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If you want life lessons, watch Dale Steyn bowl

Even on difficult days, Dale Steyn was a handful AFP

There are various reasons why Test cricket is considered to be the sport that most closely resembles life. One of the biggest is that you need to keep hanging in when things are not going your way. If you are a batsman on a green seamer or a rank turner, play close to the body, always play the line of the ball and not the movement. Tuck your bat under your armpit and walk off if the ball still hits the edge, but cash in if you get a loose ball. If you are a bowler in flat conditions, stay disciplined, keep the scoring down, wait for a window of opportunity - natural variation, a hint of reverse, a second new ball - and make sure you are ready to jump through.

Enjoy it while you are at it. Just like life. Take the hard knocks, don't blame the circumstances that you can't control, keep ploughing on, because some day the wheel will turn. Make the most of it when it does because the tough times are never too far away.

There are equally pressing arguments about which discipline of cricket is crueller, but in terms of cold statistics the bowlers seem to get the rough end of the stick. It's the wickets column that counts, they are often reminded. Historically, in all Test cricket, a bowler has taken a wicket once every 70 balls, uncovered pitches and bunsens and green mambas all put together.

Even when you look at the figures of the best among those who have taken 200 wickets or more, it took him seven overs to take each of his wickets. Even for such a ridiculously good strike rate, this wait for each wicket is painfully long.

Bowling, especially bowling fast, and more so, bowling at over 145kph, is not what human bodies are meant to do. It is a testament to their fitness, commitment to their craft and their general lunacy - "You've got to be mad to bowl fast," Shoaib Akhtar said - that the wonderful fast bowlers keep doing it for so long for relatively little success.

If Test cricket is life, Dale Steyn lived it to the fullest. If Michael Holding was the Rolls Royce of fast bowling, its Whispering Death, Steyn was a graceful gliding snake. Nobody bowled outswingers at a higher pace as consistently. He set up Test and series wins for South Africa in Australia, England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. He won them two Tests in India. In South Africa he was untouchable. His highlight reel was the sexiest of all: quick outswingers pitching leg and hitting off, inswingers going past unsuspecting inside edges, mean bouncers, and that deranged celebration.

Steyn once said when he visualised bowling as an 18-year-old, he wanted to run in like Brett Lee, leap like Allan Donald, bowl as quick as Shoaib and be as accurate as Shaun Pollock. Not only did he end up mastering all that, he did it better and for longer than those four.

Steyn retires as the most prolific South African bowler, the quickest wicket-taker in the world, an all-time great in extremely rare company. And yet his dry spells were as compelling to watch as his hot streaks - the moments and overs before the eyes went crazy, the veins started to throb and threatened to burst, and he pulled out the chainsaw.

He looked forward to these periods of adversity. He looked forward to those unhelpful pitches because nobody took them out of the equation better. The harder he worked for his wickets, the harder he celebrated.

When you can't catch a break in life, find footage of Steyn's wicketless spells. They inspire; they tell you there is a wicket not far away, and that once you get one, you need to have a red-hot go at getting more. These periods are not pretty. He is seething within; he tries not to show it, but he can't help it. He tries everything. Tries to hit batsmen with his skiddy and deceptive bouncer. Waits for them to rub it if he hits them. Stares at them. Gets mouthy, but rarely nasty. Sometimes he bluffs his way through it. Bullshits himself into believing he can fight through it. Bluffs opponents into believing he is as in it as on a good day.

Against India at home in 2013-14, he once went 69 overs without a wicket, but once the ball began to reverse he took out six in 12 overs. That's a neat overall strike rate of a wicket every seven overs or so. That was also the story of his career: persevering when struggling, irresistible when on top.

Steyn lived for Test cricket. He lived for fast bowling. He lived for being there when others were flagging. There is nothing better, he said, than waking up on the fourth day of a Test, "your body absolutely buggered", knowing the captain still backed you to make the difference.

He has played only 125 ODIs. Since his debut South Africa have played 286. For a long time in his career, he was one of those rare players to have played more Tests than ODIs, purely through workload management. It probably left him at a disadvantage when it comes to gigs in T20 leagues - which he will set off to correct now.

In the end, though, Steyn found himself in a tug of war against a formidable opponent: time. In an interview to the Cricket Monthly four years ago, he called the idea that fast bowlers usually either retire or slow down after the age of 33 or 34, "bullshit". He said he had seen Lee bowl 145kph at the age of 38, albeit not in international cricket. He felt fit and strong, and unlike Lee he was willing to push himself. He knew he needed South Africa more than they needed him; the team had shown it was capable of winning Tests without him.

Life had other ideas. Injuries started to pile up. Each one took longer to heal. One of them, on his last tour of Australia, was of such a freak nature that, according to team doctor Mohammed Moosajee, there was only one documented case of it affecting a cricketer before. When he came back from it, he did his heel in in the foot holes, the first heel injury of his life. That was the fourth Test he had walked out of in his last six. They irked him more than failure to provide results.

In one of those four, even with a broken body, he did take the first Australian wicket - on 158, triggering a series-changing collapse - before going off. Even in letting his side down, he handed out a lesson. It was a poignant last big contribution.

Steyn was pace. He was swing. He was spirit. He was possibility. He was bluff. He was trance. He was life.