Dale Steyn talks during an interview

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Frankly yours, Dale Steyn

The world's best fast bowler opens up

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Did you know that Harold Larwood "would sit and have a smoke, walk out on to the field, pick up the ball and pfft"?
That's the first time I have heard this story. It is beautiful, isn't it? How old was he when he was doing this?

Probably in his 30s. Do you reckon you would do the same?
Maybe five years ago, but smoking - not happening. If there was a beer, I would probably have one.

Larwood had beer at tea. And to rev himself up he would take snuff.
Really? No way (chuckles). I think him and Warnie would have got along just fine then, because Warnie used to have five cigarettes and a Red Bull and go and bowl (snaps his fingers).

What charges you?
I just prefer to bowl. I ran a half-marathon the day before the Sri Lanka series started last year. I was, like, 1hr 28m for 21km. I felt I could have gone faster. I pushed it.

The next day we flew and arrived in Sri Lanka, and I was a bit stiff three days after the run. I realised that if I played a warm-up soccer-volleyball game I am just going to tear the hammy trying to kick the ball. I felt I would rather just do some warm-up bowling. I bowled well in the Test matches, ODIs and had a successful tour. From there we went to Zimbabwe and I carried on doing it.

When the boys are playing foot-volley, I bowl. I start with a short run and gradually build. Then I get involved in fielding and go back and bowl again. There is none of the sitting down and stretching anymore. I need to be active to get my body flowing.

"I want you to go to bed at night and know when you are playing South Africa tomorrow you have to face me"

Allan Donald recollected an incident where, in between Test matches, you put up a video where you were on a skateboard, jumping around in a local car park with kids.
I love skateboarding. I love surfing. It is all about what you are good at. The team management asked me for the India tour: "Don't you want to play just three ODIs and be ready for the Test matches?" I said, "What is the difference?" If I get injured, pick someone else. While I can run and bowl, let's just do it.

I am not going to suggest Jacques Kallis get on a skateboard or a surfboard. I am not a really good golfer, therefore I have a bigger chance of doing a side strain playing golf than I do of hurting myself on a skateboard. I want to play a lot of Test matches. I want to take wickets tomorrow. I have given up my skateboarding days, but that doesn't mean that I can't roll on a skateboard. And there is a big chance that I can step off the bus and break my ankle.

What makes a fast bowler?
Pace. In the old days that was the main thing. You could bowl any way you wanted to, but if you had raw pace, you were seen as a menacing fast bowler. But the equation is no more the same. The way guys bat these days - reverse-lap a fast bowler's delivery at 150kph. Even players you have never heard before will just go "tuk" and lap you for a six. So pace is no longer just enough. It needs to be controlled pace. You need to know where you want to bowl. If you bowl a bad ball, the attitude of the batsman is: "I'm going to smoke you." Doesn't matter who you are.

The South African physio said you have a unique blend of fast-twitch muscles and endurance, so you can bowl explosive but also do it for long. Have you trained to keep them that way, or tried to improve them?
In high school I did triple jump, long jump, high jump. I was a springy kind of guy. Ran short distances really quickly, like 50, 60, 100 metres. [I ran] 200 metres also really quickly, as I could build up speed. I could also run long distances really well, which is not a common thing.

That is what comes into my cricket now. I always wanted to bowl quicker in the late afternoon than I bowled in the morning; really controlled pace in the morning and then same in the afternoon. Most guys can start off at 140-145kph in the morning and by afternoon they are 120-125kph. By the second new ball they are dead and down. My big thing is, I can make massive inroads at the back end, so I needed to get myself fit enough to do that.

Slow burn: in the nets, Steyn starts with a five-step run-up and gradually moves up to match quota

Slow burn: in the nets, Steyn starts with a five-step run-up and gradually moves up to match quota © Getty Images

Former South African bowler and bowling coach Vinnie Barnes has an interesting story about you…
Did he tell you my lip was about this… (makes gesture with his fingers to signal a swollen lip)?

Flippin' arse! I was in the Titans Academy. I was 19. Someone called me up and said they needed a fast bowler to bowl at the national academy [nets]. That afternoon, me and my friend were messing around waiting for the next group to come [to nets]. I bowled a ball and he smacked it in the indoor nets, hit it really hard. The ball jumped off the spot where the net meets the cement, bounced and hit straight on my mouth. My lip looked like a parrot. Next day he [Barnes] asked me if I could bowl and I said (in barely audible voice) "I can bowl, no problem."

That does not come easy, right, this commitment, this pace?
I was chatting to a young Indian guy yesterday [in a training session at Feroz Shah Kotla] about what he could do to get pace. I was trying to give him any tip that was given to me, and then you get to a point where, unfortunately, only a God-given few can operate at. There haven't been many that can bowl over 150kph an hour consistently or accurately - maybe 20. It is really difficult to get into that bracket. It is that extreme pace.

There are a lot of tips about how to get good at fast bowling: hip drive, use of the left arm, flow of the run-up, good speed, strength at the crease, control, head still, energy going down. But then you need that something else. Something that someone like Usain Bolt has over anybody. Something like AB de Villiers has with his eyes and hands above anybody else. You can train them to a point, but unfortunately some people are just better than others at that specific thing.

"Polly liked a wobbling seam because he found when it lands, it can go slightly this way or that. But I am more of a swing bowler, so I want the seam to be perfect"

At what age did you really start understanding your bowling?
I wanted to be lighting fast. I wanted to be Allan Donald through the air, but I wanted to land the ball the way Polly [Shaun Pollock] landed. I wanted to be the faster version of Shaun Pollock, so I watched the way he trained and then tried to do it myself. Then I figured out a way to consistently land the ball, worked with Mark Boucher, who caught a lot of balls from me. Just watching me from the back of the stumps, he would often say, "Listen, yesterday your head was here, today your head's there. What's goin' on?" And I would be like, "Ah, maybe it is my arm." He would say: "Yes, that's the other thing I have noticed. Your left arm is pulling."

Yes, so maybe six years ago it started to all come together. But it's a work in progress. I am always learning. Some days you wake up and you are stiff. You need to figure out how to run in and land the ball, and other days you feel great. It comes out naturally.

