Is there still room for Dale Steyn?

Dale Steyn (Gallo)
Dale Steyn (Gallo)

Cape Town - It feels like ages since Dale Steyn last played for South Africa.

So much has happened since that first Test against Australia in Perth last November and the Proteas have moved on - with varying degrees of success - from the man who spearheaded their attack for years. 

When Steyn left the field clutching his right shoulder during that match, many thought it was the end of the road for one of the world's greatest fast bowlers of all time. 

It wasn't a fitting end for a man of that stature, but injury had been plaguing Steyn since England toured South Africa in 2015 and there could be no shame in bowing out. 

Instead, after months of rehabilitation and having celebrated his 34th birthday in June, Steyn looks to be eyeing a return to the national side. 

The question is: Is there still room for him? 

Captain Faf du Plessis has spoken openly and honestly about the challenges Steyn will face if he wants to play Test cricket again. The skipper reckons that Steyn will never have the pace he once did, and he says it will be "very tough" for him to come back and perform on the highest stage. 

Those comments at Cape Town International Airport a couple of weeks ago sparked a sharp response from Steyn, who took to Twitter to say that "pace is not a concern". 

What is a concern, though, is that Steyn has not bowled in a competitive match in over nine months. 

He had spoken previously of the importance of playing some cricket - probably for the SA 'A' side - before the two-match Test series against Bangladesh in September/October but that, so far, hasn't happened.

The SA 'A' side will be taking on India 'A' in the second unofficial Test of the series in Pretoria from this Saturday, and if Steyn wants to feature against Bangladesh, he must surely play that match.

But even if he does play, and succeeds, whose place will he take in the Test team? 

Presuming that everyone is fit, the Proteas boast a seam attack of Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel while Chris Morris is in as the fourth option. 

None of those three front-line seamers are droppable at the moment. 

Coming in for Morris would be an option, but as capable as Steyn is with the bat, that move would make for a long tail. 

The other obvious concern with going back to Steyn is what it does to the long-term developmental plans. 

Duanne Olivier needs to play more Test cricket; that much was clear on the England tour as his inexperience was exposed. 

Then there are the likes of Lungi Ngidi (once fit), Junior Dala and Beuran Hendricks who are all looking at finding a way in. 

The hard truth of the matter is that, in the not-too-distant future, South African cricket will face a serious test of depth when the likes of Steyn, Philander, Morkel, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers call it quits. 

All of those players are well into their 30s, and plans have to be made to ensure that when they leave there are capable replacements.

The way to do that is by giving young players opportunities now. 

How much can the Proteas still get out of Steyn? Is he going to be around until the 2019 Cricket World Cup? He would turn 36 at that tournament. 

It all comes down to how Steyn comes back, really. At his most destructive, there is no way that the Proteas can even consider leaving him out. 

If he is fit and firing and taking wickets, Steyn can have an important role to play when India and Australia tour South Africa for four Tests each in the coming months.

Both of those series are massive for the Proteas as they look to recover from their wobble in England, and if Steyn is at his best then a four-pronged seam attack alongside Philander, Morkel and Rabada may even be worth sacrificing some batting. 

But if he is not at his best, then the new Proteas management and coach Ottis Gibson will have to be very honest with themselves. 

There is no room for sentiment at this level, and Steyn will know that. 

He needs just five wickets to become the country's all-time leading wicket-taker in Test cricket. It has taken him just 85 Tests to get to 417 sticks - a truly phenomenal career. 

Whatever happens from here, Steyn will go down as one of the best the game has ever seen.

And while, with each passing month, it may be getting harder for him to justify a return to the side in any format, the 'Phalaborwa Express' has earned one last shot. 

Follow Sport24 journalist @LloydBurnard on Twitter...

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