Dale Steyn bowls
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Talking Cricket

'421 was just a number that I had to go past to get where I wanted to go'

Dale Steyn looks back at two years spent on the sidelines, as people wondered if he was done. Is he? No way

Interview by Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

By the time you had your big shoulder injury in Perth in 2016, you were already on 408 wickets. Did you have Shaun Pollock's South Africa record of 421 wickets at the back of your mind even then?
Before that injury, I'd also broken my shoulder, like a year before, against England. I was heading for 400 wickets at that time, and everyone was excited about getting No. 400. It didn't happen against England. It took a little while to come back, but that injury wasn't as bad - it was like a hairline crack. Then we went to Bangladesh and I got 400.

By the time I got to Australia, everyone was talking about going past Polly. Polly even took a bottle of champagne down. And then the injury came back. This time it was a clean break. The bone properly snapped in half.

Was the hype about the record other people's doing?
It really is unavoidable. I've never really chased records or anything like that. I just kind of play. When I play, things do happen quite naturally. But that 400 and Polly's record were the two toughest wickets. Because that was the first time I was made aware of something that had as much gravity as it did. Everywhere I went, it was like: "You're one game away. You're going to break Polly's record." And then it ended up taking like f****** two years.

Did you ever feel like you rushed yourself back?
No, no, no. When I broke my shoulder against Australia, we didn't see it coming. You can't predict something like that. When I spoke to my shoulder doctor, he said: "Look, that was not supposed to happen. It was absolutely freak." It took eight months to recover and do my rehab, and as I got back, I landed in a foothole and tore a little muscle in my heel, against India. I've never had a heel injury in my life. Just shitty luck.

"I always thought, I'd love to spend some time with my family. I'd love to pick up a hobby that I'm good at, but I just don't have the time." Careful what you wish for, because all of a sudden I had two years to myself"

Did you feel like everything was conspiring against you?
I did! Absolutely. I walked into the dressing room and I was so angry. I just lost my mind a little bit. You don't want to walk off the field. Records please other people, but to walk off in the middle of the game and leave my team to do the hard work and win games one bowler short - that's not a rad thing to do. I'd walked out of Tests against England, India for a groin injury, Australia, and again against India. So four times I'd left the field in my last six Test matches. Records at that point didn't matter anymore. It would have been nice to finish a Test match.

So you were angry when you got back to the dressing room. What happened?
It was the first time I'd spent some time with Ottis Gibson, the new coach. The reason I was angry was that he'd said to me: "Look, when you recover, there's a spot in this team for you. You've just got to come back." In fact, the first game I was supposed to play was against Zimbabwe, over here [in South Africa], and I got terrible flu. I was "rested" that game, but actually, behind the scenes I was ridiculously sick.

So there was frustration. You have a little cry. You throw your toys around the cot a little bit when no one is around. Once everyone is back in, you look cool, calm and collected.

What does throwing toys out of the cot look like for you?
I remember sitting in a corner at Newlands and the doc came to me and said: "We've got to do an MRI now." Then all the feelings and the emotions that I had when I broke my shoulder came back. Because I know what the outcome is. I've been around long enough to tell you how long injuries take. That's when reality actually hits. Until then you think: "There's a chance. Maybe it's a bruise and I'll wake up tomorrow and it will be gone." When someone says we've got to do an MRI, that means five weeks. Cheers. So you push a tear. And I'm like, let's go hear what I already know.

Play 01:21

Steyn's slow, bumpy road to summit Mt Pollock

What do you do to take your mind off things when you're on the long, hard road to recovery?
Apart from the two years being incredibly frustrating because I wasn't able to play, it was also actually great, because not many people get to take a two-year gap out of their international career and still be on Cricket South Africa's salary. And then come back, open arms, "Please come and play for us when you're ready." It was quite nice.

A lot of guys do that when they're young. Pat Cummins had that, and James Pattinson always seems in and out. I never had that. I always thought: "I'd love to go on a holiday. I'd love to spend some time with my family. I'd love to pick up a hobby that I'm good at, but I just don't have the time." Careful what you wish for, because all of a sudden I had two years to myself.

