Liam Brickhill in Centurion
Dale Steyn has spent the last six months on the cusp of becoming the most successful South African Test bowler in history, but he has spent even longer within close striking distance of the record. He passed the 400-wicket mark three-and-a-half years ago, but has only played eight Tests since, and ahead of what should be a record-breaking game against Pakistan on Boxing Day, Steyn insisted he had “a bigger goal” than simply the record to aim for.
“I’m just looking forward to getting out there,” Steyn said. “I’ve been answering that question about that one wicket for about two years now so we’ve passed that.”
Steyn needs just one wicket to go past Shaun Pollock’s 421 Test scalps, a record that has stood for a decade since Pollock played his last Test. Now that he is as fit and hungry as ever, Steyn might be forgiven for putting all his focus into achieving the milestone. But for Steyn, as soon as he takes the wicket that gives him the record, his attention will immediately turn to taking the next one.
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“I’ve got a lot of wickets in me than just one more,” he said. “I haven’t saved myself to take one more wicket than Polly. There is a bigger goal at the end of the day. It’ll be a beautiful thing to happen for me if it does. These honours are great things to achieve and I’ll be highly honoured. But when I do, I’ll get back to the end of my mark and try and take another one. That’s the plan.”
Pollock played 108 Tests to get to 421, while Steyn has reached that mark in just 88 Tests over a career that has spanned 14 years so far. It is Steyn’s remarkable strike rate of 42.0 – the sixth-best of all time among bowlers who have sent down a minimum of 2000 balls – that brought him so quickly to the brink, but that incisiveness was built on bowling express pace, which has brought its own hazards.
Steyn was five wickets away from Pollock’s record when he suffered a shoulder injury during South Africa’s tour of Australia in 2016. “Many people don’t know the seriousness of that injury,” he said. “It was a broken arm. You can’t just pick yourself up and start going again. But it was wonderful to have that break. I got a lot closer with my family, something a lot of us struggle with because we’re on the road for so long. I was able to build great relationships with people who are close to me. And travel while I’m still young and come back really excited to play cricket at the highest level. I feel like I’m 23.”
Incidentally, that’s exactly the age of Steyn’s new-ball partner Kagiso Rabada, who has picked up the mantle of senior bowler while Steyn has fought his way back to full fitness, and is ranked No. 1 in the world among Test bowlers.
While the 35-year old Steyn gears up to lead the attack feeling fitter and more fired-up than ever, the injuries to Lungi Ngidi and Vernon Philander have given him and Rabada added responsibility to lead from the front. Steyn warned, however, that no one should forget the impact that the recalled and in-form Duanne Olivier could make.
“The onus will be on your bigger players like KG (Rabada) and myself to lead the attack,” he explained. “Duanne has been bowling beautifully, he was the highest wicket-taker in the Mzansi Super League. In the four-day game he played the other days he got a few wickets and even got Faf [du Plessis] out. If he slips under the radar and he comes up trumps with wickets and wins us the game I will not be complaining.”
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While Rabada and Olivier could be match-winners in their own right, the attention will be on Steyn in Centurion – his former home ground and one at which he has taken 56 wickets in nine Tests at 17.12. Traditionally, it’s a track that encourages fast bowlers, and can be deflating for visiting batsmen unused to South African conditions, and Steyn is happy to be here after the slim pickings of his last Test outing, in Sri Lanka, where he only picked up two wickets across two Tests.
“Every time a subcontinent team comes down to South Africa, they look down at the wicket and they’re not familiar with these conditions,” Steyn said. “They look at the wicket and there’s a bit of grass and you feel they’re two down already. It’s definitely not Dubai. I’m the guy that’s going to do that. I’m the guy with the brand-new ball in my hand. So it’s advantage fast bowler at the end of the day.
“So I look forward to playing against Pakistan, and I’ve done well against them in the past. I’ve got fond memories of the Wanderers too, where I got 6 for 8. I go through that stuff in my mind to try and boost myself up. But you’ve got to wait till game day to see how this goes.
“It’s just nice to have a red ball in my hand again. Sri Lanka was tough conditions for the fast bowlers, but by the looks of things – the way the nets have been playing out in the middle- there is some spice. I am looking forward to getting out there and playing five competitive days of cricket.”