Why all Saffers understand Dale’s punch in the tunnel
When the bowler unleashed his anger, frustration and fear on a Plexiglass wall, he was doing what South Africans do
Fast bowling is about many things, but mainly it’s about violence. Always has been, always will be.
That’s why South Africans are better at it than most people. We understand, intrinsically, the good feeling that comes with administering a warm klap.
We want to hand them out to politicians, the police, estate agents, journalists, celebrities, fellow road users ... anyone who doesn’t look like us or believe what we believe, and to the people we say we love.
Infamously, one of us put four bullets through a toilet door in his tragically successful attempt to reach out and touch someone dear to him.
We’re so messed up that, despite all that, we think we’re civilised.
By comparison the violence inherent to fast bowing seems lame. It isn’t.
Thud! Your front foot slams down on the bowling crease, sending the raw shock of up to 15 times your body weight through your ankle, knee and back.
Whip! Your bowling arm is flung down, back, up and over in a fluid, impactless movement that seems safe but routinely rips rotator cuffs to shreds. While that’s happening, your elbow is threatening to explode.
Another thud. Your back hip has been wrenched wickedly through an unnatural hurdling motion and your foot hits the ground.
The force you’ve generated can’t be brought under control until you’ve taken several steps along the path of the missile you have launched, at about 45 metres per second, towards the batter.
You turn around and do it all again. And again and again and again and again …
More than half the bowlers (58%) between the ages of 16 and 20 who play in 18 or more matches a year suffer overuse injuries to their lower limbs.
Remember when you were between 16 and 20? Nothing hurt, no matter what you put your body through.
If bowlers that young are getting hurt what chance do older players have of getting out of this business alive?
Dale Steyn hasn’t been 20 for almost 16 years now. He is unlikely to read any of the above, but he doesn’t have to. He knows it’s all true. Painfully true.
So when he clutched his shoulder and stalked towards the Wanderers boundary on the second day of the third Test against Pakistan, the nation clutched their hearts.
All of us, Steyn included, have been shot in this movie before: after he had bowled 25.1 overs at Kingsmead in December 2015, after 12.4 at the WACA in November 2016, and after 17.3 at Newlands in January 2018. Twice he broke his shoulder. For variation he yanked a ligament off his heel.
At least this time Steyn made it to the end of the over, his 10th. With him as he walked went the record for taking more Test wickets than anyone else for SA, now safely annexed from Shaun Pollock. But he left out there on the field an un-won World Cup.
Would he be back to help SA try to claim that slippery prize in England in June and July?
A tense half-hour passed before Steyn reappeared and we had something like an answer. The best part of another hour spooled slowly before, three overs from lunch, he stood at the top of his run.
He bowled all of his last dozen deliveries of the session to Babar Azam, Pakistan’s impish assassin of a No 6, who promptly drilled boundaries through extra cover, backward square leg, backward point, gully and point.
Steyn and Azam both stand 1.8m tall but the former towers over most in world cricket in stature terms. Still, Steyn was able to crack a smile as the last of the fours scurried across the Wanderers’ slick outfield.
It was the smile of a man who had lived to fight another spell, another session, another day, another match, another series, perhaps even another World Cup.
And it was a world away from what Steyn had done an hour earlier as he and his damn shoulder entered the Plexiglass tunnel at the boundary.
As his right foot touched the stair Steyn broke stride for a nanosecond to land a left-handed punch of anger, frustration and fear on the tunnel wall.
He didn’t bother with a backlift, instead allowing his body and spirit to do what it had to do right there, right then.
It was a short, sharp shock of emotion, animalistic and instinctive and startling enough to suddenly straighten the spine of an onlooking security guard.
It was the kind of punch Mof Myburgh would smuggle into the lineout to show the Springboks’ opponents who was boss.
It was what Baby Jake Matlala’s lawyer swears happened as he sat between the boxer and his wife in the unhappy days after Julia Mnyamezeli, a gospel singer, accused Matlala of raping her.
That punch was delivered by Ms Matlala, and it floored a man who was stopped only twice in 68 professional fights.
Happily, Steyn took out his unhappiness on something less than human, something that wouldn’t fight back or press charges, something that might have straightened out Ben Stokes had it hit him early in the piece late one September night in Bristol in 2017.
Just as happily, Steyn’s left hand seemed to escape injury.
But all who saw it knew what they had seen and why.
Violence. Because, sometimes, it’s the only thing a South African knows.