Transcript: Couch Talk with Schalk Steyn

Couch Talk 192 (Play)

Guest: Schalk Steyn

Host: Subash Jayaraman

Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello everybody! Welcome to the Couch Talk Podcast. I am your host Subash Jayaraman. As you all probably know, the greatest fast bowler of this generation, and amongst the very best to have every picked up a cricket ball, Dale Steyn, announced his retirement from Test cricket recently. 

It is quite usual when player of his stature retire, to hear from them on their experiences,  but it isn’t so common to hear from the people that provided the support system for that player to learn the game, grow and become a successful star. And so, it is my pleasure to welcome to the podcast Mr. Schalk Steyn, the father of the great Dale Steyn. Welcome to the show Schalk! 

Schalk Steyn (SS): Thank you, it is great to be here and share some of my early thoughts on Dale. 

SJ: How was Dale as a young boy? Was he in to other sports? We’ve seen him to be competitive as a professional cricketer but how was he as a young boy?  

SS: Dale, the first few years of his schooling, was not a healthy child. He was in and out of hospitals and he battled with allergies. As he grew older, we noticed that he had this fine instinct to handle balls – kick, catch, hit. They introduced something called Baker’s Mini Cricket in his primary school. All the fathers got together and take the kids to it on Saturday mornings. We used to play this mini cricket on the field, and you’d have all these teams playing all over the field. One of the instructors came to me and said, “Listen, You’ve got to watch that son of yours. He’s got an instinct to play with a ball; he’s got the perfect eye for the ball.” From there, we noticed that Dale became very athletic; he loved running, swimming and particularly playing with a ball. That when it sparked off that Dale was going to be a sportsman of some kind. 

SJ: You talked about mini cricket; it’s fun playing that in primary school, but at what point did you see Dale gravitating towards cricket?

SS: Dale’s mum – my first wife – and I originally come from Zimbabwe. We went on a holiday to Zimbabwe to visit my brother. Dale’s cousins were a little bit older than he was at that stage – he was about 9 or 10 – and they were involved with the Zimbabwe cricket team. They took Dale along one day to watch them practice and he met all the Zimbabwe cricketers. From there, his interest for cricket blossomed and started growing. Then he started playing for the school. From the age of 10 or 11, we encouraged him to take part in school provincial cricket and it grew from there. From the area around here, he was known for his bowling; from his time with under 11’s, he was swinging the ball that headmasters of the schools noticed that this kid had the gift of swinging the cricket ball. 

SJ: You come from North-East South Africa, Phalaborwa near the Kruger National Park?

SS: That’s correct. We border right on the Kruger Park. One of the main gates to Kruger is at Phalaborwa. From my house to the park gate is about one-and-a-half kilometers. 

SJ: In South African school system, it depended on which school you went which allowed one to progress through the ranks. I’ve heard of schools in Pretoria and Cape Town where a lot of the Test players came from. How was it for Dale? At the age of 11. He was still in [Phalaborwa] around Kruger. What was his progress from there on?

SS: There is a little bit of story – a bit of history – behind how he became a national cricketer for South Africa. Once he finished primary school and went to high school, there were two things Dale’s heart was set on: One was Skateboarding and the other was Cricket. During the week at school, it was cricket. During the weekends, it was skateboarding. Then, he got involved what we call here as country cricket teams – local cricket teams. The guys invited to come and play with them in the country cricket teams and he did; he was playing with the grownups at a very young age, and they loved it because he was good. There were a couple of them, him and one of his friends were playing for the men’s team from this area. Then, I didn’t force him but he eventually had to make a choice, cricket or skateboarding? 

At school, Dale was a sort of all rounder. Dale never ever got involved in alcohol, parties, cigarettes and smoking, that sort of stuff. It just wasn’t part of his way of life. He was so much in to sport, running around the house and timing himself. Eventually, he made the choice that cricket was the way to go. It was so close – he wanted to be a professional skateboarder but in South Africa then, skateboarding wasn’t really a [thing]. If he went to America or somewhere else, he could have been a skateboarder. 

SJ: I think the entire cricketing world is very thankful  that Dale chose to stay in South Africa and not move somewhere else and choose skateboarding. As he progresses and more people recognize the talent and the gift he has, I am sure there is pressure on you as a parent to provide everything you can to ensure his gifts are realized. What sort of pressure did that put on you as a parent?

