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Is Dale Steyn the greatest fast bowler post WWII?

The Roar logo The Roar 03-12-2015 Glenn Mitchell

Today’s Test cricket is a batsman’s game. Every now and then you will get matches like the recent Tests at Adelaide and Nagpur where bowlers reign supreme.

But, on the whole, a quick scan of the top-end batting averages will show you just how many batsmen have profited in recent times at the expense of many hapless bowlers.

In a recent article here on The RoarI spoke of the need to try and bring greater equality to the battle between bat and ball.

Of the 43 batsmen in Test history to play a minimum 20 innings and averaged in excess of fifty, 18 of them have either retired within the last 10 years or are still currently playing.

That means across the 138-year history of Test cricket, 42 per cent of those to have averaged more than 50 have plied their trade within the last decade.

With shortened boundaries, advances in bat technology and the plethora of friendly pitches that have been rolled out, being a bowler in modern times has not been a lot of fun. An average of under 25 has often been regarded as putting you among the best bowlers going around.

Of those to have bowled a minimum 2000 balls at Test level, 76 men have averaged less than 25 runs per wicket. In the past 25 years there have been 11 to have achieved the feat – which equates to 14 per cent of those to have done in Test history.

Again, it highlights how much easier batsmen have had things recently.

One man who is still playing, however, has really stood out – in fact he has returned truly stunning numbers. That man is South African paceman Dale Steyn.

Sadly for Proteas fans he succumbed to a groin injury during the second Test of the current series against India and won’t be taking his place in the fourth and final Test at Delhi today.

Steyn is one of the main reasons that South Africa is the number one ranked Test-playing nation. His career figures to date are stunning; in 81 Tests he has captured 402 wickets at 22.6.

In the same number of Tests, West Indian great Malcolm Marshall, often referred to as the best fast bowler of all-time, claimed 376 wickets at 20.9, while his fellow Caribbean quick Curtly Ambrose managed 405 wickets at 21.0 in 98 appearances.

What truly sets Steyn apart is his strike rate, which stands at a phenomenal 41.7.

Of the 66 bowlers to claim 200 Test wickets none of them have a better strike rate than Steyn.

The closest are Waqar Younis (43.4), Marshall (46.7), Fred Trueman (49.4), Joel Garner and Richard Hadlee (50.8), and Michael Holding (50.9).

Of the 15 Australians to claim 200 Test wickets, Mitchell Johnson (51.1) has the best strike rate ahead of Glenn McGrath (51.9) and Dennis Lillee (52.0).

For Steyn to claim a wicket every 10 balls more frequently than Lillee and McGrath speaks volumes for his ability, especially given he has claimed over 400 scalps.

Steyn sits second on the all-time wicket-taking list for South Africa, 19 wickets adrift of Shaun Pollock’s 426 at 23.1. Pollock’s strike rate was 57.8, a massive 16.7 higher than Steyn, or close to a wicket every three overs more.

Throughout his career, Steyn has been able to harness two key assets – pace and swing.

In an era where swing bowling is not as prominent as years past his controlled and exacting out-swing has proved too much for many a batsman.

His modus operandi is very similar to the late Marshall and both men by fast bowling standards are relatively short – Steyn 1.78m (5’10”) and Marshall 1.80m (5’11”).

At 32 years of age Steyn has every chance of reeling in McGrath’s fast bowler’s record of 563 wickets which has him sitting fourth-all time behind three tweakers – Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Shane Warne (708) and Anil Kumble (619).

Steyn has been an effective bowler in all conditions.

At home he averages 21.4 and 23.3 away. In Asia, not always a happy hunting ground for the quicks, he averages 22.7 in 20 Tests.

It is always difficult to compare sportsmen across eras, and cricket is no different. Conditions have changed over the years as more nations entered the fray and the introduction of covered pitches.

However, one could make a very strong case for Steyn being the best fast bowler post the Second World War, especially when you consider the abundant advantages afforded to batsmen in recent times.

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