The bogeyman returns to claim his record

Dale Steyn went from wild and erratic to accurate and aggressive, while all the time remaining fast and scary Marco Longari/AFP/Getty

Dale Steyn is angry. Spurned at the recent IPL auction, beaten in last week's final of the Mzansi Super League T20, and running out of years after a complex shoulder injury sustained in Australia in 2016, South Africa's greatest fast bowler is tearing at the leash.

Still slim as a girl, but lithe and strong as the boy hunter-gatherer who first bowled cricket balls alongside the Kruger National Park in the North West province before the turn of the last century, the now 35-year-old champion makes light of the work at training and of the young pretenders around him who are routinely embarrassed. Steyn is moved by the game he loves and motivated by the endless challenges it puts before him. Incredibly, he is just one wicket away from passing Shaun Pollock to become highest wicket-taker for South African but in 26 fewer Test matches. There can be no more satisfying Christmas present than to claim number 422 on Boxing Day, in Centurion, closest to the home that formed him and in front of an audience shabby maybe after the excess of the day before but eager to share the moment.

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The opponents are Pakistan, a group coached by one of South Africa's own. Of all cricketing men, Mickey Arthur will know the threat set before his team. Arthur saw the raw Steyn at first hand, and during his time at the helm of the Proteas, felt many a 150kph missile slam into his baseball glove. As Steyn developed skills, justified potential and advanced beyond his peers, the team Arthur and Graeme Smith built rose from the ranks to be crowned champions of the world. The two achievements were not mutually exclusive.

On December 26, Steyn will lead an attack shorn of Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi, an injured pair of pacers, and of Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott, whose fortune was to be found elsewhere. He cannot wait. At the scan of his shoulder in Perth two years ago, the doctor asked if he had been in a motorbike accident, though a skateboard was more likely. The message was loud and painfully clear: it was a long road home.

After some ordinary fare in Sri Lanka a few months back but a more promising burst of activity against Zimbabwe in October, he bowled with gusto during the one-day matches in Australia and then with fire and brimstone for Cape Town Blitz all the way to the final of the new local Super League. Not for the first time, the batsmen - those wretched glamour boys - let him down. In defence of just 113, he ripped out Ryan Rickelton's middle stump and whizzed outswingers past the outside edge of the form horse, Reeza Hendricks, with a sense of purpose hitherto unseen since the early overs of the Test in Perth that was to set him back for so long. This splendid new-ball bravado wasn't enough to change the course of the match but it proves to Pakistan that a clear and present danger has returned.

Steyn belongs to a great tradition. Fast bowlers have mainly been men hewn from the blue-collar folk of English mining towns, the Australian outback country, the mountainous posts of Pakistan, northern India, and, in the Caribbean, from a history of subjugation where strength of mind and body was required to pass through each day. Steyn is from the South African veldt; from Phalaborwa, a small mining town in Limpopo, where his father worked the pits. It might have been so with Steyn too, but the ambition rooted within was already elsewhere.

He headed south, to Pretoria, knowing little about the business of sport or the journey to come, but he had a gift with a cricket ball, one so rich and admired by those who first saw him play at the age of 11 with a young Hansie Cronje that they were inclined to predict wonders. We know, of course, that promise is one thing and wonders are another. At high school and then for Northerns, Steyn was fast but wild; angry but easily silenced; hungry but outwitted. It was a while before he figured out these contradictions but not so long - some said too soon - before his debut for South Africa alongside AB de Villiers against England in late 2004.

England were good, perhaps the best team produced by the old country since, well, since anyone could remember. Led by the Northerner, Michael Vaughan, the English beat South Africa in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg - enough to take the series - and then, a few months later and to the delight of a nation more generally in thrall of football, beat Australia at home to win back the Ashes for the first time since, well, anyone could remember. Steyn was a victim of this period of English ruthlessness, unlikely as that sentence sounds, and began to consider the disciplines and skills needed to match these fellows 22 yards away.

He had been expensive, so concentrated on taking his wickets more cheaply; he found rhythm elusive, so worked on a more measured approach to the crease and a less frantic delivery stride. Gradually he learned to understand his action and harness his ability. He came closer to the stumps to make his outswingers easier to release and more consistent in their effect. He learned about pitches and places and the personality of those in the dressing rooms across the way. He studied those opponents, their technique and their mind, and quickly worked out which of them had the stomach for the ones he fired past their throat.

It was three years, some would say four, before he began to unleash hell. First to suffer physically was the Kiwi Craig Cumming, whose face was so mashed by a short pitcher that intensive care was required. This blow came on the back of a ten-wicket haul against the New Zealand tourists in the previous Test. A legend was born. In 2008, he became the fastest South African at the time, and the 15th fastest overall, to reach 100 Test wickets before being named the ICC's Test Player of the Year, with 86 wickets in 14 matches at 18.10 apiece over the 12-month period. Now the story had legs.

The once wild man from the north led the attack that beat England and Australia for the first time away from home since readmission, and then, arguably most famously and brilliantly of all, proved he could "out-reverse" the great reversers, with a masterclass in the mysterious art of reverse swing in Nagpur in 2010, where he took 7 for 51 in South Africa's memorable triumph. He won matches against Australia and England too, shocking with speed and surprising with skill.

As finesse was added to firepower, as accuracy was added to aggression, and as the dark arts were added to the thrilling natural abilities of nip, zip, swing and seam, so the record books began to shake. Eighty-eight matches, 421 wickets at 22.64, with a strike rate, wait for it, of a wicket every 42 balls bowled - this is a staggering figure, especially when one considers the cost of profligate beginnings.

Of modern bowlers only his successor in a South Africa shirt, Kagiso Rabada, and Shane Bond of New Zealand are better: 39.7 and 38.3 respectively. To create perspective: Malcom Marshall struck at 46, Allan Donald at 47, Fred Trueman at 49, Richard Hadlee, Joel Garner and Michael Holding at 50, Glenn McGrath at 51, Dennis Lillee at 52, Curtly Ambrose and Wasim Akram at 54, Shaun Pollock at 57. Interestingly Philander, a man who incorporates the contrasting attributes of both artist and artisan, strikes at 48. The speedster closest to Steyn is Waqar Younis, who roared in to take a Test match wicket every 43 balls he bowled. These Pakistanis have magic at their fingertips. Imperceptibly, remarkably, Mohammad Abbas will sit pretty when play gets underway on Boxing Day morning in Centurion with a strike rate to live with any of them: 42.4.

Opposite him will be the Phalaborwa Express, running in for glory and an unimpeachable place in the history books. It is Marshall that Steyn most reminds one of - the sprint to the wicket, short delivery stride, fast arm, perfect wrist position and deadly release. Figures prove these champions on paper but the match plays illustrate their genius, for many moments have been won simply through the bewitching powers of personality, intimidation and unbreakable self-belief.

In Dale Steyn this week we will see references to the past, relevance to the present and a sure indication of the future. It is a mouth-watering prospect. He remains one the game's great draw cards, a man who, before our eyes, appears to become possessed by the very devil himself, sent to call time on the lives of opponents shocked by those demonic eyes and overwhelmed by one of the most hostile and destructive cricketing forces there has ever been.