But then you're watching the team play on TV, and you're part of the WhatsApp group, and you see all the messages, and you see all the pictures of the drinks that they are having when they win games, and the guys all looking upset when they lose games. You want to be there, because that's all I've done my whole life.

Since you've got back, how important is pace to you? Speed is obviously everything. Especially playing in this team. It's key that I'm bowling over 140kph an hour. I've got some skill. I've been around long enough to know how to bowl an inswinger, an awayswinger, and a cutter and a this and a that. But if someone hits you for six, all anyone really wants to do - you can ask any spinner - is run in and bowl a 150kph bouncer. And I can do that. Unless I can do that, I'm like everybody else.

Dale Steyn gets into his delivery stride, South Africa v India, 1st Test, Cape Town, 1st day, January 5, 2017 © Marco Longari/AFP/Getty A timeline of Steyn's injuries over the last three years

Before 2015: largely injury-free career, 406 wickets at 22.53

November 2015: goes off the field with a groin strain in the Mohali Test against India.

December 2015: suffers a hairline fracture in the shoulder against England; out for six months

August 2016: returns to Tests, takes 11 wickets at 13.90

November 2016: snaps bone in shoulder in Perth; out for eight months

January 2018: makes comeback against India in Cape Town; on 2 for 51, lands awkwardly in a foot hole and tears a muscle in his heel; out for a further three months

June 2018: makes return in county cricket for Hampshire; bowls 50 overs in a match

July 2018: equals Shaun Pollock's South Africa record in the first Test in Sri Lanka, but goes wicketless in 28 overs in the second

December 2018-February 2019: takes 18 wickets at 25.94 in first four Tests of ongoing home summer, against Pakistan and Sri Lanka

A lot of bowlers are quick when they are young, but they come to a time in their career when they are happy to go down to that 130kph range. You seem to not be a fan of that idea.
I'm just not one of those people. I'm also really lucky. I never really had an injury before this. And the two injuries I had were pretty freaky. My right shoulder, which I bowl with, and my left foot, which is my landing foot. Couldn't have asked for two worse injuries. But once I recovered from those injuries, nothing's changed. I can still bowl really quickly.

It really boils down to how much heart you've got and whether you actually want to. You wake up in the morning you're like: "Am I okay with bowling 135kph?" Or are you: "No, 100%, I'm going balls to the wall here." That's just who I am.

But I'm blessed. I think I can bowl 140kph without much trouble. It doesn't require a lot. It requires a little bit more to bowl 150 - don't get me wrong. That's really upping it. But to bowl 140 and 145 - that doesn't require a lot for me.

Was there a time after the injuries when you came back and saw the speed you were bowling, and saw that you were up there again? Well, when I was playing for Hampshire last year, I wasn't too worried about the speeds. The key thing was to get through as many overs as I could. I remember playing against Yorkshire where I bowled 50 overs in a game. My physio was standing down at fine leg, and when I got down there after my 50th over, he said: "Get off this field right now." We still had the tour of Sri Lanka.

But that for me was a big landmark. I had overs under the belt. No one could say to me I was an injury risk. I had bowled 50 bloody overs in a four-day game. Now, when it comes to Tests, I don't have to bowl as many overs. I can use a little bit more energy and I can bowl quicker.

Steyn takes a selfie with two schoolgirls at a ceremony in Colombo to mark Nelson Mandela's birth centenary

Steyn takes a selfie with two schoolgirls at a ceremony in Colombo to mark Nelson Mandela's birth centenary © AFP/Getty Images

Did the talk of you being an injury risk hurt?
Yeah, because it's a shit one. Every time you bowl, the conversation is: "Oh, he's an injury away from retiring. He's a liability. He's always getting injured."

I wasn't always getting injured! I had two really bad injuries. That's it. I'm not Superman. I literally snapped a bone in my shoulder. There's nothing I can do about it. That takes eight months. It's not like I did a hamstring and three weeks later I did another hamstring.

So I had two freak injuries that both took longer than your regular injury. And then I got to Hampshire and I injured my groin, and I tweeted: "I've never had so much attention on my groin before." Those are small, superficial injuries that everyone picks up.