Can you break down your action?
If I haven't bowled for a few weeks, when I get back into the nets I start off with five steps and work my way in. It is impossible to run in from a long way because my back will report, my legs will report. So I start off from five paces, making sure my head is still, focused on the target, left arm is working really well. When my left arm is falling over, my head follows and then my right arm and wrist have to do all the work. That's not right.

Your whole body has to work completely in sync to get the ball down to the other side at maximum pace, so I need to make sure all my energy is behind the ball. That means my wrist needs to be behind the ball. An easy way to tell whether I am doing it correct is by looking at the seam: am I landing on the seam or am I missing the seam? If I am missing the seam then my wrist is not correctly behind the ball. You can tell by knowing the shiny side - if I have made a mark this side (points to one side of an imaginary ball in hand) maybe I am undercutting the ball. If it is on this side then maybe I am overcutting. Little things like that. Even at the World Cup my first net is off five yards. I might increase to half a run-up. Maybe a day or two before a game I could come off a full run-up.

Whatta haul: a catch this size can be as satisfying as a five-for for an enthusiastic fisherman like Steyn

Whatta haul: a catch this size can be as satisfying as a five-for for an enthusiastic fisherman like Steyn © Instagram/Dale Steyn

How many metres does your actual run-up measure?
My full run-up is 19 metres when I measure it out. In the nets I take 21 steps, which is about two and a half to three metres shorter. I have figured out a way where I don't bowl no-balls. But I am lucky I have got my action refined to where I can take off from anywhere I want to, and probably I would not bowl a no-ball.

In the Art of Fast Bowling, Dennis Lillee wrote: just run.
I have never read his book, but he is right. Like I said, I did long jump, triple jump and high jump and I never took a run-up. I just would feel it. In long jump if you are even over by a micro-inch it is a foul jump. It is same thing now [in cricket].

How much does the pitch matter to you?
The pitch doesn't matter at all. You should rely on your skills. Even on these [Indian] wickets that are turning, I would still back myself to run in and take a five-for. That is just who I am. But obviously it is a bonus when the ball is seaming around and there is a bit of bounce. You just need to figure out a way to get wickets whatever the surface is.

I prefer bowling on low, slow wickets here in India as opposed to bowling at the WACA, where there is big pace and bounce and where, if a guy hits it, the ball goes for four. Here I know my economy rate is going to be low; I am going to have the possibility of getting the ball to reverse; it is going to squat; I can bowl those fast cutters; I can have guys catching at short midwicket, short cover; I can bowl straighter lines. Maybe at the WACA, you have to bowl slightly outside off stump.

The difference between a good fast bowler and a brilliant fast bowler is the wickets column.

And what is it between good and great?
Only when you retire (lets out a big laugh). But while you are playing, one day you can be great and next day you can be absolute shit. Fast bowling is a battle. I have run in and bowled a heap of poo sometimes and the guy has hit it straight to cover. At other times I have bowled the spell of my life and I just can't find the edge.

"I can bowl ten overs, not take a wicket. But I know I just need half an opportunity"

You have spoken about the importance of visualisation, about how you stand at fine leg and work out a batsman. Can you expand on that?
I grew up in a small town. We didn't have people teaching us visualisation. I was good at skateboarding. The thing about skateboarding is, if you can't see yourself doing it and you try doing it, you are probably going to get badly hurt. But if you can see yourself doing it, you start off small: if you are going to do the flip trick on a skateboard, you stand still, you do it. Now, I want to do the flip trick down ten stairs, and you do it.

It is the same thing when I am bowling: I start off my run-up from five steps and then I take it to 20-odd. The visualisation came from skateboarding. If I couldn't see myself doing the flip trick then I am in trouble. If I can't see myself getting a batter out then what's the purpose of me running in to bowl? If I am standing at the top of my mark and thinking, 'This guy is going to hit me for six', then he is probably going to hit me for a six. But if I am standing there thinking I am going to pitch the ball on off, I am going to bring it back into him, I am going to hit the top of off stump - that's my visualisation.

How much video work do you do - for yourself and the opposition batsmen?
I watch a lot of it, actually. I don't like to watch the batsman scoring big runs. I'll go through a quick survey of where he scores his runs. I like to look at where he has got out in the last 15 innings. I believe that tends to become a trend. Try and get into their minds.

How many days before a Test do you study the videos?
Maybe two days. I don't focus on it too much. I try and focus on where I want to land the ball, because at least 90% of the time I'm still bowling the ball in exactly the same place. It is literally just a fielding change. Murali Vijay gets caught at mid-on in one-day cricket, so I would have a mid-on nice and straight. Virat [Kohli] hits more to midwicket. I would have a mid-on more round. Shikhar [Dhawan] gets caught a lot at point. So just knowing exactly where you want to have the fielders.

If you want a trend, Sachin [Tendulkar], at one point, was getting caught a lot at short point - not at point behind, not at cover, a square point, very close. I caught him once or twice, not exactly at that position but at cover, but he did hit the ball in the direction of the close square point. You need a captain as well to watch that kind of stuff with you and back your ideas. Graeme [Smith] was very good at that. AB has come into that a lot lately.

"I always wanted to bowl quicker in the late afternoon than I bowled in the morning. My big thing is, I can make massive inroads at the back end, so I needed to get myself fit enough to do that" © AFP

Barnes thinks you are where you are today because you had a good understanding of your bowling early in your career.
I caught on very quickly. It came very natural to me. The other thing is the techniques I used back then to get my line and length, to get my wrist in a good position. I still use them today. So one thing that has helped me is, I was taught good basic things to help my fast bowling and I have never broken away from them.

There are many guys who I can give credit to. Chris van Noordwyk, who was an assistant coach at Northerns. He saw the talent in me when I was 19. Vinnie Barnes, Geoff Clarke, who was our academy coach. I ended up playing at his club team at Eersterust Cricket Club, a coloured club in Pretoria, before I even played for the Titans, because he just saw this white kid that could run and bowl really fast. He was like, "This bloke is going to play for our team. He is going to kill guys." They were paying me 400-500 rand a game and I had never been paid to play cricket before. I was like: How epic is this? I am 19 and I am getting paid to play cricket. This is the best thing ever. That pushed me to want to go further.

Dave Hawken, my club coach at high school. He is an old ballie now. I still stay in contact with him. He would tell me: "Just bowl flat out. Scare these old men."

