal achievement by the South African pace bowler who is considered by most as the best bowler the world has seen in the last decade.

No South African has taken more Test wickets than Dale Steyn, a true great of the modern game – if not a true great full stop

There is a tinge of sadness surrounding this feat, though, because he became only the 15th player to take over 400 wickets in late 2015 and due to injuries, has only featured in seven Test matches since then. His most recent return, before this current series, was during the ill-tempered Australian tour of South Africa earlier on this year when he picked up one wicket before hobbling off the field with an ankle injury. Now back in a South African shirt in Sri Lanka, one can only hope that his injury worries are behind him and we can finally sit back and enjoy a truly world class performer.

It is only really when you start looking through his numbers that you really appreciate just how much the game has lost during these two and half years of injury. He currently has 421 wickets in just 87 Tests at an average of 22.42. To put that into context, James Anderson, widely considered one of England’s greatest ever bowlers, has taken 540 wickets in 138 test matches at an average of 27.23. He has taken 26 five wicket hauls and five 10 wicket hauls across his career compared with 25 and three for Anderson. It is truly phenomenal.

If he’d played as many games as Anderson, for example, and maintained roughly the same average, he’d now have taken around 650 wickets and would be comfortably the most successful pace bowler the game had ever seen. Of course the unknown variables can come into it and perhaps he might not have been as successful, but as Anderson is showing now and Glenn McGrath showed during the latter years of his career, these wily pace bowlers get better with age and experience.

It would be wrong though to think of Steyn as purely a speedster though. He is one of the most skillful and thoughtful bowlers we’ve seen in international cricket and allied with an impressive arsenal of methods with which to get batsmen out, the entire batting fraternity of world cricket has been able to sleep much easier without him being on the pitch. That immense focus he seems to get in his eyes when he smells wickets being on offer has been sorely missed.

The term ‘great’ is banded around all too readily these days and quite often lacks context. In Gideon Haigh’s Ashes to Ashes book, published in 2014, he wrote a small chapter that was concerned with the number of great players who retired around that time and the increasingly changing world of international cricket since the advent of the IPL and other lucrative domestic tournaments around the world. When discussing T20 he wrote; “you can be proficient in scoring the maximum runs off 60 balls and conceding the minimum runs from a four over spell but, at present, the appellation ‘great’ in the context of T20 makes no more sense than it would if applied to a burger, a music video or Piers Morgan. Greatness matters, greatness stirs.”

As those fortunate enough to watch Steyn taking his 422nd Test wicket this week will testify, Steyn matters and he also stirs. He has been a truly great performer throughout his career with South Africa and deserves this accolade. Let us hope there is much more to come in terms of wickets, if not injuries.

By Andy Hunter

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