How Much Longer Can World's Best Fast Bowler Dale Steyn Continue?

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How Much Longer Can World's Best Fast Bowler Dale Steyn Continue?
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press

It is not often that Dale Steyn’s achievements slip under the radar. In the recent Test against Zimbabwe, he picked up eight scalps, including 5-for-46 in the first innings. While he certainly didn’t go unnoticed, his feat was somewhat understated as debut spinner Dane Piedt hogged the headlines.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing the headlines, but Steyn’s performances in Tests only seem to keep getting better. Even as he heads into his twilight years, Steyn is still bowling smarter and faster than he ever has before. He has spent the last month-and-a-half notching up a few milestones, just in case anyone forgot just how good he is:

But how long can he still keep going?

Workload management is something the South Africans carefully employ when it comes to managing their fast bowlers. The pace ace recently turned 31, but though the average age of retirement for fast bowlers is around 33, that doesn’t mean it has to be the case for Steyn.

A piece published in Business Day Sport Monthly (h/t SA Cricket) theorised that Steyn has just 300 overs left in him. It looked at the workloads of other fast bowling greats and when they retired and compared to Steyn. Written three months before Steyn turned 31 (prior to the Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe Tests), it said:

Steyn has bowled a total of 3,334 overs in international cricket (Tests, ODIs and T20s). ...

Brett Lee’s total of 3,344 seems almost identical to Steyn’s until one recognises two telling facts: firstly, that Lee bowled 500 fewer Test overs than Steyn (his total was bulked up by lots of ODIs) and secondly, that he retired almost immediately after reaching this total. In short, when he was Steyn’s current age he was more or less broken. ...

Courtney Walsh, hailed as one of the most dogged workhorses of seam bowling, had sent down a total of 2,938 international overs at the same age. Curtly Ambrose had managed 2,897, with only 1,968 of those overs bowled in Tests – almost 1,000 fewer than Steyn. Michael Holding had bowled 2,429; Shoaib Akhtar, 2,258; Donald, 2,053; Lillee, 2,012; and Hadlee a grand total of 1,928.

In short, just before his 31st birthday, Steyn has already got through the kind of workload that took former greats until their 34th or 35th years.

While that assessment is fair to an extent, it is also fair to consider Steyn’s action and his injury record. While fast bowling is certainly not natural in any way, Steyn does have a very natural action, which has seen him blessed with a relatively injury-free career.

Steyn has also said he is not that bothered about records and doesn’t really think about the stats. Still, they do provide a benchmark of sorts to place players in the “greatest of all time” list. Steyn already has a few records to his name, but that doesn’t mean he is done yet.

Despite South Africa’s Test schedule not being the greatest, there is a real opportunity for Steyn to make an impact in the next two years. Over the coming summer, they will play West Indies in three Tests at home, an ideal opportunity for Steyn to get stuck into some Test records, particularly the 400-wicket mark. Currently 17 wickets short of that magic mark, he could easily become the fastest quick bowler to the reach the landmark.

Glenn McGrath currently holds the record and got there in 85 Tests, but Steyn is on 75 Tests, and the West Indies are relatively weak opposition. Considering that he does average five wickets in a Test, it would not be too unlikely for him to break the record this summer.

Fastest to 400 wickets in years and number of matches
Player Time Mat
M Muralitharan (SL) 9y 137d 72
RJ Hadlee (NZ) 17y 0d 80
A Kumble (India) 14y 58d 85
GD McGrath (Aus) 8y 341d 87
SK Warne (Aus) 9y 233d 92

ESPN StatsGuru

Unless something drastically changes in Steyn's action or something freakish happens, he should be able to play at a reasonable standard until at least the end of the 2015-16 tour at home against England. Since he will be carefully managed when it comes to limited-overs cricket, Tests will be the focal point for the speedster; it is there where could break even more records.

He is already level with Wasim Akram as the fast bowler with the most 10-wicket hauls in Tests and could overtake Sir Richard Hadlee if he gets five more. He has quite a fair way to go to overtake Hadlee as the player with the most five-wicket hauls in an innings, but MGrath's record is there for the taking. He needs just six more five-fors to surpass McGrath's five-wicket haul record; considering South Africa's upcoming opposition, it is entirely possible.

Most wickets in Test cricket
Player Span Mat Wkts BBI Ave Econ SR 5 10
M Muralitharan (ICC/SL) 1992-2010 133 800 9/51 22.72 2.47 55 67 22
SK Warne (Aus) 1992-2007 145 708 8/71 25.41 2.65 57.4 37 10
A Kumble (India) 1990-2008 132 619 10/74 29.65 2.69 65.9 35 8
GD McGrath (Aus) 1993-2007 124 563 24-Aug 21.64 2.49 51.9 29 3
CA Walsh (WI) 1984-2001 132 519 7/37 24.44 2.53 57.8 22 3
N Kapil Dev (India) 1978-1994 131 434 9/83 29.64 2.78 63.9 23 2
Sir RJ Hadlee (NZ) 1973-1990 86 431 9/52 22.29 2.63 50.8 36 9
SM Pollock (SA) 1995-2008 108 421 7/87 23.11 2.39 57.8 16 1
Wasim Akram (Pak) 1985-2002 104 414 7/119 23.62 2.59 54.6 25 5
Harbhajan Singh (India) 1998-2013 101 413 8/84 32.37 2.83 68.5 25 5
CEL Ambrose (WI) 1988-2000 98 405 8/45 20.99 2.3 54.5 22 3
M Ntini (SA) 1998-2009 101 390 7/37 28.82 3.23 53.4 18 4
DW Steyn (SA) 2004-2014 75 383 7/51 22.56 3.24 41.7 24 5

ESPN Cricnfo

As for becoming the fast bowler with the most wickets in the history of the game, this is where things get interesting: Steyn needs a further 180 wickets to earn that honour. 

Since the start of January 2012, he has taken 123 wickets in 25 matches, including seven five-fors. Since, for the foreseeable future anyway, South Africa only have 12 Tests to come in the next year-and-a-half, McGrath's record might be somewhat out of reach if age starts playing a part in Steyn's career. 

It is almost impossible to predict how long Steyn can still carry on since many factors influence these sorts of things. While he has recently started to pick up a few injury niggles, he has never sustained anything career-threatening and has never been injured for long. That is largely thanks to his natural athletic ability but will now be influenced by the management’s ability to take care of their players.

With a bulk of one-day internationals and a World Cup next year, Steyn will be looked after and wrapped in cotton wool to ensure that he can continue his career for as long as his body and his form allow him to. If he keeps going at anywhere close to the performance he recently put up against Sri Lanka, a couple more records will surely fall in his lap.

 

All stats from ESPN Cricinfo unless otherwise stated. All quotes obtained firsthand. 

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