Do you intentionally use shades of pace - not big change-ups or an obvious slower ball - but adjusting speeds between 133kph and 145kph to challenge the batsman's timing or his bat speed? Or is the variation of pace due to what your body is feeling on that day, what your rhythm is like?
It is a combination of everything. Is this wicket offering a lot? Is this wicket not offering much? I'm talking one-day cricket now. During the World Cup, AB used me for two overs and I would be out of the attack, so I did not have a great deal of opportunity to strike. Twelve balls is not a lot of deliveries to get wickets, whereas Trent Boult or Mitchell Starc bowled five or six upfront. At the end of the tournament [both were] leading wicket-takers. Boulty would be finished bowling his ten overs by the end of the 36th over, utilising the ball, swinging. We had a different type of game plan. We looked at the stats. My economy rate and Immie [Imran] Tahir's in the first ten and the last ten were the lowest.

"There haven't been many that can bowl over 150kph an hour consistently or accurately - maybe 20. It is really difficult to get into that bracket"

But if you know you only have 12 balls you either run in and bowl as fast as you can, or you think, "I need to create a chance here, so I might need to cut back on the pace to make sure I get the ball in the right place." If you are only bowling four or five balls at one batsman and they are frequently rotating strike between right and left-handers it is difficult to get wickets. So it is important how your captain uses you.

You said that part of your plan when you visualise is that in one over there are at least two wicket-taking balls.
In one-day cricket, I have always seen there are only two opportunities to take a wicket in an over. You set a batsman up over a course of two or three balls and then you deliver your killer blow. If you get that right, a new batsman comes in, you could go for glory. Or you can go for the glory ball first up and if you come right, you have the rest of the over to possibly take another wicket, or at times a third if you are lucky. But I always feel like setting up a batsman is a way to do it, and in that case ultimately what happens is, it takes me more deliveries to get a batsman out.

How much of a role does the captain play in supporting you?
Massively. It takes a long time. I had a great relationship with Graeme and often we fought on the field. He wanted me to specifically do certain things. I would say something else. We would clash and then we would do it. He was absolutely brilliant at managing me. It would be interesting to see [through my stats] how Graeme used me as opposed to how well I have done under AB and Hash [Hashim Amla].

Is it important for a senior strike bowler to challenge the captain?
I think so, otherwise it's just mechanical. I can outsmart [the batsman]. I know what I am going to do. I know what my body is feeling. Today I am just not feeling the yorker. He is like, "I need you to bowl a yorker." I am like, "Listen, skip, if I bowl a yorker, I am going to bowl a waist-high full toss. What I can guarantee you is, I am going to bowl him the gun bouncer right now." It's important for your captain to work with your bowler. But if he is just telling you what to do then you might as well get the bowling machine. Where do the stats go? Do they go under my name or under his?

When you are on the field as a senior fast bowler, is there the urge to say something to a young bowler, like Kagiso Rabada, or even a contemporary like Morne Morkel?
It is tough, because I don't know what he and the captain are talking about. And it is not my place to interfere. As bowlers we are always in the nets together. Morne might say, "You know what, I am bowling so nicely today." I would ask him the reason. He might say, "My left arm is working really well today." So during a match, if I am standing at mid-on or mid-off and he is bowling, I'd say: "That left arm is working bloody well." I am just trying to put him in a space where he can operate at his best even if his left arm is not working well.

"The beautiful thing about this South African team is, we have very good camaraderie. After games we end up in the captain's room - Hash's, AB's, Faf's - and the boys would be sitting and talking cricket" © Getty Images

Did you at any stage worry about losing your outswinger?
No, never. That is the biggest thing I have got: my awayswinger. Hopefully, it never goes. I don't think about fast bowling a lot. I just do it. If it is not working today, don't worry, tomorrow I will sort it out. I have to.

So on a non-match day you don't think about cricket?
No. I also never look at pitches before I play because it does not faze me. That is why I would never be a good pitch reporter.

Do you have a comfort factor with any particular type of ball?
I like bowling with the Kookaburra. It definitely swings the most. But again, put any rock in my hand, I am going to throw it.

Do you pick the ball like James Anderson does?
I do pick the ball, but lately I am helping KG [Rabada] pick the ball since he is going to play for a long time. Is it an art? Yes and no. In ODI or T20 you can pick any ball you want and after the first ball gets beaten against the boundary, it's like this (makes a pear shape with his hands). So what is the point spending ten minutes picking a ball? But at least pick the right one because if you are going to bowl one and it is going to swing then you can go for the glory ball. So make sure it is a good ball.

What is the right ball then?
A ball that is oval-shaped, like a rugby ball. Very important. Must feel nice and small in my hand. I don't have particularly big hands, so I want something slightly smaller. I don't want something to be like a soft ball. My ring finger and index finger are the ones that grip and hold the ball in place. If they are sitting slightly higher up on the ball that means that ball is slightly wider. I want them to be sitting slightly underneath the ball. Nice seam. And when you throw it up I don't want the ball to wobble too much. I want the seam to be nice and upright. Polly liked a wobbling seam because he found when it lands it can go slightly this way or that. But I am more of a swing bowler, so I want the seam to be perfect. I want it to go through the air. Even if I don't have the Sreesanth wrist - he bowled a beautiful seam - I want it as close as possible.

You can bowl jaffas, and the mother of all jaffas remains the Michael Vaughan wicket on your Test debut. What, for you, is a jaffa?
The one that pitches middle and leg and hits the top of off is the ultimate jaffa. You are making the guy play and he misses and gets bowled. Then, with reverse swing, you can get one to come in from wide outside off and if the batsman is leaving it, or even playing it, and the ball goes through the gate to get him bowled, to me, that is also a jaffa.

"One day you can be great and next day you can be absolute shit. Fast bowling is a battle"

It is a bit of a freak ball. It also depends on the way the batsman plays it. You can bowl a jaffa to AB and he'd block it. I can bowl the same ball to another guy and he'll get bowled. I remember Rohit [Sharma] coming out to bat in Durban and the ball was reversing. The first ball I bowled to him, he shouldered arms and his middle stump went flying. And I said to him, "What TV were you watching? Because the ball has been reversing for the last ten overs and you've just left it."

