CAPE TOWN – “It wasn't fun anymore.”
Dale Steyn need not say anything more about why he was resting those sore toes for good.
Steyn, arguably the greatest fast bowler of our generation, was not just a cricketer. He was an individual in an era where individualism was frowned upon. Not quite a Gibbs-esque rebel but definitely someone whose heart beat to its own rhythm.
He shaved a Mohawk when it was in vogue to have long hair. And then grew his locks, and topped it up with a Bjorn Borg-like headband, when all and sundry trimmed theirs.
For Steyn, who begged Shaun Pollock for a pair of boots when he first arrived in the Proteas team, wanted to enjoy the fruits of his blood-wrenching labour. Live life to its absolute maximum was his mantra.
If that meant jumping out of a plane in Abu Dhabi, skateboarding in Dhaka traffic or searching for the biggest wave in Hambantota, then that’s what Steyn would do.
The thrill of seeking an adventure that pumps fervently through those impressive veins was fostered during his childhood days spent in Phalaborwa on the outskirts of the Kruger National Park. It might as well have been the jungle.
“I am a boy from the bush. It's where I grew up, barefoot, running through the bush, not scared of anything. I still fish now, I still know my way around the bush, I know what to do and what not to do with snakes, animals, water,” he once said.
With the experience of having already featured alongside Adam Sandler in a Hollywood blockbuster, it sounds a bit like Steyn was preparing to audition for Tarzan.
Steyn would certainly have been any Covid-19 protocol manager's nightmare. Long before the advent of bio-secure environments and “bubble fatigue” was a thing, Steyn often suffered from cabin fever particularly on subcontinent tours where he was a Demigod and considered a major security risk should he venture out on his own.
Having had the privilege of touring with the Proteas for over a decade, and spending many a night breaking bread with long-time Proteas security manager Zunaid Wadee, the conversation would often lead to how Steyn was always his biggest concern on tour. It was a relationship that resembled something out of the Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston classic “The Bodyguard” – bar the romance of course.
I encountered this first-hand in Chittagong in 2015. I had my own selfish reasons for being the only South African newspaper reporter on that two-Test tour of Bangladesh as I was hoping to lay claim to an “I was there” moment when Steyn claimed his 400th Test wicket. I had to wait until the next week in Dhaka for the monsoon had other plans for both of us in that first Test.
The rain left Steyn stranded on 399 with the final two days being washed out and the frustration only increased when he was forced to twiddle his thumbs in his room for a couple of days. It was torturous, particularly for someone that has admitted from a young age “I just wanted out.”
Steyn found a way – like he always did on the field too – when he noticed a couple of children playing football in the streets below his hotel room. Breaking almost every imaginable safety protocol, Steyn, prompted by his disciples on Twitter, rushed downstairs to join the kids, playing barefoot in the downpour, where he delivered a through ball that his Chelsea hero Frank Lampard would have been proud of.
Wadee was beside himself. It was his job to keep Steyn “safe”. And the “risk” was even greater due to Steyn having outraged the Bangladeshi fans prior to the tour with his comments “At this stage of my career, I’d rather be saving myself to go and participate in the major tournaments rather than wasting the few balls I have left in my career in a Bangladesh match.”
A kick-about in the Chittagong streets with a bunch of kids melted all the misconstrued anger and Steyn was once again Bangladesh's favourite foreign son once the video and selfies went viral. I smiled quietly to myself when all Wadee could do was run down with an umbrella and towel for the Proteas' most prized asset before returning him unharmed to the comforts of the Radisson.
Steyn's enthusiasts will always have The MCG 2008, Nagpur 2010, Johannesburg 2013, Port Elizabeth 2014 and Centurion 2018. Equally, they will carry the heartbreak of Auckland 2015 with them forever.
There are also breathtaking spells that did not reap the harvest that it deserved. Think the battle royales against Sachin Tendulkar and Paul Collingwood with Table Mountain on both occasions providing the perfect backdrop for the theatre out in the middle.
But it's back to Chittagong I go for my most treasured Steyn playing memory. It was a sweltering night and South Africa's participation in the 2014 ICC T20 World Cup was hanging by a thread.
New Zealand required seven runs off the final six balls. With Chittagong being a port-side city, the mist had enveloped the outfield transforming the ball in Steyn’s hand, as he stood at the top of his mark to deliver the final over, into a bar of soap.
But this was not a night for excuses. It was a night for superheroes.
Steyn charged in and bowled quick, genuinely quick. He hit his mark at speeds in excess of 145km/h, and delivered five dot balls off which three wickets fell. It was almost unthinkable how he had controlled the white ball when we could hardly see through the media centre’s steamed up windows.
But the raw emotion that erupted within the Zohur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium when Steyn ran out Ross Taylor off the final ball, smashing the neon LED stumps, before charging towards the boundary in wild celebration sent shivers down my spine.
Much has been written about those crazy eyes and bulging veins, but perhaps the electricity in the air was just a little bit different that crazy night in Chittagong.
Steyn will not bowl another ball in earnest after closing the chapter on his cricket career on Tuesday. He finished as South Africa’s highest Test wicket-taker with 439 strikes in 93 matches.
But his value to the national cause was so much more than that. He transcended racial and cultural stereotypes by just being himself. There is nothing superficial about Dale Willem Steyn.
He has always been at his most comfortable sharing a garage pie and Fanta grape with his mates in the wee hours of the morning after a night out.
Equally, his humility has no bounds as was evident when he pulled up at a stranger’s house to personally chauffeur a youngster to his Matric ball after the kid had hit him up on the socials expressing admiration for Steyn’s matte-black Mercedes G-wagon.
Steyn may have shut the door on his cricket journey this week. But I suspect it was merely to fling open the next as he surfs through this thing called life.