Even as the Deccan Chargers crashed and burned in the fifth edition of the IPL, one man towered over all his peers in the tournament. Dale Steyn is already counted among the greatest fast bowlers of all time, and he came into the tournament with little to prove. Yet, the manner in which he steamed in and repeatedly ripped the heart out of the opposition batting even as his team struggled, was a sight for sore eyes. Steyn in full flow is a sublime sight, provided you're not facing him, as the Rajasthan Royals and Royal Challengers Bangalore found in the final matches of the league phase of the IPL. Steyn took time off for a typically candid conversation with Wisden India. Excerpts:
Q: The IPL is into its fifth year. Having been involved in the competition from the start, what are your impressions of the tournament?
A: Every time I come here, it seems to be getting more and more professional. I have noticed that throughout the five years - this being the fifth year. In the start, it was a lot of smiles. I don't think a lot of people knew how big it was really going to get and where it was at. It was a new format, so it was exciting, but you can see how professional it has got nowadays. It's right on there. The guys are training hard, there is a lot of talk about guys preparing for IPL months before the start of the first game. There's planning involved now whereas in the first year, everyone arrived here and it was like, 'Hi, I am Dale', 'Hi, I am Rahul'. You have never played with each other before, you have only played against each other and now you are team-mates. As the years have unfolded, you can see how much better it has got. I think it has produced some unbelievable cricketers in the same breath. Guys have come out here and showcased their talent, and they have gone and stepped up to play at the highest level. Guys from India, from Australia - David Warner for example came over here and played in the IPL, and now he is playing Test cricket. It's fantastic to see what it has done for the game also.
Q: Has the IPL helped build too many bridges between players and thus taken some charm away from head-to-heads in international cricket?
A: It kind of sucks, doesn't it?!! For a fast bowler like me, you want to get grumpy at guys, it brings out the best in a fast bowler. For the spectators too, when they see guys steaming in with that menacing look in their face, it's really like old West Indian type 'I am going to kill you' kind of bowling stuff. You can't do it now - one night, I am running in and bowling against Richard Levi. I am good friends with the guy. One other night, I went out and bowled at Faf (Francois du Plessis). Not that I don't want to get the guy out, but it's just how do you go about doing that? I suppose it would be different if it was my sister - I can argue with my sister but I have never argued with my mates before. But that's what it has done now. What happens is when you go to Test cricket, it becomes hard. It's difficult to know whom you can target, who you can attack because you just never know who you are going to share a dressing room with in the future. In the same breath, it's also created some unbelievable friendships. I know when we played against India, myself and Ojh (Pragyan Ojha), we were having a full go at each other in South Africa, only to know a couple of weeks later that we were both playing for Deccan Chargers. When we walked into the Chargers dressing room, we just sort of smiled and laughed and hugged each other. We are good mates now, I love Ojh. But before, it was like a big war. But I think it has made for better viewing and maybe even better cricket, who knows?
Q: If you are bowling to Kumar Sangakkara in a Test match, for instance, it is easy to temporarily disregard the fact that he is your IPL captain?
A: To be honest, it's difficult. It's always there. At the end of the day, I will still walk past Sanga after bowling him a bouncer or something like that, and just nudge him and smile. But if it was another guy who I didn't know, I wouldn't do it. I would probably walk past him and say 'The next one is going to knock your block off' or something like that. But yeah, I don't think it stops the competitive streak between the players because I can guarantee you as a bowler, if a batsman hits me for a four or six, he is not going to apologise to me and I am certainly not going to be apologising if I knock his stumps off the ground. That's the way it is.
Q: You have been playing the IPL for so long now, yet your last Twenty20 International was in May 2010...
A: I think from a South African perspective, it's difficult to play every format of the game for your national team. There's just so much cricket being played right now that when you are playing every format - one-day games, T20s and Test matches - you don't get a break. We hardly get a lot of time at home. I think the great thing is that when you play for South Africa, Gary (Kirsten) who is now the coach recognises that and gives guys the options. He knows it is impossible to keep playing all the time and every format of the game, he gives guys the option - 'Do you want to play, don't you want to play'? Sometimes, you know, being able to spend a weekend at home is a lot more beneficial for your mind and your body than it is having to run up and perform in a T20 game. That's just the way it works with us. I haven't played a T20 game for South Africa in two years or so. But the fact of the matter is I am still coming to play IPL cricket and if you think about it, it is really international cricket because you are playing against international stars. At the same time, you are getting guys who probably wouldn't play IPL cricket - someone like a Wayne Parnell. When he gets the opportunity for playing for South Africa and I am not playing we are on the same level which is great because if I ever get injured for South Africa, or Morne Morkel for example, the guys can step up because they have played at the highest level. It kind of balances things out, it works really well for us.
