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Blink and you’ll miss him: Bittersweet Nortje brings the terror

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim reports from Lord’s after Anrich Nortje inspired South Africa to an innings win over England.

Kagiso Rabada was Player of the Match. Lungi Ngidi went wicketless in the first dig but landed the big one on day three: Joe Root. Earlier on, he’d been thoroughly watchable with the new ball from the Pavilion End, hooping and jagging it down the slope to threaten the stumps and pads of Zak Crawley. Keshav Maharaj took two from the top. Marco Jansen is a skyscraper. He bowls with the left, and he’s 22. And he can bat. But Dean Elgar barely needed him as South Africa chased victory. Why? Because he had Anrich Nortje.

Nortje is the cherry on top, the man you pay entry for, the bowler who makes you worry for the health of the guy at the other end. The game turns simple when he makes his entrance. He’ll bowl fast. No, not that 80-odd stuff. No, I mean fast. The poor soul at the other end has to, somehow, get his bat down in time to this. Late on it by a millisecond and the stumps fly.

With England 60-3 after 20 overs on the third afternoon, still trailing by 101, Elgar decided it was finally time for the bacon-and-egg brigade to watch some theatre. Jonny Bairstow was new at the crease, and Nortje had bowled him two days earlier with a 93mph thunderbolt. The player of the summer – the one who’d thumped some of the best in the world in his previous three Tests – had been undone.

Pace, of course, can bring runs too. Get bat on it, even a little bit, and the ball can fly. When the power of Bairstow and the middle of his bat come into the equation, that ball flies even further. Bairstow took 11 runs off the first five balls he faced from Nortje. From the first ball of Nortje’s third over, Bairstow sent a cut flying for four more.

But two balls later, another bullet, 91mph and on a challenging line outside off. The prod brought the edge and the end of Bairstow. Nortje roared like he did the other day. It was the type of roar you’re contractually obliged to unleash when you bowl that quick. The body goes through torture for the ball to travel at that speed – a smile and some high-fives just won’t do. Injuries have hurt Nortje over the last year; this was his first Test since last June. Nothing else would’ve been right. It had to be raw; a guttural, primal thing.

After Bairstow, Nortje took Lees’ edge. And then Foakes threw his bat out when he shouldn’t have. It’s a shot he wouldn’t have played to a ball a few miles slower. But, as Michael Atherton explained on commentary: “Pace makes you do funny things as a batsman. It makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Nortje’s figures were hurt by Stuart Broad playing whack-a-mole. But it didn’t matter; he’d already won the game and ended the Bazball honeymoon.

Nortje versus England’s batters was always going to be the most intriguing battle in this match. The revolution had seen Stokes’ men take on some high-class operators, Boult and Bumrah the standouts. But they hadn’t seen anyone as quick as Nortje. According to CricViz, his third over on Friday had an average speed of 92mph. And he took six wickets in the match. Rabada took more, but Nortje stole the show. He may well define the series too.

The presence of Nortje also exposed what England currently lack. Injuries to Jofra Archer, Olly Stone and Mark Wood mean the Stokes and McCullum era has begun without an express paceman, someone capable of injecting a bit of havoc into the mix when the pitch is flat, the scoreboard is ticking and there just aren’t any other answers. Stokes brought out innovative fields on Thursday and bowled his own heart out – but England still missed that something else as South Africa piled them on. They missed someone who could bring fear into the game. By contrast, South Africa’s trio – Rabada, Ngidi, Nortje – all reside in the top 10 on the list of all-time great strike rates in Test cricket (among those to have bowled 2000 balls).

Of course, there was a bittersweetness to Nortje’s exhibition. The 2023-2027 Future Tours Programme has South Africa playing just 28 Tests, mostly in chunks of two. The introduction of a T20 league at home means that international fixtures take a hit and, well, cash wins. “We know that you need to play a minimum of two Tests in a series for the World Test Championship and so that’s what we’ve done,” Cricket South Africa’s chief exec Pholetsi Moseki told ESPNcricinfo earlier this week. “We also have to be honest that hosting Tests costs us money.” Pragmatism rarely sounded so depressing.

Want to enjoy the thrill of Nortje with a red ball in his hands and a three-match series up for grabs? Enjoy it now. Blink and you’ll miss him.

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