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Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 16:38 UK

Behind the Dale Steyn fairytale

By Sam Lyon

"If you had tried to write the man's script for the past 12 months, you'd have gone blind. He's been sensational."

That is the assessment of South Africa bowling coach Vinnie Barnes on a year that has seen Dale Steyn emerge from potential anonymity in state cricket to become the world's number one paceman.

Dale Steyn
He bowls at over 90mph, is skiddy, swings the ball both ways, and takes wickets at the top and bottom of the order... he is the hottest property in cricket

Shaun Pollock on Dale Steyn
England may have won four out of their last six Tests - all against New Zealand - but when they line up against South Africa in the first Test at Lord's on Thursday, they unarguably face a step up in class.

While New Zealand do not have a paceman inside the world's top 20, South Africa have two in the top five in Steyn and Makhaya Ntini.

And it has all happened in an incredible year for Steyn.

The man with a strike-rate second only to 1880s bowler George Lohmann in the history of Test cricket (35.8) became the fastest South African to take 100 wickets (20 Tests), took 78 wickets at 16 runs each in 12 Tests in four countries, and won the four top prizes at the South Africa Cricket Awards.

In short, he has established himself as the most feared paceman in the game.

"He is the hottest property in cricket," Steyn's former captain Shaun Pollock told BBC Sport. "He bowls at over 90mph, is skiddy, swings the ball both ways, and takes wickets at the top and bottom of the order. He is the man of the moment, rightly so."

His coach at provincial side Titans for the last five years, Richard Pybus, adds: "He's got an unbelievable feel for fast bowling. He's loaded with fast twitch, has a superb action, and can swing both ways, bowl slower balls, hold up an end or take wickets.

"He's not a heavily built bowler (Steyn is a wiry 6ft) - more in the mould of Malcolm Marshall. In seven or so years, if he keeps working and developing and only once he's faced Australia, we could be talking about him in the way we do Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis."

We have to say Dale wasn't ready in 2005. He didn't know his game, there were one or two issues with his action, and England were unforgiving

Richard Pybus on Steyn
And while it is often the want of the media to 'romanticise' a player's journey to the top of his game, there is little doubt Steyn's story has more than an air of fairytale about it.

Brought up in the mining town of Phalaborwa, on the edge of the Kruger National Park in north-east South Africa, Steyn had to fight against the expectation of his family to follow his father down into the pits.

Prompted by a teacher, he moved 350 miles to a school in Johannesburg at the age of 12 and, although the arrangement lasted just a year, it sparked his imagination and desperation to upset family tradition and forge a career outside of his home town.

As well as an emerging bowler, Steyn was also a talented golfer, rugby player and photographer, and so it was only when he moved to a cricket academy in Pretoria in 2003 that he began to focus on his art with the leather ball as a realistic career choice.

And just seven games into his first-class career, Steyn was called up by a South Africa Test side due to host England in 2004-05.

"Everyone had heard about this kid, with all the raw talent in the world and pace to go with it, and the pressure on South Africa to call him up was huge," Pybus told BBC Sport.

"But I wanted him left alone, to be honest. I wanted him to do his learning in first-class cricket, rather than forcing him to do it on the international stage where it's so punishing if you don't get it right."

Dale Steyn
Steyn bowling Vaughan was a rare highlight in his maiden series
And punishing it was. Aside from a superb out-swinging delivery that bowled skipper Michael Vaughan, Steyn struggled as England won the series 2-0, taking just eight wickets in three Tests at 52 apiece.

As a result, the then 22-year-old was dropped and would go on to find himself out of the international set-up for 16 months. The young lad from the bush who had come so far suddenly found himself back in the bosom of provincial cricket and out of the spotlight.

"Look, for all his raw talent, we have to say Dale wasn't ready in '05," Barnes tells BBC Sport.

"He didn't know his game, there were one or two issues with his action, and England were unforgiving."

Graham Gooch, Steyn's coach for a spell at Essex, adds: "He had all the raw talent in the world but at that age it was clear that it just hadn't come to fruition yet. You could see he had something, but for all his potential it was too much, too young, I think."

For lesser players, the heartache might have been enough to prompt a downward spiral. Not Steyn.

