It was a slower ball that had threatened to suck out all the pace from Anrich Nortje forever. We might not have got to see the thrilling dismantling of England, and in particular of Jonny Bairtsow, the main proponent of Bazball, if it were not for the coach Piet Botha.
In a match in his school days, Nortje had tried a back-of-hand slower ball and ended up with a braced (straight) front leg at release. A severe pain shot up from the hips to the upper body and the kid was scared. He would ensure from then on to bowl with a bent front leg as he thought that would save him from pain. He was still fast as he grew up but would not have become the harasser he is these days if not for the coach Botha.
The coach had told The Indian Express about how he made Nortje do what he didn’t want to do: get that front leg braced up.
“First, his feet alignment at the time of delivery was not proper, which was causing his action to collapse. We worked on getting a braced front leg because that powers your hips and shoulders and gives the desired momentum and the ability to increase the pace. Second, his upper body needed to be more upright and forward,” he had told this newspaper. “There are certain biomechanics that you have to follow if you want to achieve your full potential as a fast bowler.”
With those two tweaks in place circa 2017 (“it took 3 years to get it right”), Nortje started to hustle the batsmen at domestic cricket and a day came at the South African nets when he troubled Hashim Amla, threatening to crack his ribs. Watching him was the performance analyst Prasanna Agoram, who checked with Amla about the net bowler and then called up the chairman of selectors Linda Zondi. “We have found Dale Styen’s replacement. This guy has the potential to break the 100-mph mark set by Shoaib Akhtar. Please get him in the team,” Prasanna had once told this newspaper.
But all that still seemed to be in the past as Nortje had yet again slipped into an hip injury rehab phase and was out of Test cricket for over a year when he took the ball at Lord’s against England.
In his ears was his old-school captain Dean Elgar. A straight shooter, even to a man on a comeback.
“Dean is quite straight forward,” Nortje would say. “If he thinks you’re not playing your A-game, he’ll tell you and the whole team respects that. We need that. You need someone to tell you and not to beat around the bush.” What that meant in this Test was to remind Nortje occasionally not to go too short, but be braver to hit the fuller length. It was that length that took out Bairstow on both occasions. A full nipbacker clattered the stumps in the first innings, and a lovely straightener kissed the edge enroute to the ‘keeper in the second.
“When the rhythm is there sometimes it feels a lot slower but the speed gun says something different,” Nortje would say later. A 93mph screamer that straightened around the off stump to take out Jonny Bairstow triggered England’s collapse, and he had felt it coming out “lot slower”.
Interesting. Batsmen often talk about how in a zone they see the ball that much clearer as if it were travelling slower. Fascinating how the bowlers see it when in rhythm.
Nortje had nothing but raves for his captain for keeping him on the straight path. ”He will tell you if it is not good enough and at stages that is what happened. At stages he thought what I was doing was the right thing and he encouraged me to bring energy and bowl quick because that’s my job — to bowl quick, to try to bring energy and momentum for the team. It paid off here and hopefully it pays off again but he does encourage me to try to express myself as a bowler.
“I am really enjoying having him as a captain and it is nice to have that honesty from a captain as well.” A honest captain, a fiery pacer, a highly-skilled champion in Kagiso Rabada, a talented left-handed bean-pole Marco Jansen who has started to bring the ball consistently back into the right-handers, and an effective nagger Keshav Maharaj who backs himself in all conditions – no wonder Elgar and South Africa feel Bazball might not work against them.