It’s 2018 and Prasanna Agoram, South Africa’s performance analyst, is closely monitoring Hashim Amla’s trigger movements at the nets. Moments later, a relatively unknown net bowler catches his eye. Robustly built, with blonde hair and debonair good looks, he is generating raw pace and getting disconcerting bounce, much to Amla’s discomfiture.
“Who was that bowler who was troubling you at the nets today? Prasanna would later ask Amla. “That’s Anrich Nortje,” was the reply.
Prasanna had heard that name before, of a young fast bowler from the Eastern Cape who was blowing away batsmen with pace at first-class level, but this was the first time he had seen Nortje bowl. “This guy is no net bowler. He is good enough to play for South Africa,” he told himself.
He would immediately call up Linda Zondi, the then chairman of selectors to tell: “We have found Dale Steyn’s replacement. This guy has the potential to break the 100-mph mark set by Shoaib Akhtar. Please get him in the team.” Prasanna tells The Indian Express, what impressed him back then. “The way Nortje was troubling Amla that day, hurrying him up with pace and hitting his rib-cage, I realised his potential.”
The following year at the Manzi Super League, South Africa’s domestic T20 tournament, Nortje announced himself to the world when he hustled up AB de Villiers. Facing speeds of consistently in the late 140kmph mark, the talisman batsman didn’t venture on to the front foot, preferring to hang back. “Anrich Nortje was a peripheral name who operated in first-class cricket. His reputation enhanced after that spell to AB,” notes Cape Town-based journalist Khalid Mohidin.
From troubling Amla and de Villiers, Nortje is now busy terrorising batsmen in this IPL. He recently clocked the quickest delivery in the history of the IPL, a 156.2 screamer to Jos Buttler. With 15 scalps from 11 games, he is currently eighth in the list of the highest wicket-takers.
Prasanna is not surprised to see Nortje succeed in the IPL. “He has all the ingredients to become a world-class fast bowler. He has a smooth action and lovely load-up to the crease. It’s bad luck that he missed out of the 2019 World Cup with a thumb injury because he would have relished bowling in England.”
Nortje grew up in Uitenhage — an industrial town situated 40km north of Port Elizabeth, known for the Volkswagen factory — the biggest automobile hub in Africa.
Growing up in a middle-class household, he hardly showed any fascination for cars and was consumed by sport, particularly cricket and rugby. Brandwag High School, from where he graduated, was known for producing international rugby players but watching a certain Dale Steyn on television strengthened Nortje’s resolve to become a fast bowler. When he played for U-18 team of Eastern Province, he met Piet Botha, a former fast bowler-turned coach, who was instrumental in honing his skills and polishing the rough edges.
The five fastest balls in #IPL2020 so far have been bowled by Anrich Nortje:
— Ashish Sahani (@AshishCupid11) October 14, 2020
“The thing that struck me about him was the pace he could generate. I mean, he really stood out amongst others. He was also very competitive on the field. However, he had a stress fracture that made me realise that there are a few issues that need to be sorted. There are certain biomechanics that you have to follow if you want to achieve your full potential as a fast bowler,” Botha explains.
The entire work took three years and helped him go from fast to express speeds and brought other skills that have helped him leapfrog in his career.
“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 adds.
EDITORIAL | Faster in IPL
The work done with Botha turned him into a bowler who could hit the 150kmph mark with ease but frustratingly, he also earned the reputation of being a scattergun. Last year’s Test series in India was an example of his profligate ways.
“That tour was tough because the margins are so small. Thank God I made my Test debut in India and not in England because I learnt a lot by bowling on those pitches,” Nortje tells Mohidin’s YouTube channel ‘Cricket Fanatics.’
Eye for detail
Prasanna believes Nortje has a split personality. “Off the field, he is very quiet. On it, he transforms into an aggressive fast bowler. It’s almost as if he has two distinct personalities.” He endearingly calls Nortje a ‘scud’, named after the famous missile, owing to his frightening pace. “He keeps picking my brains. As an analyst, I prepare documents about team strategies, and amongst all the players, it’s Nortje who is the first to get his hands on them. He would be reading them on the bus as well.”
R Ashwin narrates an interesting anecdote from this IPL. “He (Nortje) is a simpleton and different from a lot of other South Africans that I have interacted with. After one particular game, guys were talking about Louis Vitton, Burberry and other brands. Anrich, who was holding a drink, got up and said, ‘this is not a table that I need to be a part of because I know nothing about it,’” Ashwin said on his YouTube channel.
Later on, in that show, when Ashwin asks how much of a simpleton he really is, Nortje comes up with this loaded response: “Very simple. Anything I do, with cricket as well, the best ball is top of off.” It’s a mantra that has served Nortje well, on and off the field.
How did Nortje go from fast to express?
The bent front leg
Until three years ago, he bowled with a bent front leg at the landing crease, which dissipated his energy. When his front leg landed in the bowling crease immediately after the jump and just before release, his knee would bend a lot. It was remnants from a game as a schoolboy cricketer. He had tried a back-of-hand slower ball in that match and ended up with a braced (straight) front leg and pain shot up from hips to the upper body and gave him a scare. He continued with the bent front leg until he started to work with a coach Piet Botha.
What does braced (straight) front leg do?
A braced front leg transfers the momentum from the run-up to the bowling action. It helps align the body just before release so that it’s perfectly balanced to let rip the ball. In technical jargon, the reactionary ground forces kick in after the braced leg, and these forces transfer from legs to hips, from hips to shoulder and from shoulder to the front arm to the ball.
The bent front leg landing doesn’t necessarily always hinder pace but it would need every other element in the action to work perfectly to compensate. The young Nortje was himself fast and the likes of Malcolm Marshall and Shaun Pollock had slightly bent front legs.
What else did the braced front leg offer Nortje?
It not only helped him go from fast to express but it also gave him greater control and variety over other deliveries. Where previously he would predominantly tilt the ball in, this helped him swing the ball away from a right-hand batsman without any change in his action.
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