There was no swing, not much speed, and definitely no swearing as Dale Steyn made a low-key return to his whites after an absence of over a year. Steyn bowled what he called “steady stuff” for the South African Invitation XI against the touring Zimbabweans, with no wickets coming from his first nine overs, no bouncers and his pace staying well outside the top speed. But that was the point.
This performance was not about setting Boland Park alight, it was about Steyn proving to himself, and anyone watching, that he is ready for a Test comeback and can feature as soon as next week, when South Africa take on Zimbabwe in the inaugural four-day, day-night Test in Port Elizabeth.
“I feel good, I don’t feel like I am in any pain anywhere,” Steyn said. “That’s quite strange because I played a career with niggles all over the place, so it is quite nice to bowl now without anything. It is just about getting overs under the belt, and the recovery over the weekend and then pick it up again when I get to Port Elizabeth.”
Steyn could have success in the first over when Solomon Mire appeared to nick one but the umpire was not convinced. He could also have made an inroad in his third over, when Hamilton Masakadza, on 1, was dropped at point but he showed no frustration at not having either decision go his way. He bowled five overs upfront, three of them maidens and then returned for four overs in the second session, before twilight.
Should Steyn be part of the starting XI at St George’s Park, it will conclude a remarkable comeback that at times has seemed almost impossible since he broke a bone in his shoulder during the Perth Test last November. He was initially thought to need six months to recover from surgery but further muscle tears more than doubled that time.
He missed the tour of England, was unable to ease himself in against Bangladesh and did not play any domestic first-class cricket. Eventually, a year and 12 days after breaking down, he played for Titans in the Ram Slam, ending speculation of whether his career was over.
For Steyn, it was never a question of hanging up the boots, despite several setbacks and his age creeping towards 35. He always knew he would be back. “I like to play cricket. I want to play cricket as long as I can. Age isn’t really a factor,” he said.
“I think we all have that one friend in life that runs the Comrades [a marathon of 90 kilometres] up until he is 60. I would like to think I am one of those guys. I don’t really worry about fitness. I am still fitter than the youngest guys in the side. It was just about getting through this year and trying to decide whether I still wanted to do it. I think most people at 34 start thinking about other things in life like retirement and family and those types of things. I am in a fortunate position that I don’t really need to think about that much right now. Cricket is my main focus.”
But records are not. Steyn is only five scalps away from overtaking Shaun Pollock as South Africa’s leading Test wicket-taker but he isn’t counting down. “Every time someone talks about a record I get injured. So I’m not bloody bothered,” he joked.
Express pace is also not exactly top of the agenda, because Steyn knows he only really needs to crank it up to the maximum every now and then. “Cricket is strange. All you need to do is bowl one ball at 145, 150 kilometres an hour and people see that you can do that, and it’s in the back of their mind all the time. When a spinner comes out and rips one big the batsmen know one’s going to turn somewhere along the line, so they’re wary of it,” he said.
“I don’t have to run in and bowl 150 consistently all day long. I’ve just got to be able to do it every now and then. The batsmen will know that it’s there, and I’m able to take their feet away, hit them in the head, whatever. The rest of the time I’ve always relied on skill: relentless line and length, trying to knock guys over, and just being smart. When it’s really flat then you can crank it up.”
The warning shots may have been aimed at India, who will visit South Africa early next year for three Tests, because Zimbabwe should be gentler opposition. For Steyn, it could even be thought of as a warm-up and a way to experience a different, shortened format of cricket that Steyn hopes will ask different questions of the team’s ability to strategise.
“When you try and cram five days of cricket into four it’s really difficult,” he said. “This is new to everybody. How will we go about playing four-day, day-night cricket? When do you declare? What do you do? It’s going to be interesting all-round. It leaves gaps for even the best teams in the world to slip up. You’ve got to have a shrewd captain who’s got good game-plans and everybody’s got to buy into it.”
Unlike some of his team-mates, who have been openly dismissive of the idea of a four-day Test, Steyn is curious to see experiment with the format and believes it could even take cricket to new heights.
“I’m always for new things. I am a traditionalist and I do like the longer version of the game but I’m all for it. I would like to take five wickets with the pink ball. I could retire and say, ‘I did that, too’. Bring it on. I’m not shy of that.
“The game needs new types of things to bring new players to the ballpark, new thinking. We spoke earlier about how we’re going to handle 98 overs? It’s interesting, and when you’ve played one or two of these games and you go into the five-day format you might find that you’re smarter in your decision-making. Everybody was against the idea of T20 cricket and we can see what a big game it is today.”