Q: So you are saying you are available for the World T20 in Sri Lanka later this year...
A: Absolutely. That's the thing. At the end of the day, when you want to win a World Cup - and the T20 World Cup is a World Cup and South Africa has
never won a World Cup before - you want to have the pick of your best players. I am not going to say I am the best player or anything like it but I will certainly put my hand up and say if you want me, I am there. I sure am not resting during that period!
Q: How much does it hurt, not having a World Cup winner's medal around your neck?
A: I have only been involved in a couple. Does it hurt? Yes and no. I have come to grips with the fact that that's sport, you know, and that's life. Sometimes, you can't get everything you want, that's just how it is. Other people seem to have things fall in their lap. But that's just how it is in sport. I think we create our own luck, at the end of the day. If we keep playing good cricket, things will happen for us. There are so many formats of World Cups and Champions Trophy that if we are as good a team as we are, we are bound to win one. I just hope if we can win one, two, maybe more in the little bit of career that I have got left, it wouldn't be a bad thing.
Q: When did you start to believe that you had what it took to be a huge success at the international level?
A: I believed that when I got dropped (after his first three Tests against England in early 2005), I think. That's when I knew I had to put in the yards, do some hard work. I did that and when I got recalled and picked again, I bowled pretty well. My comeback Test, I took five wickets against New Zealand in the second innings (in April 2006), that was so long ago. Since then, I have played every game, I haven't missed a Test match. But I knew once I had gotten back and I started to do well that I belong here. Then, it was just a matter of confidence, staying there. But it was also quite tough because when I was playing, guys like Makhaya (Ntini) and Shaun Pollock were involved. Now you have got to play these guys out of their places. Shaun Pollock is a legend, Makhaya Ntini is a legend. How do you drop one of them for a youngster like myself? But when they did, they put their faith in you, it's pretty cool. You know you have to step up.
Q: Didn't that put added pressure on you?
A: It did. But when you are very young, you don't think of it like that. You just think you have been an given an opportunity ahead of someone like Shaun Pollock, and how cool is that. People must think you are pretty good if they are leaving out one of the world's best for you. That's a feather in your cap, if I ever had one.
Q: Now you have guys like Vernon Philander and Marchant de Lange pushing the established order...
A: It just adds to the fact that we got all our bases covered. Now we got someone like Vernon who is on a phenomenal roll, and long may it continue. As
long as he is taking wickets at the pace and rate that he does, we will just try and take the remaining five or four that are left for us! It makes life a lot easier for us. When are you going into a game and you know that ten wickets are already in Vernon's pocket, the other four of us are fighting for the last ten! But it's great. When we are bowling teams out, we are winning cricket games. Especially Test matches. To win a Test match, you need to take 20 wickets. That's how we have seen it for years and years and years and years. When we have got guys who are going to bowl teams out, I am certainly not going to complain because if I am winning games for South Africa or I am part of a winning team and a winning culture, I am more than happy.
Q: Do you see a decisive resurgence of quality swing bowling?
A: I think this game is a surprising game. Guys will come out of somewhere and blow that stat away and the next thing you know, it will be like we are missing the hit-the-wicket kind of bowlers. That's just how it is, that's cricket. There's a million 18-year-olds that are waiting to break through into first-class cricket and then international cricket. I can guarantee you that somewhere along the line, there are swing bowlers involved and somewhere along the line, there is a bowler who can bowl 160 kmph. That's amongst all of those out there. That's exciting for the game. We are just waiting for that phase to come again. But I don't think it has gone anywhere. Someone else is bowling better than those guys at the moment.
Q: Why fast bowling, why not something else?
A: The thing is that's what I am good at, eh? That's what I do. Some people are really good at whatever it is they do, they know it. I know that the one thing I am really good at is bowling really quickly. The other thing that I think I have got really good over the years is my accuracy. I can bank on both of those. On days when the body isn't quite feeling up to bowling at speeds of 150 kmph, I can still bank on my accuracy and still bowl quicker than your average bowler, which is quite nice. But when I am bowling really fast, that's when I know that everything's clicking and that's what I want to be doing. You want to look up, you want to see the speed gun saying 150ks... I don't generally go looking for it, when it is up there, you can't help but seeing it (the speeds). During the IPL, there are like five big screens and TVs standing as big as can be. 150ks per hour - it gets the blood flowing a little bit.
