So when WILL Steyn return for SA?

2017-12-28 13:00
Dale Steyn (Gallo)

Cape Town – It was going to be the perfect comeback setting.

A once-off Test against largely undemanding Zimbabwe at Port Elizabeth … what better way to tune in afresh to the requirements of the long-form arena, ahead of the huge India challenge?

There even seemed a fighting chance that Dale Steyn, already an established legend of fast bowling, might brush off the cobwebs with sufficient stealth to go past Shaun Pollock’s SA record of 421 Test scalps at St George’s Park.

He needed five to do so, and let’s not forget that both Morne Morkel and Keshav Maharaj managed respective innings hauls of precisely that tally in the two-day massacre of the cowed neighbours.

Instead fate intervened beforehand – again – as the 34-year-old, supposedly in increasing recovery from a long-term shoulder injury, was laid low in PE … this time by a spectacularly unwelcome virus.

Sadly it has meant a domino effect, if you like, in the sense that further absence from the first-class landscape means rustiness only increases for him: a full 14 months will have drifted by in that context should Steyn turn out in the first Test against the top-ranked Indians at Newlands from next Friday.

“Should” … that’s an increasingly pertinent word, don’t you think?

By his own admission (and there are many bowlers who would say this), the Phalaborwa Express performs better the more he bowls.

So if he’s not bowling -- or only sending down dribs and drabs at lower levels as has happened for several weeks – surely by extension there is significant, ill-advised risk associated with any fast-track return in the glamour tussle beneath Table Mountain?

That seems pretty obvious, however much you may yearn (and many, many the world over will) to see him steam in at a personal favourite Test venue that crowds still flock to in consistently healthy numbers.

Then again, this is Dale Willem Steyn: 417 Test wickets at 22.30, strike rate 41.4.

We are dealing with a special case.

So if he manages to show marked lustre and cranks it up increasingly in the now extended practice time the Proteas squad will enjoy before the mouth-watering opening of Indian hostilities in eight days’ time, yes, he will inevitably enter the thoughts of the brains trust with mounting levels of temptation.

To my way of thinking, though, his best chance of a comeback at one of the most fitting Test grounds possible lies with a tactical desire by the hosts to go in with a five-strong attack rather than just four.

Should the Proteas opt for a return to the “seven batsmen” principle at Newlands, then fielding a hugely undercooked Steyn in a pace battery cut to only three – in-form left-arm spinner Maharaj is virtually guaranteed a berth – frankly seems foolhardy.

As it is, every representative of the five-man unit engaged at St George’s Park, including still raw bowling all-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo, pulled his weight there, albeit that conditions were often so favourable to them and the opposition so feeble.

That said, if South Africa are serious in any desire to “bomb” India on borderline sporty surfaces during this series, fielding Steyn alongside Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada remains an enticing thought for game one, where key markers are so often set in a series.

Let’s just say respite for batsmen would be in short supply if that quartet feature together for the very first time.

If we are going to cut Steyn some further slack in his presumably ravenous desire to get involved at Newlands, it is that the ground has seen him bowl a string of magical spells in Test cricket – one against England’s Paul Collingwood comes very swiftly to own mind.

Statistically, too, Steyn fires even better at Newlands than he does overall: 13 prior Tests at the ground have seen him snare 65 scalps at 21.93, including 12 from two contests against the Indians (average 17.16).

They represent compelling evidence for having him close at hand, as they say, in the lead-up to next Friday.

But here’s a slightly sobering thought: if he doesn’t play at Newlands, then what price him appearing in the remaining two (both Highveld) Tests, either, given that he will only have receded into further non-use and the drawbacks associated with that?

It’s a riddle wrapped up in a conundrum, boxed in a mystery and taped by a dilemma …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  dale steyn  |  cricket


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