One of the perennial questions that baseball and cricket fans like to ask themselves is how to measure the greatness of a player. In the case of pitchers, does their greatness lie in a low earned-run average, or the number of strikeouts or shutouts, their speed or their ability to control the ball, or even their longevity? With a bowler, does their supremacy lie in the number of wickets they take, the number of runs that each wicket costs, how fast or how full of guile they were, how consistent or consistently match-winning they were?
One way to measure the sheer magnificence of South African paceman Dale Steyn is to examine his strike rate—the number of balls it takes for him to get a wicket. Steyn currently stands at twentieth in the list of all-time wicket-takers, and he’s never going to reach the top through number. His average (currently 22.90) puts him in the top five. What makes Steyn truly exceptional is that he takes a wicket on average every 42 balls, more than 10 balls fewer per wicket than all but two of the top ten wicket-takers of all time. Simply put, Steyn has had to run up to the wicket and deliver the ball fewer times than anyone in the history of cricket who has taken over 200 wickets. By any estimation, that makes him one of the greatest ever players in the game—and he’s got probably four more years left in him.
Ironically, Steyn is not ranked the number-one bowler in world cricket at the moment. That honor goes to his teammate Vernon Philander, who has only played 20 matches and has a strike rate of 39.6. It’s a little too early in Philander’s career to reach a judgment about where he’ll end up, but he has made a start almost unparalleled in its brilliance to his career. If he maintains his tempo for a couple more years, then South Africa will possess in their leading strike bowlers perhaps the most reliable wicket-taking machines in the history of Test cricket.