SS: I have to give a lot of credit to his grandmother – on his mum’s side, she supported him. At that time, I was actually a greens keeper on a golf course here in Phalaborwa. So, I was busy with that, and a lot of the golfers and businessmen that came to golf knew me and knew Dale as well. These guys used to give some sponsorships in the way of buying equipment – bat, cricket shoes. If he proved himself over a period of time, one of the guys would say, “listen, come to the shops. We can buy him a pair of cricketing shoes or pads.” These guys would always help us with little sponsorships here and there, but we had no major sponsorships like some of the guys get in major cities because Phalaborwa is a small, family orientated mining town. And so, this is how we managed to get him through the early years of his cricketing career. We didn’t go on holidays. All holiday leaves were spent on cricket trials – for this and that – and [the expense] for all that came out of our own pockets. I used to take my leave pay, and beg, steal and borrow, and the guys donated a few bucks here and there and that’s how we got him through his early years. 

SJ: I read somewhere recently that he took cricket seriously when he moved to Pretoria. Was it when he was sent out to boarding school?

SS: That’s correct. What happened was , when he matriculated from senior school – or high school as we call it here – we put him in a cricket academy in the same town where his school was. He was in this academy for about a year and he was doing okay. Then somebody came and said, “listen, one of the local clubs in Pretoria are looking for a bowler for their team and someone suggested that Dale Steyn would be somebody to look at for that.” So, one Sunday, I took Dale to Pretoria and he played a game for this team in Pretoria called Eerstarus – it’s an Afrikaans name and it means “First Rest”. Dale was about 19. He literally bowled the whole opposition out, it was amazing.  These guys were so impressed with him, when they finished, they carried him off the field on their shoulders and they immediately signed him for their team in Pretoria. Their coach was involved with the Titans – which was the provincial team from Pretoria – and he said to me that he would like to put Dale in the Titans academy. I said to him that it’s going to cost a lot of money and he said, “Don’t worry about the money” and that with Dale’s talent, they will find the money and they wanted him in the academy. So, off he went. The team he was playing for, released him to go to the academy. He was there in the academy for a year and did so well that the Titans invited to play a game with them. When he played that initial game with them, I was invited to watch and he was playing against the likes of Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and they were all stars at that stage. Dale was nothing; he wasn’t even a provincial player yet, but he played so well, that evening they signed him up to play permanently for the Titans and that is how he got into provincial cricket in South Africa. He literally got in through the back door; he didn’t go the same route as the wealthy kids. Remember we weren’t wealthy people. We were normal middle-class people in South Africa. Once he was in the Titans, from there it was plain sailing. They groomed him and Dale became the man. 

SJ: I suppose you’re being polite in saying that Dale got in through the backdoor because it seems he blew the door down. As more people were taking notice and it was becoming obvious that he was destined for greater things, as a parent, what were your thoughts at this time?

SS: It is something difficult to explain. You, as a parent, do all you can for your children. It is the way parents are, well, most parents. You bend over backwards to give your children the opportunity to do anything. To see him achieve, it tells me that I must have done something right as a parent in Dale’s life for him to get to where he is today. 

SJ: Once he is with the Titans, he only plays 6 or 7 first class games before he is called for national duty in 2004. I am sure every kid in any corner of the world that plays the sport wants to represent their national team, and here Dale was, already being called to represent South Africa. Were there discussions with Dale at this time about his rapid rise of a young man to the national team?

SS: When he got the call up, we weren’t expecting anything like that at that stage of the game; he was still so fresh! He phoned us and said, “you’re not going to believe this, I’ve been called up to play for South Africa.” Pretoria, from Phalaborwa is a six-hour drive, and the first international game he was going to be playing was in Port Elizabeth. Dale’s mum – my wife at that time – and I didn’t have that kind of money to go all the way to Port Elizabeth. We were all geared up to watch his first match on TV. News had spread all over town and I was getting emails and phone calls congratulating us since it is such a close-knit community here. A very good friend of mine asked me, “You guys going to Port Elizabeth to watch Dale’s debut?” and I said, “No, No, we can’t afford that,” and he said, “Over my dead body.”  Within an hour, we had flight tickets and hotel accommodations, this guy had booked the whole thing for us. 

We were flown to Port Elizabeth to witness Dale’s debut, and I tell you, it was so emotional when we got to Port Elizabeth, and met up with Dale, and of course, met most of the team. Here was this little kid, he still had this paw thing in his hair and he is standing with all these superstars. We were brought to tears – myself and Dale’s mum and his grandparents. We stood at the hotel and they took photos of us and with him, that kind of stuff, but the tears were flowing, and this was history in the making. Little did we know that he would become known all over the world. It was absolutely amazing. 

