I recently read a (typically) good piece by Ant Sims about Dale Steyn. Some of the numbers that she came up with were very impressive. It got me wondering. Is Dale Steyn the best bowler ever?
She had the idea to compare him to other bowlers at a similar stage in their career. I decided to do something similar, so I looked at a large number of bowlers who had bowled in either 60 matches or 100 innings to look at how they compared at that point of their career.
Some players tend to hold on for a long time after their peak. Sometimes it is because everyone (including them) thinks that they are just one innings away from recapturing their glory days (think Ricky Ponting), or because they are still one of the best from their nation, even though they are no longer nearly as good as they were (think Sir Frank Worrell). But for what ever reason, about 60 games is often when a lot of bowlers reach their statistical zenith. They are experienced enough to know how to take wickets, but not old enough that they have lost too much energy.
Probably the most important statistic for bowlers in test matches is the average. Once I had pulled out all the bowlers data, there was one extraordinary number in the list: 20.14 by Shaun Pollock. Steyn is in the middle of this list.
The next thing that I look at is strike rate. Steyn is a strike bowler. It is not his job to hold up one end. He is there to take wickets. Strike rate is a measure of how many deliveries it takes a bowler on average to take a wicket. Generally the best bowlers tend to take wickets slightly better than every 10 overs, giving a strike rate under 60.
Here Steyn really shines. He has the second best strike rate of any bowler after 60 matches. And then he's only marginally behind Waqar Younis. Here's another way to put it. The first two bowlers I remember vividly from when I grew up were Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee. Steyn is more likely to get a wicket on any given ball than either of them were.
Another measure is bowling index. This is a more complicated statistic, which is described in the glossary. While it is best suited for comparing bowlers in limited overs matches, it does tell a story in tests also. It really tells us who has kept the batsmen honest while they have been taking their wickets. It's not perfect, but it is interesting. (You may need to scroll to see Steyn's numbers in this one)
Again we see Shaun Pollock on top, and by a reasonable margin, this time ahead of Deadly Derek Underwood. Steyn is near the bottom of the list, along with the majority of the bowlers in the era of boundary ropes and uncompressed bats.
So to answer the question: is Dale Steyn the best bowler ever? Probably not, that's possibly Shaun Pollock, but Steyn is certainly up there with the best.
For a different way of looking at the greatest bowlers ever, and to see where Steyn is placed on that list, you can also try this article that I wrote at the beginning of the year. The numbers need updating, but they were right as at the 7th of January.