You came from Hampshire to Sri Lanka, and all the talk was about Pollock's record. You have an incredible strike rate, but you went through quite a few overs there for only two wickets in the series. How did that make you feel?
I didn't mind it too much. I think you've got to understand that the best thing about playing cricket is to experience the highs and the lows. Two of the biggest lows that I've had in cricket was going to the IPL and being benched, and having everyone write newspaper articles about "Oh, he's a great player, but he's not what he was before." You can only fit four of us [overseas players] in the team.

The other one was going to Sri Lanka and not being able to pick up wickets. And I'm okay with that because it's all part of the game. There's batters that have gone through periods without scoring many runs. I was very fortunate throughout my whole career that I've been able to strike every 40 balls. Now I couldn't. I literally played two Tests and couldn't pick up a wicket. That was a unique experience. But it was cool. It wasn't exactly what I wanted, but that's fine - now I had that experience.

"Until you take a five-for, or until you take six or seven, that's when people are like: "He's back." What is the absolute difference between four and five? Not a hell of a lot. But somehow, that's what it requires"

It would have been easy to read all this stuff about you being past it, essentially, then go through a tour like Sri Lanka and doubt yourself. A lot of players might ask if they were really past it.
It was just that situation. I thought those were probably the toughest fast-bowling conditions I've ever had. Hindsight's always great, and maybe I can think to myself and say: "Maybe I should have bowled a couple of cutters and had a catching cover and a guy on the leg side, and tried around the wicket." But I didn't. That's what learning is all about. So next time I'm in that situation, I can go there and use that hindsight and try and apply that. But I never doubted myself.

How do you pick yourself up after an outing like that?
You just carry on going, eh? What can you do? What are you supposed to do, you know? I don't think I was really down. That was just what happened. I look back at my career and think: "I've had some amazing experiences." I can't doubt myself because of 1%, when 99% of my career has been fantastic. I just look at the positive and carry on.

Ahead of this season, you still had to get Pollock's record. What was your attitude going into this home summer?
I was actually very excited. I knew we were going to be here for the whole of December, and they were pitches and conditions that we were going to be very familiar with. I had been away from home since May, when I went to play for Hampshire. Then I went to Sri Lanka and went back to Hampshire, where it was slow conditions at the Ageas Bowl. It wasn't exactly fast bowler-friendly. I was licking my lips to get back to South Africa.

I was looking forward to this [Sri Lanka] series too. After what we had in Sri Lanka, I was looking forward to conditions that were fiery and fast, and Durban wasn't exactly that. I still ran in and bowled as quick as I could.

"If you spend two years on the sidelines, that makes you think a bit. You can't take what you love doing for granted" © Getty Images

You said the two hardest things were your 400th wicket and Pollock's record. Which one felt better?
I think getting over Polly's one was like: "Thank God that's done, let's carry on now, please." It took so long to get from 400 to 421 that there was a lot of talk. Four-two-one, four-two-one, four-two-one the entire time. And that shouldn't be the end number. I still thought there was a lot more. There's 500, there's 550 and 600. But we were very focused on this one number. Rightly so, because it's been around for a long time and it's a big deal for a lot of people. But for me it wasn't.

Four-two-one was just a number that I had to go past to go where I wanted to go. When you keep talking about it as much as people did, and as much as reporters did, it's like, once you get there, you are now done. That was not the case. There's still a lot more. I wanted to get it over with, so I can be like: "So, can we now see that nothing's changed? Now focus on what's next."

Has going through all of this changed your perspective on your career?
Taking two years off definitely changed it quite a bit. It's tough to put my finger on it right now, but if you look at Dale Steyn the cricketer from three or four years ago, the guy who's sitting here now is a lot more chilled, and I'm really enjoying my cricket more now than I did four years ago. I'm happy to be here, happy to be contributing. Four years ago I almost felt like I needed that break. I needed that two years. It's a pity it came through injury. Now I'm not too worried about losing games.

It's an old cliché: "You don't know what you're missing until it's gone." If you spend two years on the sidelines, that makes you think a bit. You can't take what you love doing for granted.

"I literally played two Tests and couldn't pick up a wicket. That was a unique experience. But it was cool. It wasn't exactly what I wanted, but that's fine - now I had that experience"

If you could break it down to what you most enjoy about being back, what would that be?
I think just being on the field and being competitive. I think a lot of people go to gym, a lot of people play tennis, and a lot of people play golf, and they feel like that's enough. That fulfils them. Then they go to work, and that's enough.