SJ: Dale is one of the fiercest competitors on a cricket field and at the same time, based on all reporting, one of the nicest guys off it. How did he balance the need for competition and just being a normal guy?

SS: It was basically the way Dale was brought up. He’s always been a humble kid. He was never a problem child at home. He was well disciplined and he behaved himself. 

He is actually a softie, he has a soft heart. It is actually very easy to hurt his feelings and that’s basically what has kept him humble. He is very much like his mum when it comes to people and animals. He has got thing for sort of underprivileged people and animals that are suffering. So, between you and I and everyone else that’s listening to this, Dale is a softie. 

But, when you are playing the game, he’s been taught that you put your heart and soul into it – whether you are playing for your team or your country. He puts his heart and soul into everything he does. 

All the good things he does, he puts his heart and soul into that as well. He won’t turn his back on children. If he sees a stray doggie on the street, he will feed that animal, that’s Dale. That’s the way he is. 

When he comes home, he avoids the limelight. He will grab a couple of his friends and fishing rods, and disappear in the bush. He likes to be just a normal person. 

SJ: What sort of relationship did you two maintain after he made his debut for South Africa and became more popular?

SS:When he visits, we sit and chat, or go out for dinner, or something like that. He’s got so many friends in Phalaborwa and his time is limited. He doesn’t get much time off. Phalaborwa being so far Cape Town – and Dale lives in Cape Town – so when he comes here, he is here for three or four days, and he’s got to share it with his friends and family and everyone else that wants to see him. When he comes here it’s a fleeting visit. He pops in and says, “Hey Dad, how are you doing?” and we have a cool drink and have a chat. He’s got his fishing rods and he is off again. Then, he’s off with his friends to the game park and look at animals. He loves his photography as well. One of his best friends is a well-known photographer and he will organize a night in the game park. Even when he visits, he is so busy it is unbelievable. I don’t pressure on him; as long as I can him and give him a hug and chat, I am happy with it. 

SJ: Do you guys talk much on the phone at all?

SS: Oh yeah, we talk on the phone and he drops me messages every now and again, “hey old man, how is it going?” 

A little while back I was talking to him on the phone and I said, “You know what? With all the money you are making, you ought to think about what I did for you and what it cost me to get you to where you are and think about some sort of pay back.” He kept quiet and then said to me, “But Dad, isn’t that what Dads are supposed to do for their kids?” I had no answer to that. Isn’t that what Dads are supposed to do for their kids? You bring them up and you give them your best. 

I’ll say he has spoiled me in a way. I’ve got a collection of stumps from him. I have got a signed bat from him that is signed by all the guys. Everywhere he plays, he brings me shirts and caps. I have a room here at home where I have got all the shirts, stumps, bats, balls, caps and all sorts of stuff that Dale has given me through the years. 

He also, believe it or not, bought me a Harley Davidson. He has really spoiled me, I can’t really complain about that.

SJ: As his career was taking off, he had some hamstring injury and as well as towards the end of his career there were a few injuries. As you go away from the limelight to work on your recovery and rehab, only people closest to him know what he is going through. How was Dale during the setbacks in his career?

SS:He is a fitness fanatic and he was always so active, that shoulder injury he had, that set him back. Even on his free time, he was always on his skateboard or his bicycle, or running but that shoulder injury brought a dark cloud on him. He’d phone me now and again and I could hear in his voice in the way he was talking that it was hurting him. That kind of pain and the hurt he was going through at that time, he kept it to himself. He didn’t even really share it with the family. Although, when I spoke to him on the phone about it, he was trying to explain to me what was happening, and how it was broken and the rest of it, but you could tell Dale was down. He wanted to get on that field but he knew he couldn’t. It really brought him down but to the public, he kept his head high and told everybody that he was going to get fit and he was going to get well. I have to give him his due; he put his mind to it and he pushed it. Given his age, and what he has done and what he has been through, I, as a father, have to commend him for the way he handled it and managed that major injury. I think it was two years he couldn’t play cricket and it was hurting him. He’s got a strong mind and he managed it well.

SJ: Along those lines, I want to know how he handled the successes and failures on the field. 

SS: One thing about Dale, his whole life, he never liked to braf or make a big deal about his achievements. He would take it in his stride and say, “Oh well, that was good. Next time try and do better.” He used to run around the house and time himself as a kid. I would say, “Oh that’s good” but then he would that he was going to do it quicker next time. In that way, he handled his successes very humbly. He didn’t like bragging and he didn’t like bragging on his account. Even today. He would say it’s not right and it’s not a good thing to do. He likes to keep those things private. 

