South Africa's series with England is likely to be dominated by pace

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“I love it, luckily I’m not a batter,” says Anrich Nortje, South Africa’s rising star of the fast bowling world as he looks forward to a series with England likely to be dominated by pace.

Nortje can lay claim to being the quickest of the four fast bowlers charging in with the white ball over the next two and half weeks. Nortje and Kagiso Rabada for South Africa; Jofra Archer and Mark Wood for England. They are an enticing prospect and hopefully early season South Africa pitches in Cape Town and Paarl will help. 

Nortje has only been back in South Africa for just over a week after a hugely successful IPL where he really broke through on the international stage. There have been promising performances for South Africa before. He was their player of the year in 2019 and was the standout performer in a Test series defeat to England earlier this year.

He bowled with pace and heart, putting in some long shifts for his team as Joe Root’s side dominated the series.

But the IPL gives players a platform higher than what bilateral cricket can offer these days, particularly for those outside the big three of England, Australia and India, and Nortje sprang to prominence when he bowled the quickest ball ever in the competition’s history; a 97.1mph delivery to Jos Buttler.

By the time you finish reading this caption, @AnrichNortje02 would have already finished bowling a 150+ kmph delivery ⚡😉

Happy Birthday, Speed Gun. You didn't just light up the bails, you lit up #IPL2020 for us 😎💙#YehHaiNayiDilli

— Delhi Capitals (@DelhiCapitals) November 15, 2020

The four top wicket-takers in the IPL were quick bowlers despite playing on UAE pitches, Archer was player of the tournament even though his Rajasthan Royals team team finished bottom, and the final was played by Mimbai and Delhi, two attacks built on pace (Nortje and Kagiso Rabada for Delhi, Jasprit Bumrah and Trent Boult for eventual winners Mumbai).

It means that at 27 Nortje is peaking at the right time as teams in franchise and international cricket search for pace in all forms of the game. He has worked on his action, becoming much taller at the crease and slowing down his run up to prevent injury. Bowling quickly looks more natural for him than it did in earlier days and he has recently started to shape the ball away. Success has bred confidence to pick a fight with batsmen and be more intimidating, less of an issue in T20 but so important when sessions drift in Tests. 

“On the field it can make it easier to lose one or two wires in the brain to help you bowl quicker,” he tells Telegraph Sport from the South Africa team hotel in Cape Town. “Being aggressive does not help everyone, and some go about their business and just hit the top of off stump but for me it is an important thing for my game to get involved in the action with a batsman otherwise things might get flat. It helps to give me that extra yard. 

“There was a stage when people were wondering, has pace died out? Not a lot of teams had pace but now every team has two or three guys who can bowl 140 145kph plus and that is great to see. It is nice to have that competition and it is going to be good for the series (with England).”

Shoaib Akhtar famously bowled the first 100mph ball at the 2003 World Cup at Newlands

Credit: Reuters

The England series starts at Newlands on Friday where Shoaib Akhtar famously bowled the first 100mph ball at the 2003 World Cup. That night it was proved pace is not everything. Nick Knight nonchalantly flicked Shoaib’s 100mph thunderbolt off his pads and the game was won by a young James Anderson swinging the white ball.

But Nortje’s IPL exploits lead to the inevitable question. Can he match Shoaib? Many have tried. Few have got close. When he bowled at 97mph to Buttler, Nortje’s pace was not shown on the big screen so he only found out after the match. He thinks that if he had been aware how quickly he was bowling he could have urged himself on to go even faster.

“Definitely it is a goal. Maybe try and go quicker than that. It helps with training and in the gym to think like that. On the field you are not thinking about it. Bowling 150plus you can go all over the show as well. Before this I didn’t think I could bowl 156kph. In the back of my mind I wanted to get to 150. But on the day things happened. Hopefully it  (Shoaib’s pace ) is something I can reach.”

Nortje’s work ethic in bowling long spells and digging in with the tail in the Test series against England led to South Africa’s bowling coach, Charl Langeveldt to describe him endearingly as a “proper Dutchman”, a reference to a pioneer spirit and willingness to sweat blood and tears for the team’s cause. “It was great, I love it,” he says of the nickname.

Nortje is from Uitenhage, an industrial town near Port Elizabeth that is home to the largest car factory in Africa. There was little opportunity to play club cricket, Nortje only really took the game seriously at Mandela University while studying for a business degree in financial planning. He was something of a late developer making his first class debut at 20, but toiling away on the domestic circuit for another six years (partly due to taking his degree) building up his action with coach Pieter Botha (“huge influence on me”), before playing internationally.

He has a brother living in Hornchurch and would like a summer of county cricket if possible, although that becomes less likely the higher his IPL star rises. “I would love to bowl with the Duke ball, I’ve never used it, so if there is an opportunity I would love to do that.”

Nortje has played only three T20s for South Africa but the IPL will change that and developing his partnership with Rabada will be South Africa’s aim against England as they build to the Twenty20 World Cup next year. England have the same target with Archer and Wood. The battle of the two new ball attacks will go a long way to settling the series. It should be compelling.