Dale Steyn. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Dale Steyn. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Southampton — The way Dale Steyn hugged his teammates on the Rose Bowl’s windswept outfield during training on Tuesday, clearly something was up.

Even in these times of flamboyant brotherly love, when men seem to have forgotten how to shake hands and get on with it, the warmth of affection in the exchanges was striking. 

And, a while later, it was revealed why. Steyn’s World Cup was over. Not that it had begun.

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He was, by Faf du Plessis’s admission, “60% fit” when SA announced their squad on April 18.

A dash to the Indian Premier League (IPL) to replace Nathan Coulter-Nile had resulted in a shoulder injury. Where have we heard that before?

Steyn has not bowled in anger since April 21. He missed both of SA’s warm-up games and the matches against England and Bangladesh.

“I’ll be fine,” he had said, informally, in Bristol on May 26, while bowling off eight paces in the indoor nets after the warm-up against West Indies had been washed out.

He is not fine. He is on his way home.

“He needs love at the moment,” Du Plessis said on Monday. “He was bowling unbelievably well in the lead-up to this tournament and at the IPL he was at his best. Unfortunately, it happened in the IPL in the two games that he played there.

“If he didn’t get picked to go to the IPL, who knows where Dale would have been right now?

“We can’t control that. So it is important that we are there for him because I know he’s been trying hard to make sure he is ready to try and make an impact on what will be his last World Cup.”

People watch Steyn bowl because they want to — not only because they have to. It is part of what distinguishes the great from the merely excellent. He raises temperatures just by marking out a run-up.

Not that the International Cricket Council wasted any warmth on him in a release yesterday: “Steyn has suffered a second shoulder injury which has not responded to treatment and has ruled him out of bowling for the foreseeable future.”

There is an important point to be drawn from that sentence. A “second injury” implies the first one Steyn brought into the tournament with him is not the issue.

That means he can be replaced. Accordingly, Beuran Hendricks was on his way to England.

Steyn has been off the field more than he had been on since breaking his bowling shoulder in December 2015. It is difficult to see why he should bother with continuing to play. No South African has more Test wickets, and at 35 he is not going to have another tilt at the World Cup. What would be the point of carrying on?

Virat Kohli might yet claim the honour of having been Steyn’s captain in his last competitive match — for Royal Challengers Bangalore.

“I’m really feeling bad for Dale because he looked really happy,” Kohli said. “He was bowling really well and then suddenly we find out that he’s not going to be able to continue. He’s been a friend for a long time and he’s a very motivated guy.

“He’s been very happy to come back and play for SA. He has that hunger and passion in him still.

“I can understand he must be feeling gutted and I’m feeling bad for him.”

But whether Steyn contents himself with T20 tiddlywinks or has another go at proper cricket is a different question for a different day. Right now, Du Plessis must find a way to meet the biggest challenge of his leadership. 

His team batted like bowlers against England at the Oval on Sunday and bowled like batters against Bangladesh at the same ground three days later, and deservedly lost both games.

Another defeat on Wednesday and they will veer too close for comfort to the four that would likely put them out of the running for the semifinals.

“You have to manage people’s confidence because that’s the thing, especially after the [Bangladesh] game, as professional cricketers, we want to do well and win games and we don’t want to go zero from two,” Du Plessis said.

“It’s important that we don’t go take a left turn into negative town. [We need to] stay positive, stay strong and make sure we keep pushing.

“But we are playing probably the world’s No 2 team, and that is going to be a huge challenge.”

The only positive aspect of Steyn’s withdrawal is that, because he had yet to play a game, his absence will not disrupt the balance of the team.

Not so Lungi Ngidi’s removal for up to 10 days with a hamstring strain on Sunday. Neither Chris Morris nor Dwaine Pretorius are on par with him, but both will likely play on Wednesday. 

On Thursday, England’s Jofra Archer put Hashim Amla out of the Bangladesh game with a bouncer edged into the grille of the helmet. Amla has been cleared to play, but his inclusion will probably mean no room for David Miller.

“We haven’t had one game where we’ve had our strongest XI on the field,” Du Plessis said.

In a time of tumult, at least that will not change on Wednesday.