On the failure side, he took it pretty hard but he always tried to keep a [brave] face and say, “well, we all make mistakes and we all come up short but we keep going.” That’s his outlook. You can’t be perfect all the time. You will slip up somewhere along the line. It’s no good laying down and dying. He would say, “We made a mistake, we came up short but let’s go and give our best. Let’s put it behind us. We have to keep going.” Especially the position Dale is in, all of South Africa is looking at him. He’d say, “Dad, I have got to keep my people happy. I’ve got to keep the kids happy. If I made a mistake, I want to explain to the kids, “this is what I did” and what went wrong so that the kids can realize they don’t make the same mistakes.” He would try and set an example all the time. He was mature about it but I knew that the failures they had on the cricket field like in the world cup in New Zealand or the last one where he didn’t even get to play, he was really sad He felt he let his country down. It’s one of those things, it happens and it’s the past and you can’t change it now.  What’s done is done but we move on. He’d rather look forward than cry about the past. 

SJ: You mentioned about going to Port Elizabeth to see his debut. Have you seen him play for South Africa more than that, in the flesh? 

SS: We managed to watch a couple of games in Pretoria. He’s flown us a couple of times to Cape Town, I watched him play against India. I watched him play New Zealand in Johannesburg. Of course, we watched his debut. Taking Michael Vaughan’s in his first international game, I’ll take that to the grave with me. It is one of the ultimate things. 

There are three things in Dale’s career that will never leave my mind. First, his first international wicket of Michael Vaughan. The second, it worried me. He was playing New Zealand and he bowled at a guy named Craig Cummings and the ball went through the visor on his helmet and smashed into his cheek. He literally ended that man’s cricketing career because the ball smashed the side of his face. He had to have surgery and they had to fly him out of the country to New Zealand. That was one of the sad things, because as a fast bowler you don’t want to hurt people, although your aggression on the field has to be there. I have no doubt that he wouldn’t intentionally go out to hurt somebody like that. Unfortunately he did. He put that man down on the pitch, the blood was flowing on the pitch, something that I’ll never forget. And then the third thing that will go to my grave with me is the day – he flew me and his mum to Perth to watch him play Australia and my brother lived in Perth and so we stayed with him – he came down with a broken shoulder. To watch him that day was devastating. To see him come off the pitch holding his arm will stay with me for the rest of my life. I knew he had a niggle in his shoulder and I asked him the night before how the shoulder was, and he said. “Dad, it’s good. I’m ready for it. “ Of course, he bowled that ball – I think it went through at 150 [kph] or something like that – and I knew in my mind that it was a sign that his career was now sort of on the downward trend. 

SJ: Dale made his name in Test cricket and obviously, it was a sad day when he announced he is walking away from it – for him, his family and the fans. But before he made that decision, did he talk with the family about his decision to walk away from Test cricket?

SS: I believe there was a lot of discussions between Dale and his agent, and his teammates. He did phone me the night before to tell me that the bomb was going to drop. It was solely his decision. I would have hated to have talked him out of it and then he goes and tries to play a Test match and if he fails, he is failing himself, his family and his nation. So, I did not try to talk him out of it. I told him that he had had such a good run. He’s basically been playing for the Proteas for 16 years. Not many international or SOuth African players can say they played for their nation for 16 years, which is phenomenal, as a fast bowler. 

SJ: Finally, from his mini cricket to academies to scrambling money for him  to becoming a superstar and now retiring from the format of the game that will define Dale Steyn’s legacy, how do you look at his life and cricket career as a parent?

SS:You know, I could certainly sit and write a book on it. Talking to you, I can picture him now with his little, shorty, blonde hair, two bricks and a bucket high. I can picture him in his white shorts, all the way through in his blues with the Titans, in his greens with the international squad, right up to where he is now. It’s like a story book. I can see the beginning, I have read the book right the way through and it is getting to the end of the book with Dale. I hope he writes that book, not the stories that everybody knows but those that only he knows – private things that he might be able to bring out and share with people. It’s a story book that I would love to write, read and share. It’s been lovely. 

SJ: On that note, Schalk, thank you so much for being on the show and I wish you and your family including Dale all the best. 

SS: It was a pleasure to be on and share some of the stories about Dale. He probably won’t be pleased that I shared some of the family secrets. He is at that age now he understands and it is good. It is good for people to know the real Dale Steyn. Thanks for inviting me. 

SJ: Thank you.