Dale Steyn's Test career appears to be on its last legs after a wicketless display at Colombo
The Proteas fast-bowling great was just three wickets shy of overhauling Shaun Pollock to become South Africa’s leading wicket-taker in Test cricket. It was also a chance for cricket fans to see the smiling assassin in action once again after his injury troubles over the past year or so.
It all seemed to be going according to plan for the 35-year-old after he picked up a wicket in each innings in the first Test at Galle to draw level with Pollock’s tally of 421 wickets.
The Colombo Test was meant to be the crowning moment for Steyn, toppling the record he has been eyeing since South Africa visited Australia towards the end of 2016. At the time, Steyn was sitting on 416 wickets and a three-Test series against the Aussies represented the perfect chance for him to take over the mantle from Pollock.
Unfortunately, he fractured his shoulder in the first innings of the first Test at Perth, resulting in almost a year-long injury layoff. When he finally did make his long-awaited return in the first Test against India at the start of the year, it lasted just 17.3 overs before Steyn suffered a freak toe injury in the first innings.
Another lengthy spell on the sidelines beckoned, leaving everyone to wonder if Steyn would ever play Test cricket for South Africa again. But the fast-bowler’s grit and tenacity has not been in question ever since he made his debut as a 21-year-old in 2004 against England at Port Elizabeth. There was no doubt he would return, if only to break the record which had been eluding him.
Yet for the first time in his 88-match career, Steyn went wicketless during the Colombo Test as Sri Lanka completed a 199-run win to capture the series 2-0.
While overseas pacers struggling to replicate their form in subcontinent conditions is not a new trend, it was still an anomaly for Steyn. The South Africa man had picked up 92 wickets in 21 matches in the subcontinent at an outstanding average of 24.11 and a strike-rate of less than 43. His ability to generate lethal reverse swing has seen Steyn demolish batting line-ups on many occasions on his previous tours to South Asia.
Breaking Pollock’s record will now have to wait till December when Pakistan come touring to South Africa for a three-Test series. At 35 years of age, there is no telling how much gas the Proteas pacer still has left in his tank. No longer is he the South African pace spearhead for that mantle has long been passed down to Kagiso Rabada who continues to lead the ICC Test rankings for bowlers. That Steyn was only able to pick up two wickets in the first Test when Rabada caused all sorts of mayhem with his seven-wicket haul was telling.
The end seems nigh for Steyn in the five-day format. The sting and venom that have long been associated with his bowling were no longer visible in the two Tests against the Lankans. The manner in which tail-ender Rangana Herath effortlessly swatted the pacer for boundaries in the first innings at Colombo was a painful sight for fans who gave grown accustomed to Steyn ripping apart the very best. Even Steyn could only afford to let out a rueful smile as Herath dished out some punishment.
The South Africa stalwart probably knows all too well that his swansong cannot be far off. It is unfortunate that injuries have robbed a vital chunk of the latter half of what has been a simply sublime career.
To maintain an average of less than 23 and a strike-rate of 42 in after 88 Tests as a pacer is ridiculous to say the least. Not many will come close to those numbers in the future. Indeed it is no stretch to say Steyn has been arguably the greatest fast bowler to have played the game in the last few decades. His legacy shall forever remain intact.
However, time and injuries are catching up with the bowler and a farewell Test could be on the cards sooner rather than later. Getting past Pollock’s tally will be a symbolic achievement, if anything, for Steyn, who is without a doubt the greatest pacer South Africa has ever produced.