Wasim Akram told us that he had a reverse outswinger, reverse inswinger, reverse-swinging yorker, conventional yorker and many more. How many do you have?
They are all there. Back when Waz, Waqar played, they could use all their skills. But now you can't bowl a different ball every ball. Also, back then there was major respect for these bowlers. Now, you have to be clever about how to use reverse swing, how you set up a guy to get him out, because batsmen play them better nowadays. Reverse swing is an art and there is not a lot of it going around right now. As soon as the ball is semi-messed up, umpires change the ball in Test cricket.

Who did you learn reverse from?
I remember coming to Sri Lanka for the first time and facing reverse swing. I had known what it was but never experienced it first-hand. I went out to bat and Dilhara Fernando was bowling and I was told, "Watch out, he's reversing." I was like, "Fine, not a problem." The first ball, I shouldered arms and my leg stump went cartwheeling. In the next nets session I was scratching the ball against the fence and figuring out a way to reverse it. I also realised that length is key for reverse.

You once said: "Polly would just say, 'Don't ever stray off that area.' That area is where the batsman doesn't know whether to play or leave the ball. So it's not just the speed, it's accuracy. For a bowler, sometimes it is difficult to find the proper length. So he would stand in the middle and tell me what the perfect length was." How much time did you take to identify and hit that area?
That is the most difficult thing about fast bowling. That area changes everywhere you go in the world: if you go to the WACA, slightly fuller, if you are playing in Nagpur, slightly shorter, because the wicket doesn't bounce. The bowlers that can find that area fast enough and adapt quick enough are the guys that are going to be successful.

"When I was bowling at Tendulkar, it felt like he kind of knew what was coming all the time. Bloody frustrating. It is like trying to run through a brick wall and there is just no way you can go through it" © AFP

That area is the ball that hits the top of off stump. You need to find out what length to bowl to hit the top of off stump. You can't look at the pitch and say, I need to bowl a little bit fuller right now. Nobody can tell what the pitch is going to do until you bowl the first ball. I generally bowl my first one slightly shorter to see if there is a bit of bounce - I'm giving away secrets here. Then I tend to get fuller and fuller and fuller. Trent Boult might bowl a yorker first ball. I want to find the length and then just work until I find the fuller length, where, like Polly said, you don't know whether to leave it, go back or go forward. It changes pitch to pitch, day to day.

Can you talk about balls bowled by another fast bowler that come to your mind immediately?
Donald v Tendulkar. AD had a bit of a sloppy wrist every now and then, so he would bowl beautiful awayswing and then get his wrist all wrong and get this one that comes back in. I have got this vision in my head of him cleaning up Tendulkar, maybe even two or three times, with a very similar kind of ball: through the air, landing, coming back in, castling Tendulkar.

Then, same bowler, against England at the Wanderers, when they were 4 for 1 or whatever [2 for 4, in November 1999]. He did a similar thing: ran in, bowled massive inswing. I don't think it was deliberate. He recollected that during the warm-up he was bowling everything down the leg side. He said to Hansie [Cronje], "Something is wrong with me. I am bowling these massive induckers." Hansie said: just run with it. So Allan ran in, changed the angle a little bit, bowled full inswingers, and cleaned 'em up.

Newlands, 2011: "That eventful session on the third morning was one of the best sessions of my life in Test cricket," Tendulkar said of the contest he had with you. He even remembers the minutes - 56 - he and [Gautam] Gambhir did not change strike. He faced you while Gambhir dealt with Morkel. That afternoon you said it was a waste of time turning up at the ground. Can you recollect that spell?
Totally embarrassing, because I can't. Also, because I actually didn't get him out. It was a wonderful spell. I think I might have even nicked him off and it was given not out. But I do remember bowling the spell with Morne. I do remember them not changing strike. That game I had an injury and wasn't bowling particularly quickly, and as the spell got longer I started to heat it up a little bit because of the frustration. I bowled a little quicker at him, beat the bat quite a lot. The ball was swinging and nipping quite a bit.

He was a serious player. I also remember when I was bowling at him, it felt like he kind of knew what was coming all the time. That was the most annoying thing, because I was landing the ball exactly where I wanted to. I was bowling at good pace when I wanted to and he had it covered. Bloody frustrating. It is like trying to run through a brick wall and there is just no way you can go through it, so eventually you wave the flag.

"The difference between fishing and fast bowling is, if I don't catch a fish at the end of the day and I go back to the lodge, nobody gives a shit"

How did you know he had it covered?
Just the way he played. If he says 56 minutes I reckon after like 40 minutes of giving everything I had, I realised this guy had it covered. Didn't matter what I do.

When we played the first Test at SuperSport Park I got him out in the first innings - lbw. Second innings he got a hundred. I remember him hitting the cover drive against me quite often. I was like I am going to clean this guy up (claps his hands) next time. I am going to get him caught. Second Test match - I got him nicked off. And we went to Newlands and he didn't play that shot I wanted him to play the whole time. That was another frustrating thing: his ability to pack the shot away that I was trying to get him to play. I bowled him a half-volley and he didn't.

How do you read a batsman? What cues do you look at?
Firstly we try and pick cues while watching the videos. Today we were watching [R] Ashwin [first day of the Delhi Test]. He was very exaggerated in everything he did. He was determined to not get out, or he was very nervous. He normally stands quite still, but today he was really trying to get on the front foot. There was a lot of movement going on. One reason could be he was scared of pace, but there were no pace bowlers bowling. Or he is incredibly nervous and has altered the way he normally plays. I look at things like that in a batsman. You can say to him afterwards, "You never played that shot before. Where did that come from?" You might get a cheeky smile. You might bowl a bouncer and he tries to duck and the next one he tries to ramp.

There is another instance. We were playing against Australia in Durban. I was bowling short balls to Huss [Michael Hussey] and he kept hitting me. Huss was quite a controlled a guy who held himself pretty well. But out of nowhere he just screamed and swore at me. I was like, I'm going to kill you. He was completely out of the comfort zone. Couple of overs later, Morne bowled him a half-volley and his feet were in the crease and his stumps went all over the place. You could see we got under his skin. Body language is an important cue. And a bit of mouth. Sometimes players are really quiet. They don't say too much and when they do, you are like, that is uncharacteristic.

Is there something you can learn from the batsman at times?
I was actually speaking to KG about it this morning. Previous years I spoke to guys like Bouch, Kallis, Smithie. I would speak to them all the time and ask them questions like, "When I am bowling to you, what is difficult to face? Is it this length? Is it that length? Do you find it more difficult when I come wider of the crease? Do you find it more difficult when I come close to the stumps?"

