What must have Anrich Nortje been thinking when he walked out to the middle of the Wanderers at 6:06pm carrying his bat in the fading Johannesburg light? DANIEL GALLAN has more.
Was it fear? He was due to face Mark Wood galloping from the horizon to deliver jaw-breaking bombs and toe-splitting missiles. Perhaps not. The last time he faced Wood he rode the bounce well whenever one was dug in short and looked confident when defending with soft hands.
Was it pressure? His team were in a hole, a familiar one by now, at 74-4 and needed him to once again dig them out of it. Perhaps not pressure either. As nightwatchman, he faced 89 balls in Centurion and 136 in Port Elizabeth. He has said he enjoys this unpopular job and his performances support that sentiment.
Perhaps then it was fatigue or exasperation or dejection or some unpalatable mixture of all three. He had only left the field three hours and 25 minutes before. Why was he back so soon?
Earlier he had bagged his first five-wicket haul as South Africa’s standout bowler. It is confirmation that he belongs at this level. That his rapid action and searing pace through the air can trouble even the very best batters.
He bowled Ollie Pope, via an inside edge, to break a fifth-wicket stand of 101 after the first drinks break. Then, seven overs into a spell that only got quicker, he lured Joe Root into a drive and found his outside edge. Both batters were set in their fifties and eyeing up hundreds. Both batters felt the fury of the humble man from Uitenhage.
Sam Curran lasted just one ball after he was caught behind and Nortje was on a hat-trick. When Vernon Philander removed Jos Buttler courtesy of an ugly hack from a usually elegant player, the score was 309-8.
Nortje had his fifth when Chris Woakes was rushed into a stab at a ball that flew off the seam, took the edge and was well held by Faf du Plessis at second slip. At 318-9, South African thoughts turned to a series-levelling win.
Nortje’s work was done. He collected his cap from the umpire and welcomed the applause from the Wanderers faithful.
Then all hell broke loose.
Mark Wood and Stuart Broad, England’s Nos 10 and 11, swung their arms at anything that was within reach. They hit seven sixes and four fours between them. Beuran Hendricks and Dane Paterson were made to look like village trundlers. Waist-high long hops were hit with disdain down the ground and on the up. Shorter balls were hooked without mercy into the stands.
At one stage there were eight fielders on the rope doing very little to prevent the boundaries that were raining around them. Du Plessis either forgot he needed to win this match to square the series or he didn’t think he could.
A 10th-wicket partnership of 82 changed the complexion of the match. Wood remained not out on 35. Broad had 42, his highest score since 2017, and England had 400.
Then with the bat, South Africa once again crumbled but not before Pieter Malan and Dean Elgar crawled through 18 overs before the former edged behind off Woakes for 15. Rassie van der Dussen’s first experience at No 3 lasted seven balls and didn’t add to the score. Elgar tamely bunted Stokes straight to backward point for 26 and Du Plessis was pinned lbw by Woakes for three.
A loud cheer greeted Temba Bavuma who was making his return to the side but he lasted all of 28 balls and hit just six runs, half of them off his first ball faced with a drive through cover. He looked rattled by the extra pace of Wood and edged to Stokes at second slip.
At 74-5, South Africa had lost half their wickets for less runs than Wood and Broad clobbered. Nortje emerged from the tunnel with lengthening shadows as his companion but could not repeat the heroics of Centurion and Port Elizabeth and faced 16 balls before he fell to Wood in the final act of the day.
He sat in the post-match media conference wearing a look that could be split in two. Part elation at his momentous achievement with the ball. Part despondency as he must surely know that the game is already lost.
‘It’s not nice sitting here having our tails down,’ he said, trying to find the words to encapsulate a day of contrasts. ‘I obviously would love to be in a dominant position but you can’t choose.’
Cricket is a strange sport. Very rarely does a footballer or rugby player score a hat-trick in a losing cause. Conversely, a bowler had taken five or more wickets in a losing cause on 670 previous occasions. Keshav Maharaj did so in the last Test. Jofra Archer did likewise in the first in this series.
As Nortje said, we can’t always choose when we stand out from the rest, when we overcome our greatest challenges or when we achieve our lifelong ambitions. Unfortunately for Nortje, he also can’t choose his teammates who have once again let him down.
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