Q: While other top teams have struggled in India in particular and the sub-continent in general, South Africa have been far more successful in this part of the world. What is it that South Africa have done that the others haven't?
A: I can't speak for the others because I haven't really watched much how they have played here but from our side, we cover all our bases with the bat and with the ball. We have got guys with the ball that are tall and who bring a different angle. We've got everything - we got guys that are tall, guys that are short and skiddy, good spin bowlers. We have got patience and we have got a very good captain that's able to set game plans, set fields and the bowlers obviously back it up by doing the correct thing. I also think we got a lot of patience. We are one of those teams that can wait patiently for something to happen. We don't get greedy and go for it. When somebody does get greedy, we quickly go and tell him to get him back in place. Again, we have got batters who have toured here and been here many times before, so that experience is something that you can't throw away. That's what I think we have got and it seems to work for us. Plus, we have got great pace. We have guys that can bowl really quickly. We have guys who when we get a sniff don't stop with one wicket - we can go 1-2-3 very quickly. That's where patience plays its part - we don't give away a lot of runs and we can go 1-2-3 again. But then on the other hand, we have got fantastic batters who can get big scores too.
Q: Have you ever gone into a game thinking, 'no way am I going to get these guys out today'?
A: Yeah, it happens all the time. We play on wickets that are quite flat these days. I can't remember a specific time, but there have been times when you are running in and you are thinking, no ways, it's not going to happen. And then Vernon bowls from the other side and picks up wickets, which is great! There have been times when that has happened but there have also been times when batsmen have walked out and said 'I am not going to score a run here', so it kind of evens itself out.
Q: Can you think of a better spell you bowled than to Sachin Tendulkar in Cape Town in January 2011 for no success at all?
A: I bowled a year before that to Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell, also in Cape Town. It was a drawn Test, they were nine down. On the final day, I took the second new ball just after lunch, and I probably went past the bat like 20-25 times out of 36 balls, and just didn't find the edge. I felt that if I had found the edge, the next guy that came in wouldn't have stood a chance. I would have nicked him off, it would have been one of those 1-2-3s and would have been the end of the game. I bowled that spell and again to Sachin, where I didn't take a wicket. It happens, but what can you do? Then again, on another day, I might bowl a half-volley and it gets driven straight to cover or whatever.
Q: To bowl that well and not be rewarded, how can it not be frustrating?
A: How can it not be frustrating? Because a lot of the time, we have had success as a team. Over the last couple of years, we have won a lot of cricket games and I think that's the best thing at the end of day. I don't worry about that. It happens, fine. I am not too fazed. I know I have got another ball. He's only got one chance, it doesn't really faze me. He can play and miss all he wants but I know somewhere along the line I should find the edge or I might find the edge and then it's goodbye for him and I am still there. That's the thing that keeps me going.
Q: 272 sticks in 54 Tests. Have you ever paused to wonder just where you might finish up at?
A: I just take it as it comes. I am not really much of a stats man. I didn't start playing this game for stats, and I am not certainly going to continue playing it for stats. It's nice to have those kind of numbers that back me but for me, when we went to New Zealand now, what sums it up for me was I didn't have big success. I didn't take 20 wickets in three Tests. But at the end of the day, I started things for our team. I got vital wickets and I started something where Vernon came on the other side and picked up 3 or 4. But when we needed something to happen, I was the guy that everyone was hoping would stand up and I did. I picked up the wickets that started it all. I was recognised by the players in my team for doing that. That for me is the biggest thing. If I can keep doing that, if I can keep living up to their expectations, then I think I am doing the right job. Pick up five wickets and lose a game, it doesn't mean anything. But if I can pick up that one wicket that starts the tumble - on a flat track when no one looks like getting a wicket and I get one and when people come and say that's what we need and that's fantastic or you bowl this killer ball, this bouncer from nowhere and it gets recognised by the men around you, that's going to stand out a lot more for me. (Mark) Boucher is never going to remember how many wickets I take in my career, but he will sit and tell his grandchildren one day about that spell I bowled in MS Dhoni in Chennai or that spell during which I got Brendon McCullum in, say, Hamilton. That's what means more to me.
R Kaushik is Deputy Editor, Wisden India