The fastest ball Anrich Nortje has bowled clocked in at “something 150”, but who’s actually counting? Not him. At least not, all of the time.
“It [checking the speed gun] is not something I aim to do but once the blood gets flowing it is nice to see it on the big screen, to see where you’re at. It is nice to keep your eye out for it,” Nortje said.
The quickest bowler in South Africa’s attack is gearing up to play his fifth Test and first at his home ground, St George’s Park, which carries the reputation for being the slowest and lowest of the country’s premier venues. It’s hardly the place that you would expect to produce a genuine quick, but Nortje has succeeded by learning to work with, and not against, the conditions.
“It teaches you to pitch the ball up,” he said. “You have to try and be a bit fuller and hit your area a little bit more consistently. Up-country you might get away with certain things that you can’t get away with here. Pitching it up has helped me.”
If anything, the ability to bowl fuller has helped Nortje to develop the discernment to know when to drop it short. In the first two Tests, he chose his moments to pepper the England line-up with deliveries that fizzed off the surface, sometimes to bounce them out and other times to set them up. The best example of that could be seen in Nortje’s success against the England captain, Joe Root.
Nortje has got Root out twice in two matches, in different ways. In the second innings at SuperSport Park, Nortje first bowled a ball back of a length and then drew Root forward to take the outside edge and have him caught behind; in the first innings at Newlands he followed up a length ball with a well-directed bouncers. Root was dropped initially but then gloved through to Quinton de Kock.
Asked whether he sees his role in an attack with four frontline quicks as that enforcer or container, Nortje said he hadn’t labeled it. “Any role I can do, I am happy with,” he said. “Just to be playing is a big honour for me. Whatever the team needs, whether it’s containing, striking, I’m happy to do that for now and learn my game at international level.”
He is equally thrilled to be able to show off the progress he has made in front of his home crowd, at the place where he toiled to make becoming an international cricketer a reality.
“I’m really excited to be playing in Port Elizabeth. I’ve always been sitting on the grass embankments, watching the games. It’s really nice to be out here. It’s a lot of hard work over the years, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of Decembers in South Africa that I’ve had to play cricket rather than go on holiday, so it’s nice to finally get that opportunity and I am really excited just to go out there and give it my best.”
The conditions are primed for Nortje to be able to do that, if South Africa have the opportunity to bowl first. The bowling breeze, the easterly, has been blowing in the build-up to this match and is expected to greet the teams on Thursday, which means there will be some swing on offer. By Friday, the wind is expected to change direction, which will make the pitch better for batting.
At the time of writing, rain is forecast for the weekend, which may delay or prevent the deterioration required for the surface to take turn and the ability for either attack to generate reverse-swing, which has been a feature of previous Tests at this venue and has only made a small appearance in this series.
England found some at Centurion but South Africa have struggled and Nortje is not overly optimistic that will change. “The square is quite green so it’s difficult to bang the ball in,” he said. “We tried a few cross-seam deliveries in Cape Town and didn’t really get it to reverse. Hopefully it’s something we can get here but if not, we will just have to adapt.”
So will England. Having had the bulk of the crowd support for the first two matches, thanks to thousands of traveling fans over the festive season, this could be the venue where the balance shifts. The brass band will be attendance to spearhead the South African presence and Nortje said several acquaintances have asked him for tickets for the weekend. To those who have been lucky enough to receive one, he’s promised they will feel as close to the game as it gets.
“It’s a nice vibe and atmosphere here, especially in the stands with the band. It’s one of the grounds where you feel like you are on the field. You don’t feel like you are too far back so it feels like you’re in it.”