Steyn’s painful sacrifice of Test cricket

Last week Dale Steyn had no doubts about the future. He believed he was strong enough and determined enough to continue playing all three formats of the game and to remain available for national selection. The idea of retiring from one form of the game was unpleasant enough to be upsetting. He was quite clear.

But a lot can change in a week: “It’s terrible to think I will never play Test cricket again but what’s more terrifying is the thought of never playing again at all. So, I will be focusing on ODIs and T20s for the rest of my career to maximise my full potential and ensure my longevity in this sport,” Steyn said.

Giving up Test cricket was a raw and emotional experience for Steyn, as personal as saying goodbye to one of his dearly loved dogs. Apart from the affection he has for the five-day game, it is the belief and knowledge that he could still do it. Unlike other players, he never woke up one morning with a stiff back and said “enough – it’s over.”

He still enjoys training which, frankly, is ridiculous for a 36-year-old. But then, if he didn’t have the temperament for hard work he would never have returned from the broken shoulder. A few people shared the year-long rehab journey but, as often as not, he was alone which was the hardest part for a sociable animal like Steyn.

When footballers reach 36 and still ‘have it’ they are used sparingly by their coaches and managers. They don’t play every game, they are substituted after an hour or used for the last 30 minutes when their knowledge and experience counts double against younger legs which are tiring. Why can’t the same modus operandi apply in Test cricket?

The Proteas play England in a four-Test series at the end of the year.  It would be unreasonable to expect Steyn – or any 36-year-old fast bowler – to get through all four, or even two if they were back-to-back, but if he was available for selection, if Kagiso Rabada was injured, if the pitch had a bit of green grass, if the planets aligned…

Ask yourself whether England’s top order batsmen would be happier if facing Steyn was a possibility or if there was no chance of it happening.

But Test cricketers know the truth. Fast bowlers know what it takes to bowl a six-over spell at full pace, never mind four spells in a day, for two innings, and certainly never mind for two Tests in a row. There are no substitutions and no hiding places. To be fit enough to play Test cricket, you need to be playing three and four-day cricket and have complete trust in your body.

He broke down twice more after coming back from the shoulder and, although they were different injuries, he finally accepted the truth. The other injuries had nothing to do with his shoulder, but a lot to do with his age. When it was pointed out to him that the decision was not about him but about the team, he decided enough was enough. The sight of 37-year-old Jimmy Anderson contributing significantly to England’s loss in the first Ashes Test by breaking down after only four overs pushed Steyn towards the inevitable.

“I always said I would stop playing immediately the moment I didn’t believe I could bowl fast or make a difference towards winning a game for my team, whichever team that was but especially the Proteas. That hasn’t changed at all. I don’t have the slightest doubt that I can still bowl fast and help to win games, but I do need to look after my body and, sadly, that means giving up the format I love the most,” Steyn said.

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