Steyn gets Mahela Jayawardene in the thrilling 2006 P Sara Test that Sri Lanka won by a wicket

Steyn gets Mahela Jayawardene in the thrilling 2006 P Sara Test that Sri Lanka won by a wicket © Getty Images

The beautiful thing about this South African team is, we have very good camaraderie. After games we have a fines meeting. I am the chairman of the fines committee and I run the show with Morne. You can fine each other for simple things like being late for the bus. Then you can have a beer or Powerade or water. After that we end up in the captain's room - Hash's, AB's, Faf's - and the boys would be sitting and talking cricket. That is the only way to improve.

Recently we had a joint fines meeting with New Zealand in Durban. Myself and Nathan McCullum ran the fines committees. We had 80 guys sitting together in a circle singing songs, having drinks. We were handing out awards.

In Ricky's [Ponting] last Test match the Australians came to our change room. They sat with us, sang songs with us, had drinks with us and they were on their way. This Proteas team does it the best.

Let us go back to other key spells in your Test career. Do you remember the spell you bowled on the third day at Chepauk in 2008 against India, where you polished off the tail?
I was dying. I won't lie. I hadn't taken a wicket. [Virender] Sehwag had blitzed us all over. At that point in my career, I was only playing for a couple of years, so it is quite easy to be demoralised after you have just been smoked for that amount of runs. When I look back now I am very proud at what I did there. I bowled like 17 or 18 overs without a wicket. It started off with Dhoni. He came down the wicket and I bowled him a bouncer and he gloved it, caught Boucher. Bouch came up to me and said, "You get a sniff now." I ran in and bowled 145kph. I was dying, but I just knocked the stumps out of the ground. Kumble, RP Singh and, I think, Harbhajan. After bowling for literally a day and a half and being carted all over the place in that heat, it was rewarding.

It was hot, the wicket was flat. [Rahul] Dravid got a hundred too. It was very, very difficult. Not the kind of conditions where you expect to get quick wickets. You have to work for long periods of time to get a wicket. I just stuck at it. I didn't slow down. Pace was there all the time.

Must have been similar conditions in 2006 against Sangakkara and Jayawardene - that epic partnership?
Ah! You know the worst thing about that was that I got [Sanath] Jayasuriya out lbw. Sanga came in and he cut it straight to Jacques Rudolph at point. Jacques dropped the catch. Then about three balls later, inside edge, bowled. No-ball. After that I was like, I am never bowling a no-ball ever again.

"I want to challenge myself and the people who say fast bowlers generally retire at 33, 34. That is bullshit. I can retire at 38 if I want"

The match after that was an epic Test match that Sri Lanka managed to win by one wicket. You went wicketless in the second innings, having got five in the first.
I went for runs. My strike rate was good. I bowled like nine overs [in a spell] and got a five-for. And then wicketless in the second innings. Jayasuriya was unbelievable. I think Polly ended up bowling wristspin.

Going wicketless, I hate it. I don't like to show it. But it can happen. My worst was when I picked up one wicket against India at Jo'burg. Shikhar was the first one, pulled to Imran Tahir. Then we bowled and bowled and bowled. To top it all we needed like 15 runs to win and me and Vern [Philander] decided to block it rather than go for it. With it being only a two-match series we felt that if we did go for it, we had Tahir and Morne to follow and anything could have happened. I said: "Vern, it is a tough call. But if we close up shop we still have Durban to do this."

Dhoni was very clever. He brought on his two seamers, put everyone out on the boundary with literally like two guys in the ring, a slip, and he told them to bowl short. So we closed shop. We drew the match because of my decision. Took major flak. I was so pissed off. We went to Durban. I think I was the Man of the Match, took five wickets [6 for 100 and 3 for 47], scored 44. I was more determined than ever.

Another emotional spell, possibly, was against Australia at St George's Park in 2014. You got four wickets to turn the match on its head in the second innings. Graeme Smith said: "Dale's anger goes from very angry to extremely angry at the best of times, but we knew he is always one spell away from creating something very special for us."
I loved the fact that he backed me 100%. That is the beauty about what he said there, I believe that fully. I can bowl ten overs, not take a wicket. But I know I just need half an opportunity. He always told me that. Bouch was also really good at that.

You got good wickets, too, in that spell.
Clarke c slip. Haddin bowled.

Best foot forward: Steyn got New Balance to design a perfect set of boots for him using the best bits of his older ones

Best foot forward: Steyn got New Balance to design a perfect set of boots for him using the best bits of his older ones © Twitter/Dale Steyn

There is a picture of you pointing to the middle stump after Haddin's wicket.
It happened in the first innings too. He got bowled exactly the same way, so I thought it was best I show him what happened.

Then Steve Smith was a big one, because in the first innings he clipped one to Robbie P [Robin Peterson] at midwicket and he dropped it. He was a good batsman, now he is playing out of his socks. I wanted to get him out and I cleaned him up in the second innings. Then the last one was Ryan Harris.

What happens when a fielder drops a catch?
I have got better at handling it. There was a period where I got really angry. I was young. On TV, ex-players would throw their hands in the air and get angry. You watch them and feel you want to be just like them.

Paddy Upton [former South Africa mental conditioning coach] sat on a plane with me about three years ago. He said: "You know, when someone misfields off your bowling, the way you react, you are actually a d***. I don't know if you noticed. You should think about that."

That was the worst thing I could hear, because all I wanted ever was the respect of my team-mates. From that point on, I was never going to do it again. It is fair to show your aggression, but it is never the player's fault.

Lillee made a wise comment: "It hurts to bowl fast. Amidst all the pain, both bodily and that inflicted by the batsman, a fast bowler needs to have the calmness and tactical acumen to plot a batsman's dismissal." You must relate to that now?
I fully agree with him. You can never put a blanket on a fast bowler. You are running in from 25-30 metres, you are bowling in Chennai, it is 45 degrees, it is hot, guys are beating you all over the park. It is not easy. When something like that happens, you are going to be frustrated. There is a fine line. You see, if you take that away from me completely, I am never going to be as good as I possibly can.