For me, to go to the gym, there's a purpose. When I'm playing and everyone's watching and supporting and expecting - that is it. When I'm able to take wickets and bowl fast and it says 150kph on the screen, I feel like I'm doing good, I'm doing what I should be doing. People will race back from work, or not go to work, to watch it on TV. Or come down to the ground. That's inspiring. That's the greatest pleasure I feel right now, because for two years when I wasn't playing, people were like: "We miss you, dude. We can't wait for you to get back on the park." Now I am on the park, and people I speak to are happy and excited.

Seriously, what more would I really want to be doing? My mum, my dad, my sister - everyone is excited. They can see a change in me. I'm happy. Not that I wasn't happy, but I've lifted myself.

You had a pretty good run against Pakistan this season, but someone who did well against you was Babar Azam. What was it like, at this stage of your career, to come up against someone like that?
To be honest, it doesn't bother me. I don't have an answer. He could come here tomorrow and I'll probably get him ten times out of ten. So it doesn't bother me. He's not Sachin, he's not Kallis. He's a good player and he had a good tour.

"I think getting over Polly's record was like: 'Thank God that's done, let's carry on now, please'" © Getty Images

Do you feel you are now beyond having to prove yourself a little bit?
Yes and no. For a batter, he can score 80 in the most difficult situation, and because he didn't score a hundred, his name won't make it into the paper. I'll take four and people will be like: "Proteas attack bowled nicely, led by Dale Steyn (4), KG Rabada (2), Vernon Philander (2)." But until you take a five-for, or until you take six or seven - that's when you really knock the door down, that's when you really smash things apart. That's when people are like: "He's back." What is the absolute difference between four and five? Not a hell of a lot. But somehow, that's what it requires.

I've pushed hard and I've been there. I got four in Cape Town, and had a couple of dropped catches that could have got me to five. Then I got four in Durban and probably the easiest of catches got dropped.

The thing about Test cricket is, it's hard. It should be hard to get that kind of thing. Probably when a five-for comes, I still won't feel like it's enough. I'm not ready yet. I will still want to carry on going.

Do you feel there's something you don't have in your bowling any more, compared to the past?
I don't have the sun shining on me as much as I did back then. You've got guys like KG who are just incredible right now. You've got Duanne [Olivier] who's come in and he's blowing things apart. We've got a bowling attack that actually doesn't require me right now. There was a time when I played, a while ago, where I felt like I needed to play for South Africa to do well. It was led by probably Graeme Smith, who captained me a lot. He made me feel like, "You are the guy." All the time.

"Every time you bowl, the conversation is: "He's a liability, he's always getting injured." I wasn't always getting injured! I had two really bad injuries. That's it. I'm not Superman. I literally snapped a bone in my shoulder"

Now, not so much. There are other guys who can do that. That's changed. And that's fine. That's just how progression is. KG will also get to the back end of his career, when there's going to be another KG Rabada. Another Allan Donald. Another Shaun Pollock. Someone who comes up and is playing alongside him and they will not require him as much anymore because they've got this other guy. This is the first time I've had to deal with something like that in my career. And that's totally fine. But the general public don't feel that yet. I'm okay with it, but the rest of the world will be like, "Oh, he's out. He's too old. He must go now."

That is what I don't have. When it comes to bowling arsenal - I bowl 140-145kph, I swing it in, I swing it away, I bowl a yorker, I bowl a slower ball, and nothing's changed from two-three years ago.

Do you look at someone like a Rabada and envy the way he is physically?
Absolutely! You know what I envy the most is that he gets there and someone says, "He loves bowling." And I said: "He doesn't f****** love bowling. He's just 22. There's nothing wrong with him." I can't do that. He obviously does love his bowling, but being 22 and 23, he can do it for so much longer, I've got to now be smart about how long I do it for and how I do it.

Is there a sign for it that you're done?
When I can't keep up with the pack anymore, then it's time. That's not through other people looking at you, saying, "Oh, he's done." I will know. When I rock up and I go: "These guys are going to beat me around the park," then, no. When I can't bowl as fast as I can for as long as I want to, then I know it's done. Let's get out of here before I embarrass myself.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf