Dale Steyn delivered three overs and picked up a wicket on his comeback to competitive cricket after more than a year on the sidelines, and did his bit to help Titans successfully defend 199 in the Ram Slam T20 Challenge. Titans beat Knights by 38 runs to break away at the top of the table with a five-point lead but the result was overshadowed by Steyn's satisfactory return.
Steyn did not quite have the impact team-mate Morne Morkel was expecting when he tweeted, "1,2 he is coming for you!! Sleep well @KnightsCricket ... #heisback. @DaleSteyn62" on the eve of the match, but Steyn's first victory was that he emerged unscathed after months of uncertainty over whether he would bowl again after breaking his coracoid bone last November. While there was no speed gun at the ground on Wednesday, Steyn's intensity could not be faulted on a chilly evening when blankets were the most common accessory among the small crowd.
Steyn bowled his first ball in the match at 19:49, from the South End of the Diamond Oval but was so keen to come back, he overstepped. His first legal delivery was a free-hit and Steyn delivered a cutter that Grant Mokoena, dropped by Quinton de Kock on 0 off Albie Morkel, guided to fine leg for four. Steyn found swing with his second and third balls, both outswingers that Mokoena hit for four, but his fourth ball was a reminder of what he can do: a beauty, on a straighter line that beat Mokoena's outside edge. Steyn's follow-up ball was too straight to threaten and a single was stolen off the last ball in an opening over that cost 17. He was replaced by Lungi Ngidi in the next over.
When Steyn returned in the ninth over, Knights were 59 for 2 and he had changed ends so that he was bowling into the wind. Initially, Steyn had a second false start, dropping the ball in his delivery stride. He chuckled as he returned to his mark and then took the pace off a length ball that Theunis de Bruyn, who made his Test debut in the time Steyn was injured, got under and tried to loft over long-on. De Bruyn got height but not as much distance as he wanted and found AB de Villiers on the boundary.
De Villiers collected the ball coolly and kissed it in celebration, but Steyn's response was muted. There was no chain-saw celebration, only a simple clenched fist.
After two balls to the new batsman, Andries Gous, Steyn then got to bowl to David Miller and again showed his ability to tease outside the off stump. Miller was not tempted and the over ended with Steyn having conceded just three runs, so after two overs his analysis read 2-0-20-1.
Steyn was given a second over in his second spell and again, the first ball was a loosener of sorts. He went wide down the leg side. There were four singles off the rest of that over, and after three overs he had 1 for 25, and in his second spell returned figures of 2-0-8-1.
Again, Steyn was replaced by Ngidi. The next time he was needed was in the field, at the start of the 18th over: he was stationed in the covers and got under the ball that Aubrey Swanepoel had lazily hit in the air off Malusi Siboto. Steyn took a simple catch to reduce the Knights to 122 for 6.
With Titans boasting six bowlers, Steyn was not required to bowl again but would have been satisfied with his showing. One person who was satisfied even before Steyn had bowled was de Villiers, who had watched the fast bowler in training and enjoyed what he saw.
"I haven't faced him in the nets but I watched him bowl in the middle (during warm-ups) and it's just a thing of beauty," de Villiers said at the innings break. "We just hope his body stays fit through this campaign. We are expecting him to enjoy himself tonight there's not too much pressure on him."
Steyn's fitness is more than just de Villiers' concern; everyone interested in South African cricket will have an eye on the premier bowler as he enters the twilight years of his career having come through an unusual and serious shoulder injury. Three hundred and seventy-seven days ago, Steyn left the field during the second day of the Perth Test clutching his right shoulder and was ruled out of the series with a broken coracoid - a hook-like bone which works to stabilise the shoulder joint. Injuries of that nature are rare in cricket, and at the time of Steyn's injury, the team manager Mohammed Moosajee said there was only one other documented case of a cricketer suffering a similar injury in cricketing literature. The 2015-16 season had also been an injury-riddled one for him, with hamstring and groin injuries and previous shoulder injury.
Steyn began a long process of recovery, which involved an operation, the insertion of a pin, and a rehabilitation period during which he overcame a torn bicep and pectoral muscle. He was initially expecting to return against England in mid-2017 but ruled himself out of that series and the home matches against Bangladesh, instead targeting domestic cricket to build up his workloads.
With the T20 Global League postponed, Steyn committed to playing the Ram Slam T20 Challenge for Titans, the franchise where he began his career. He is expected to participate in several, but perhaps not all, of their fixtures because Titans also have match-winners Ngidi, Malusi Siboto and Junior Dala on their books and Morkel and Chris Morris coming back at some stage, before aiming for a Test recall.
Steyn needs five wickets to overtake Shaun Pollock as South Africa's leading Test wicket-taker.