"I prefer bowling on low, slow wickets here in India as opposed to bowling at the WACA"

But how do you deal with such challenges, such intense pressure, while running in to deliver 140kph deliveries in front of a baying crowd? Virat Kohli said that once he is in the middle he can't hear the noise. He just switches off and focuses on the battle with the bowler. How do you stay calm?
It has taken ten years to calm down. It is almost like a Zen master now. It's simple things I focus on. Jeremy Snape [former South Africa psychologist] said to me that when I finish bowling the ball and turn to walk back to my mark, I should do something as simple as count to ten in my head. You need that moment to just let everything completely settle. When you get back to the top of your mark, turn around, refocus and go again.

I have now developed my own thing where I hope that Morne Morkel is at mid-off or mid-on. We talk about fishing. It is so embarrassing I am saying this right now. Sometimes when I am a bit tired I'll go to him and I'll be pointing to a fielder, but we are actually talking about the colour of a specific lure to use when we go tiger fishing next. I'm like, "The red and white one?" He'll say: "No, no. I like the orange." "No, no, that fire tiger is the one." "Yeah, yeah." I am like "Okay, cool. I feel good. Let's go."

I am not allowing the batsman to know what is going on. I am just letting myself calm down. The commentators on TV must be thinking, "Look at these guys, they are strategically planning", but it is nonsense. We are just trying to find a way to let the brain relax.

In an interview, you recollected fishing with your former girlfriend Dunty, in Chobe. She had not caught a fish for four days and then on the morning you guys were leaving, she caught the biggest tiger fish and started crying. You said: "It's the same thing with cricket; I train my arse off for hours and hours, and when I get a big player out, that emotion just explodes out of me. I could cry, but I'm not going to."
(Laughs) She fished hard for four days, watched everybody else catch a fish. I have had times like that where I have watched other guys have success. It is a difficult pill to swallow, to go to your mates and say, "Well done, you are scoring hundreds." You want that kind of success. She wanted to be able to say, "I caught a fish." When it eventually happened, I was screaming too. I may have even pushed a tear myself because I felt for her. I get excited about that kind of thing.

"My ring finger and index finger are the ones that grip and hold the ball in place. I want them to be sitting slightly underneath the ball" © AFP

What is more difficult: fishing or fast bowling?
I enjoy fishing more. The difference between fishing and fast bowling is, if I don't catch a fish at the end of the day and I go back to the lodge, nobody gives a shit. But if I don't take a wicket people are going to talk. But that is what I love about fishing. There are so many similarities to cricket. Your preparation, your lures, your equipment, you might only get one chance and it's your fault if you drop it. If you lose the fish, it is gone. But when you are sitting there at night, there is nobody else saying to you other than your mate who might have caught a fish. But bugger him, you know? But cricket - if you don't take a wicket or if you do badly, you might not play again. At least I can go fishing.

Frank Tyson said about fellow fast bowler Brian Statham: "I have seen him come off the field during a Test match tea break, sit down, prop his feet up on a table, and address his left big toe, which was bleeding into his sock because he had ripped off its nail during his efforts in the previous two hours. 'Come on,' he said, 'just another session to go. We can do it.'" Can you recall a similar episode?
There are many. Morne's feet have taken a pounding. Rory [Kleinveldt], during the [2013] Champions Trophy - our doctor said to him, if you don't stop, we might have to amputate [his] toe. It was one of the worst I have ever seen, it was just gushing black. I go along the lines of prevention being better than cure. I really looked after my feet, boots. I strap my toes, cut holes in my boots, because anything as small as a blister can stop you from playing. You might say it is just a blister, but you try playing. You try to bowl in Chennai when it is 45 degrees and your foot is rubbing against the shoe and you can't walk and you want to bowl fast - that is not easy.

You worked with New Balance on your bowling shoes. What do you want out of your bowling shoes?
It was one of the things I wanted to do from when I was a kid - to design my own shoes. Fratton Rippin came to me and said, we need your inputs to design the shoe. They made the shoe. I asked for some further changes. Then one day Darren Tucker, Rod Tucker's brother, who works with New Balance, Alex Shephard, all came to my house from Hong Kong. We sat down in my lounge, had the designer, who has never played cricket in his life, take notes. I gave him six different shoes from my garage and I told him this strap, this sole, this leather from each of the shoes. He put it all together and I have got what I feel is one of the best cricket boots out there.

Emotional control is a must for a bowler, isn't it?
I had an incident with Sulieman Benn [in Bridgetown in 2010]. They said I spat on him. Truth be told, I did spit, but I never spat at him. I never hit him. He was just really annoying me, had just gotten to me. I was completely wrong. But when Benn came out to bat, I was bowling. I might have also got one or two wickets to get him in. I remember Graeme came to me and said, "Listen, I'm going to take you off now because I don't need an emotional Dale right now. I need a controlled, clever Dale right now." He placed me at mid-off. The game was at tipping point and it could have gone either way. Graeme told me he needed to get him out and not win some off-field vendetta.

"Your whole body has to work completely in sync to get the ball down to the other side at maximum pace, so I need to make sure all my energy is behind the ball"

"We [Deccan Chargers] lost six games off the last ball [in IPL 2012]. We finished bottom, but we could so easily have made the playoffs. I kicked an empty kit bag so hard when it happened for the sixth time, I almost dislocated my leg. Then I kicked another one, but it was full of water bottles and I broke my toe. Stupid. I missed a couple of games. But I was mad as hell. That's the fire I hope I never lose. I wouldn't be the same cricketer without it." Those are your words.
I always need that fire. If anybody tries to extinguish that fire or make me be different, then I am not going to be any use to a team. I need the mongrel, the aggro, in my game. I understand being a senior there comes a responsibility, but for me to perform at my best, I need to act a certain way sometimes.

So you need that anger inside?
Yes. It is fast bowling. You are running in. You are trying to bowl as quick as you can. I know someone has recently passed away, but you are trying to take the head off the opponent, not by killing him, but if there is a captain, for example, you are trying to cut the head off the snake. I always said Michael Clarke was a serious player. He was a great batsman. But I wanted a massive competition with this guy, because if I could clean him up for nothing, the rest of the team would fail. I always went for the bigger player. You need to pick your targets. In Australia it was Michael, Ricky Ponting. A guy like Virat, maybe, in this Indian team.

