The Nice Side Of Nasty Nortje

Cricket News By TODAYLIVESCORE.INFO - The nice side of nasty Nortje. As interaction with his Delhi Capitals captain Rishabh Pant showed recently, there is more to Anrich Nortje than an ability to bowl fast.

The Nice Side Of Nasty NortjeAs interaction with his Delhi Capitals captain Rishabh Pant showed recently, there is more to Anrich Nortje than an ability to bowl fast.

In the heat of the second IPL qualifier in Sharjah last month, Rishabh Pant was having a word with his bowler as he walked back to his mark, making for a sweetly comic scene: the Delhi Capitals' captain is 15 centimetres shorter than the man he had buttonholed. Then again, most people aren't as tall as Anrich Nortje.

Their discussion ended wordlessly, but not without communication. To signal that he had caught the skipper's drift, Nortje, his eyes closed, his expression accepting, nodded his head sidewards. It was a gentle moment of truth from a secret life, a glimpse into the human behind the machine.

We're used to seeing Nortje steam towards the crease, pale and grim as the reaper himself. We marvel at the smoothness with which this totem pole on the hoof unfurls his long arms and legs. We're relieved we are not at the other end of the pitch, fated to deal with a ball – delivered near, at or upwards of 150 kilometres an hour – that could smash our toes or take our heads off before dismissing us. His gesture to Pant made him real in a context that wasn't about broken bones or soaring appeals.

It suggested there's more to Nortje than fast bowling, and there is. For a start, he is impressively over-qualified for a cricketer with a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a post-graduate diploma in financial planning.

We might have had a different idea of Nortje's talents had a broken collarbone in his second-last year at high school not ended his rugby career. He used to patrol at fullback or direct operations from flyhalf. He also captained the first XI, batted at No. 3 and, in the words of his coach at Brandwag High, Francois Anker, “bowled plenty of stumps physically broken”.

Nortje was last near the scene of those crimes when his home town had another name. Or, as he told Cricbuzz, so he thinks: “I can't remember when I was there … the end or middle of August? I don't know … probably just after we came back from Ireland, to visit my parents.” That was in July. Uitenhage, where Nortje was raised, was renamed Kariega on February 23 – the same day Port Elizabeth, which is less than 40 kilometres away and where he now lives, became Gqeberha.

If you live in Gqeberha and you see someone who looks like Nortje hanging around the local shops, apparently aimlessly, it could be him. “Life goes back to normal when you go home,” he said. “It's about trying to get used to that normal life again. It takes a few days to settle in and get used to being in your own bed. There have been times when I've gone to the hardware store or the supermarket, just to get out. My wife was at work, everyone was at work. So you couldn't go and see anyone.”

He spoke not gloomily but with a smile that gleamed through the fuzziness of a Zoom call. Behind him was the familiar sight of the inside of a player's hotel room. Before the pandemic, our interview would have been conducted facelessly on the phone. Now we could see each other, adding levels of connection, recognition and reaction – exactly what has been taken from the masked masses on the street.

Covid-19 has changed everything, and not in welcome ways. When we turn on our televisions to watch cricket, we're looking for signs that not all we thought we knew about the world has been irrevocably altered. The players pay a high price to provide us with that reassurance. Is it too high?

“To be playing cricket is really nice. For that day or those few hours on the field, things are sort of back to normal. You're in an environment where you can compete and actually do some work. But then, when you get back to the hotel, you're back in a bubble. You can't go out. You can't do anything.

“So things get tough, especially outside of tournaments – where the focus is on the actual event and there's a lot happening. But in a series, things can get long and dragged out. Most of the time you won't have your family with you. You feel privileged now to be able to walk outside. There are definitely a lot of struggles with this.”

One of those battles is with the expectation that players should perform at the same levels of skill and intensity as before their reality off the field was turned upside down. Wasn't that unfair?

“It affects everyone differently and at different stages. Sometimes you'll find a player who's completely out of it, and at other times they're in a good space. Some players handle it better than others. Some guys are able to cut out everything, all the background noise, when they step over the boundary. That's probably what you want. It's different for everyone and it is difficult, but we're lucky that we can still play cricket and hopefully we don't have to be in environments like this for too much longer.”

Being able to play in front of real, live humans again has been a blessing: “It's nice to have people at a game making some noise, even if they're supporting the opposition. When I'm facing a ball or bowling a ball, whether they're making a noise or not doesn't really affect me. But it's different when you're warming up or after a game, when you can't help but notice how quiet everything is without crowds.”

Having fans in attendance wasn't all he enjoyed about the IPL: “It was good to get back to these conditions, and a nice challenge. I was able to change a few things, which helped me; one or two technical things, especially with the newer ball.” But it wasn't all work: “I had my wife with me for the whole time. So while I watched quite a bit of the cricket to start with, I slowly moved away from doing that and just relaxed where I could.”

Could he put on his B Com mortar board and tell us whether the behemoth that is the IPL was going to dominate the world game? “There's definitely still space for all of the formats. Red-ball cricket, as everyone knows and says, is the toughest challenge. It's the main format. But, as we can see in a lot of places, almost every country is trying to get in on the T20 action. There's going to be more and more of it. But there's still place for everything else.”

Maybe not in places like South Africa, where the game is at the mercy of bigger, brighter markets. Surely the best players will follow the money?

“That's difficult to say. What South Africa have done by going back to a provincial set-up [featuring 15 teams rather than the previous six franchises] is probably a step in the right direction – having more teams, more players, more eyes. That's what you want. You try and add experience in those teams and grow everyone. What we saw with the MSL is that you had a few guys coming through to make their debuts for South Africa.” Indeed, a dozen players, Nortje among them, have cracked the T20I nod after featuring in the MSL.

He was picked for the 2019 World Cup but had to pull out just more than three weeks before the start of the tournament after breaking his thumb in the nets. He dodged a bullet – South Africa suffered their worst performance on that stage, losing five of their eight completed games. They've done better this time, winning three of four group matches. A crunch clash looms against high-flying England in Sharjah on Saturday with a place in the semifinals likely on the line.

“I don't think we've played our best game yet, where everyone performs. But you're probably never going to have that. It's about getting as close to that as you can. As long as we keep working towards our next opportunity, working towards the next ball … If you bowl a wide, for your next delivery try and bowl your best ball. It's about focusing on the now, not the past or the future.”

The value of that statement is in the fact that Nortje made it, like everything else he said in this interview, before he became South Africa's best bowler at the T20 WC in terms of wickets, average and economy rate, and one of the best at the tournament. He is putting his bowling where his wide open eyes are.

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