"Fair play to him, he put his hand up and said I'm not where I want to be and I want to improve," says Barnes. "That's his attitude - always looking to get better, refusing to accept second best."

Pybus adds: "The best thing about Dale is his determination and motivation. He's very proud of his performances so if it doesn't go well, he reflects heavily on that and strives to correct it.

"He's a very reflective character and to a degree his attitude sets him apart. He is utterly determined to be the world's number one."

So how did Steyn and his support team go about turning him into the world's best?

"Where Dale is now is not down to romance, or simply natural talent, it is down to 18-24 months of a huge amount of work," said Pybus. "He worked really hard, really smart, and he turned it around."

"There are a few things we've done with Dale," adds Barnes.

"We straightened his run-up because he was coming in wide and closing himself off. From that position he couldn't swing it and kept pushing the ball straight into the pads or down leg-side.

"We cleared his front arm a bit and his front leg, allowing him to keep his momentum and keep his body shape open, and form a basis from which he can rip it through and move it both ways.

"The other thing is that off the pitch he is very shy, respectful and humble. He's a cracking kid, he really is, and I think the fact that he's settled with a girlfriend helps.

"But it's no good being nice on the pitch. You shouldn't be thanking batsmen for tonking you all round the park.

"So we just wanted him to be that bit more aggressive with the ball in his hands. He has a very fluent action, we haven't had to work on that much, but we wanted him in people's faces."

Another man instrumental in his development was Pollock, the Proteas bowling legend who lent Steyn his first pair of cricketing shoes when he first broke into the side.

"I've played a small part, perhaps," he says humbly. "As with everyone you try to pass on your own experiences and as much information as you can. I guess I've given him a few pointers.

"It's all well and good bowling it quick, but if you're spraying it all over the shop it just goes to the boundary faster. Dale had to learn control, to build pressure, to get it in the right areas time and again.

"And it's all credit to him because he's taken it all on board and acted on it. A lot of guys come along who have raw ability but don't amount to much, so it's fantastic that Dale is realising his potential."

Shamone Jardim, left, and Jeanne Keitzmann
I think the fact that he's settled with a girlfriend helps

Barnes on Steyn
Jeanne, right, is pictured with Jacques Kallis's partner Shamone
It's quite the build-up, isn't it?

Steyn, Ntini, Nel and Morkel are regarded as the most fearsome pace attack in cricket.

And if England are to regain the Ashes when they meet the old rivals next year, this series could prove a defining one in preparing them for an Australian attack made up of the likes of Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark.

It could prove a seriously tough examination, and so they will be comforted by a few words of caution from South Africa skipper Graeme Smith.

"Dale is obviously grabbing the limelight and he deserves that for all he's done in the last year," Smith told BBC Radio 5 Live. "But I'm quite grounded in terms of what I expect from him.

"We made a decision some time ago to go with out and out pace and Dale has certainly played his part in making that a success. But we also have talented spinners and we pride ourselves on our batting too, so we have more than one string to our bow."

Pybus adds: "I am certainly not going to talk Dale up, saying he will rip the heart out of the England batting line-up. He'll just want to be consistent and stay focused despite all the hype surrounding him.

"The fact is the English press may be doing South Africa a favour. The more England focus on Dale, the less they might be focusing on other guys they need to pay attention to - Ntini, Morkel, Jacques Kallis, Smith, Hashim Amla, Neil McKenzie - all hugely talented.

It's a real team that England will be facing

"Steyn is a remarkable talent, a brilliant lad, but he is allowed to be because of the lads he has around him backing him up.

"He's the strike bowler, of that there is no doubt, but it's a real team that England will be facing."

The notion that the world's leading paceman in the form of his life may not be all England have to worry about could well strike fear into the hosts' hearts.

Gooch and Pybus both insist England have the players to match South Africa and win the series, but if they are to do so they will have to find a way to deal with Steyn.

Another fascinating chapter in the story of the 'Boy from the Bush Done Good' awaits.

see also
Cricket's craziest man
07 Jul 08 |  England
SA tour match washed out by rain
06 Jul 08 |  Cricket
South Africans draw at Somerset
01 Jul 08 |  Cricket
Six cricketers to watch in 2008
31 Dec 07 |  Cricket
South Africa in England in 2008
14 Nov 07 |  Cricket

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