So have you sorted the business with Clarke?
The annoying thing about the Michael episode is, he got personal. He had never done anything like that. I think it was just a tipping point in that particular game, where we were almost going to get a draw. Something happened. They reacted badly. I went to the umpires and tried to stir the pot a little bit, just to annoy them. I said to the umpires, "Are you going to let them treat you like this?" [Clarke] just turned around and it was like a personal attack on me. Some of the things that he said I don't need to even say. I don't even think he would remember them. I told him, "If you are going to say that kind of stuff you need to back this up right now, because you don't say stuff like that to me. I have never said something like that to you." We lost the game. I shook his hand. That's the way it is. Smile. Say thank you for the contest. That doesn't mean I forgive you for what you have done. You can stand in front of the press and say, "I was wrong." That was because they had won the game. If they had lost that game or drawn it, that apology might not have come. I needed something a bit more personal, because I had major respect for him and at that point I had lost it.

Next time you bowled to him, what went through your mind?
I was just focused on getting him out. Next time we played him was at the WACA. I got him out. I haven't spoken to him on that incident. If I saw him, I would greet him. I am a forgiving kind of bloke. But at that moment and a couple of months afterwards I was really annoyed.

"If anybody tries to extinguish that fire or make me be different, then I am not going to be any use to a team. I need the mongrel, the aggro, in my game" © Getty Images

When I made my ODI debut, playing for Africa XI, I was absolutely useless. I was jet-lagged. I got caned. After the game, which we lost, we shook hands with the Australians. This was the first time I had met them. Brett Lee looked me in my eye and said, "Well done, mate." That was great.

But the one who really annoyed me was Ricky, who didn't offer me anything when I shook his hand. I was furious inside. I was like, I am going to get this guy. I don't think he has ever known this. I have never said this. I have got my eye on you, buddy. I am coming for you. I think I caused a little bit of havoc at the back end of his career. He was a brilliant batsman of fast bowling. But that was my goal: every time I play against you, I want you to remember who I am. I want you to go to bed at night and know when you are playing South Africa tomorrow, you have to face me. The first time you faced me, you didn't know who I was, which is fair enough, but as long as you know who I am when you are done, that is good enough. Ricky, Virat, Michael Clarke, Alastair Cook - I want them to go at night time thinking, "Ah, I have to face this guy tomorrow."

Kohli told us he visualised you bowling the short ball and he knew you had left deep square leg vacant. He actually slept with that thought.
I remember he hit me in front of square for a pull. I think it was the only time he pulled me. I actually even said to him, "You don't play the pull." He might have hit me for four, but he had been thinking about it long before it even happened. I wanted to get under his skin.

How difficult is it to keep your cool when the batsman is on top?
I struggled in the beginning when I would be hit for a four, knowing that the next ball I have to pitch it up. But I understand now that there is a massive reward if the batsman gets it wrong. I am happy to go for 20 runs off two overs if I can get two wickets.

Opening the bowling is really difficult in one-day cricket because of the field restrictions. And bowling at the back end is really difficult too. I'm pretty much bowling those times all the time. It is almost impossible to go for three or four runs an over in the back end. Then you bowl in the beginning in places like India. You bowl to Rohit, he just goes tuk, for four, over the top - four. You might get one ball wrong and he picks you up for a six, and in six balls you have almost given 18 runs.

"I don't think about fast bowling a lot. I just do it. If it is not working today, don't worry, tomorrow I will sort it out"

How much does it hurt to lose a battle?
This year was the hardest in dealing with that pain after the World Cup. It wasn't because I had bowled the last ball [against New Zealand in the semi-final in Auckland] and it went for six. Nothing to do with that. We had our chances to win that game. We had a missed run-out. We had two dropped catches. Knowing that you have put four years' hard work in, especially the last two years before the tournament, all you see is yourself holding the trophy. And then you don't.

What must be worse is you must have thought: I want to bowl that over.
That's it. I was always going to bowl that over.

Even though you were the most expensive bowler in the opening phase?
I was because [Brendon] McCullum got hold of me in the first couple of overs. I went through a period where I bowled quite nicely, where I dragged it back.

New Zealand needed 12 runs before you ran in to bowl that final over. What were you telling yourself?
A little less than a year before, I had played in a game in Bangladesh [at the World T20 in 2014] where they [New Zealand] needed seven runs to win [in the final over]. I went in with the exact same thing: you got your game plan, you bowl fast, you bowl straight, no extras. Whatever happens happens. New Zealand couldn't score seven in Bangladesh. They managed 12 in Auckland. As he [Grant Elliott] hit it for six that is when it sinks in. It is gone. It is over now.

Can you relive it once more - as you are walking back before delivering the fourth ball?
I had spoken with AB. We were going through the options. Field size comes into play - short, straight boundary. If you miss your yorker there is a chance he can hit you out of the ground. Big squares - maybe use the bouncer? But a top edge might go over the keeper for six. What about bowling a gun yorker? A lot of people forgot that there was massive dew on the field. The ball was soaking wet. I said, "I can't promise you that I am going to get it in the blockhole. The ball is wet. What I can promise you is a hard back-of-a-length. Try and force him to hit me over midwicket. Get a guy out there. If anything, he can try and run me down to third man." That's what we went for.

Steyn sheds some baggage after the heartbreaking final-over loss to New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup semi-final

Steyn sheds some baggage after the heartbreaking final-over loss to New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup semi-final © Getty Images

The planning was there. Elliott just got it right. Unfortunately he got it right on the ball that mattered the most to us. Even before that everyone in the dugout was very nervous. I was down at third man when Morne was bowling and I dived and stopped the ball. I got up and threw the ball in and looked back at the dugout and everyone was like this (mimics nervous expressions). I said, "Don't worry, we've got this." I was 100% convinced. I wasn't nervous. I wasn't scared.

You didn't cry. You threw your wristband.
That wristband had been with me for almost five years. I threw it because it had come to the end of its time. It was green and white and if you turned it inside out it was a nice lime-ish kind of pastel green. I left my boots too in the change room. I said, I am leaving all the bad karma behind.

It is not easy to release all the baggage straightaway when something that big happens. When did you finally manage to let it go?
It was tough, because you get home and after five days I had to go to the IPL and I was still dealing with the pain. I felt that one was ours. If there was a chance, that was it. Also, the fact that I might not play in the next World Cup, so it meant a lot to me.

I look at it like having a long-term girlfriend. You break up and a week later you meet another woman. And she's like, "I want to be your girlfriend." And you are like, "I'm just not ready for this right now." That is what happened when I went to the IPL. It was a blessing in disguise we [Sunrisers Hyderabad] had bought Trent Boult, who was bowling unbelievably well. I was just not ready to flippin' get back. Luckily I am good mates with Paddy [Upton]. I went surfing with him in Vizag. He suggested I get some close friends over. The IPL can be a long time, especially if you are by yourself. Sometimes you just need [someone] who is really close and understands you personally. I had two friends, Dunty and one of my best friends, come over for the last few weeks of the IPL. It was fantastic.

Is Dunty still your girlfriend?
We unfortunately split up. We spent a lot of time away from each other. She works in South Africa. It is unbelievably difficult. I am 32. She was 30. Settling is definitely part of the job. [But] it is tough to settle with someone who is not at home. Unfortunately, we had to go our separate ways. It is a bit of a bummer.

"I want to play a lot of Test matches. I want to take wickets tomorrow. I have given up my skateboarding days, but that doesn't mean that I can't roll on a skateboard"

Sorry to hear that.
I think I get too personal sometimes when I do these chats.

You just came out of the gym though you are not playing in the Test. Do you not compromise on the routines?
When I am playing I don't do as much gymming, because I am a little bit old-school. I like to be bowling fit rather than do strength training. So when I am not playing I am doing all my strength work. When we are playing we do top-up sessions.

When you took your 400th wicket, Donald wished you for 500. Is that a realistic target?
It is definitely realistic. Every fast bowler has an idea of what he wants to do in a game. I generally want to take five wickets in a game, whether it be two in the first, three in the second. Even four is good. You reach your average count, you are making a significant difference, especially if you are playing four bowlers. The moment I feel I can't contribute anymore I will not hang on. And if I fall just short of 100 Test matches or five short of 500 Test wickets, that's fine.

Is there a particular reason for why you have played a larger ratio of Test cricket than ODIs?
I generally want to play Test cricket. There is nothing better than waking up on day four, your body absolutely buggered, you are tired and you know your captain is going to press the ball into your chest and say, "I'm backing you to make a difference today." On the hardest days, when everybody else is down, you get the belief you can do that. That is Test cricket. I love ODIs because you win tournaments and trophies and all that, but I want to test myself always.

Are there days and spells where you feel: "I'm just going to let it rip"?
Yes. Sometimes you wake up and the body is in click, everything is in tune, the ball is coming out well, there is a little bit of breeze behind you, it is a flat run-up, doesn't matter whether the wicket is flat or not, it is a nice, easy run-up - just let it go.

Then there are times when you wake up and you feel, "Oh my gosh. My legs are gone. This is going to be a mission." You just have to work through it. The key thing is to never show the opposition that you are in pain.

"I have now developed my own thing where I hope that Morne Morkel is at mid-off or mid-on. We talk about fishing. We are just trying to find a way to let the brain relax" © AFP

We were playing at The Oval when Hash scored 300. I was just all sore. We had bowled on day one and I got two wickets or something. I remember saying, "Bugger it, tomorrow I'm going to be the first one out onto the ground, do my warm-ups, I'm going to be laughing, I'm going to be busy, and once back in the change room I'm going to be dead. Then get myself an [energy] drink and fake it all over again, because I am not going to give my opposition one little inch to think that they have got the better of me."

Bluffing is a part of sport?
A massive, massive part. You can't do it, you might as well fake it. Warnie was brilliant at it. He would bowl a ball and the guy would pull him for four and he would go "Ooh", as if he wanted you to pull him. He actually just bowled a bad ball, but as a batsman you're probably thinking, "Yes, he was planning that."

I spoke a little bit to Warnie, but he is such a confident guy that maybe he actually meant it. That is what I started to realise eventually. I thought he was definitely faking it, but this guy is the most confident guy I have met in my life.

When Kobe Bryant retired, he wrote: "My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it's time to say goodbye." Can you relate to that as an elite athlete yourself, moving towards the wrong side of the 30s?
My heart is pounding. My mind is fine. My body is unbelievably strong. I am 32 but I am still the fittest guy in the team. I run the furthest in the bleep test. I am probably the fastest too. I want to challenge myself and the people who say fast bowlers generally retire at 33, 34. That is bullshit. I can retire at 38 if I want. I watched Brett Lee at 38 or something, bowling 145kph in Big Bash. I remember thinking: this guy can still play international cricket. But whether he wants to put himself through it is a different story. I kind of do.

Kallis said: One day you are going to wake up and you are just going to go, "Okay, I am done. I am really done." I hope that doesn't happen any time soon.

"Even players you have never heard before will just go 'tuk' and lap you for a six. So pace is no longer just enough"

Michael Holding once said he would never be able to cope with the workload of a 21st-century fast bowler. In 20 years where do you see fast bowling going?
I don't know. I am a fan of fast bowling. It will change because the game is changing. It is important - this is my personal opinion - that you need to continue putting batsmen and fast bowlers at par. If the IPL is all about guys getting $2 million for hitting the ball out of the ground then who wants to bowl fast? You need a fast bowler that is earning that in the IPL.

You need pitches where players are able to take ten wickets. You need [bowling] heroes in the game, where kids can say, "I want to be that guy. I don't just want to be AB de Villiers. I don't just want to be Virat Kohli." Otherwise bowling is going to disappear. That is a concern I have, that some kid might go, "It is too difficult to run in 30 metres and bowl all day in Chennai in 45-degree heat and not get any rewards. Why don't I just pick up the bat and learn how to reverse sweep and scoop and hit the guy out of the ground? That is so much easier and I get paid a lot more. And I get people to love me and everything."

You need people to be able to bowl at 160kph. You need people who take five wickets. You need people who bowl 150kph on day five to keep that inspiration up for future kids. I can do that. But we need help from whoever runs world cricket.

In 2008 you said: "I wouldn't like people to talk of me as the next Allan Donald, but I want them to talk of the four great South African fast bowlers: Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn. That is my dream." Has that dream been achieved?
I am getting there. I am doing okay, 400 Test wickets. Being compared to these guys now in the same breath, so people will say Allan, Shaun, Dale has gone past them. It has taken seven years to achieve that. I was lucky. I got my opportunity. My dream was strong enough and I have been able to run with it.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo